Last night my wife and I entered a den of secular, scientific skeptics. Not surprisingly, we enjoyed our first CFI Salem Humanists meeting. There was some sort of merging between the local Center for Inquiry and Humanist groups, but CFI seems to be the main banner under which they meet now.
Laurel and I had read about the meeting, an honoring of Carl Sagan, in our local newspaper. We figured we'd meet some like-minded people. We figured right.
There were quite a few other newbies in an upstairs room at the IKE Box coffeehouse. So it took a while for the dozen or so people to settle into a communicative vibe. At first I wasn't sure whether the meeting was going to be more of a presentation or more of a discussion.
It turned out to be a fairly free-floating discussion about a wide variety of interesting topics. Most of the themes were right up my churchless alley, so I had more trouble keeping my mouth shut than thinking of something to say.
Here's a sampling of conversation subjects which have stuck in my next-day mind.
Personal experience vs. demonstrable truth. The most religious'y man at the meeting spoke about his experience of "Christian kundalini." He had some sort of energetic awakening which turned him off from dogmatic religion, yet turned him on to a Christ-consciousness, universal mind, matter is an illusion, fifth dimension, sort of thing.
I told him that I respected his personal experiences, but couldn't accept his view of the cosmos without there being some demonstrable evidence for it. Several of us suggested that those experiences could be traced to goings-on in his brain, rather than features of the objective world. I could tell that he didn't believe that.
Openness to possibility without gullibility. The above-mentioned guy was the attendee at one end of the metaphysical spectrum. Some hard-nosed scientific types were at the other end. I felt that I was pretty much in the middle. Several times I argued along the lines of "anything is possible, but not everything is true."
For example, no one knows what consciousness and subjectivity is all about. Through meditation, psychedelic drugs, or whatever, people might be able to experience a deeper understanding of reality than standard science is able to provide. The operative word is "might." We need to be open to new visions of reality, yet not so open we blindly accept unproven assertions, religious or otherwise.
Subjectivity and objectivity. Along this line, I noted that everything science knows about the universe, along with everything any individual knows, comes about through experiences of the human brain. The brain is the lens through which we see reality. If (or when?) computers become vastly more intelligent than us, would their understanding of the universe be more or less truthful than ours?
Or what about a highly advanced alien intelligence? If such an alien visited Earth and could comprehend our science and philosophy, likely our vaunted conclusions about what the cosmos is all about would be met with a "What the hell are you talking about? That's crazy" sort of response. There isn't any genuinely objective truth. The subjectivity of the human brain, and likely every sort of consciousness, prevents that.
Science is the best way of knowing we have. A number of people appropriately argued that while science makes mistakes and is an imperfect way of knowing reality, it is self-correcting, eventually homing in on what is true and what is false. Magic and optical illusions were discussed at the beginning of the meeting.There are explanations for these seemingly fantastical experiences. We can marvel at a magic trick or illusion without being taken in by them.
The human mind is easily deceived, but through science and reason we can come to understand how we're failing to understand reality rightly. This takes courage.
I cited the wonderful scene in the movie, "Cosmos," based on Carl Sagan's book, where Jodie Foster says "It's a go!" (or words to that effect) as a machine made from an alien transmission fires up in a shakingly violent manner. Foster's scientist character is willing to risk death in order to pursue a deeper understanding of truth.
We don't really know who "we" are. At one point I said some things that made perfect sense to me (of course), yet likely mystified other meeting attendees. Scientists, I asserted, are as deluded as the rest of us about two things: the apparent fact that "we" are not something separate from the physical brain, and the apparent fact that "we" do not have free will.
Intellectually, scientists and others may accept reductionism and determinism. However, our experience of reality causes us to feel differently, in much the same way as we can know that the Earth orbits the Sun, yet still say "the sun is setting" because that's how it seems to us.
So I theorized that this opens up the possibility of an evolved consciousness, as Zen/Buddhism asserts, where our ego-centered sense of specialness and separation from the world dissolves; we relax into an acceptance of simply being something the universe has formed. And will un-form when we die.
The pale blue dot. A young guy at the meeting had been reading another book of Carl Sagan's, "Pale Blue Dot." He made quite a few cogent observations which, unfortunately, I don't remember well enough to share. So I'll end with some quotes from the book that I used in a 2006 blog post: "Wisdom from Carl Sagan: a pale blue dot."
[Factoid: at the meeting someone said that Carl Sagan was a regular marijuana user. Cool! I didn't know that. It's true.]
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.