Put on your philosophical wading boots. I'm about to jump into the deep end of some interesting, but sort of complex, questions about the nature of reality as seen through the eyes of quantum physics.
But rest assured that, in accord with the focus of this Church of the Churchless blog, I'll be drawing some inferences about what makes sense, and what doesn't, when it comes to religious, mystical, and spiritual claims about reality.
This might take a few blog posts, so I'll do my best to keep this initial post as short and simple as possible.
(Which means, it is going to seem lengthy and complex to many readers; sorry about that, it's the nature of the philosophical beast we're trying to come to grips with.)
I'm about two-thirds of the way through a fascinating book, "What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics," by Adam Becker. Becker is a science writer with a Ph.D. in astrophysics.
The key word in the title is meaning. Here's why.
Historically, the prevailing view of quantum physics is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, which often is pithily summed up as "shut up and calculate!" In other words, most physicists don't worry about the underlying meaning of what is known about the quantum world.
They're content with the fact that the mathematics of quantum mechanics are amazingly accurate and precise, which is why we've experienced such fantastic accomplishments in fields such as computer technology, lasers, medical imaging, and so much else.
Now, I'm going to quickly jump into the religious/mystical side of life, to avoid readers of this post heading off to another corner of the World Wide Web.
In Becker's "More Things in Heaven and Earth" chapter, he discusses a useful analogy to illustrate the core philosophical debate between the "shut up and calculate" folks, and the "let's dig deeper for underlying meaning" folks. This is basically the distinction between logical positivism and realism.
Before we get into that analogy, I need to say that I'm not arguing for a simplistic direct connection between logical positivism and mystical ways of thinking, versus realism and scientific ways of thinking, because the situation is murkier than that. Here's some quotes from Becker:
The logical positivists were understandably opposed to philosophical castles in the sky and the tortuous prose they were often defended with. But the logical positivists weren't merely against metaphysics -- they believed they could actually dismiss metaphysical claims as meaningless.
Meaning, they held, was a matter of verification: knowing what a statement means is equivalent to knowing how to specify it using your senses. According to the positivists, when you say "it's hotter outside that it is in here," you really mean "if you go outside you will feel hotter than you do in here."
The statement's meaning is the method of verifying it empirically -- and if there's no way of verifying a statement against your senses, then that statement has no meaning.
...But idealist and theological claims aren't the only kinds of statements that make no contact with the senses.
There are also more straightforward claims like "the couch is in the living room even when nobody's there," that can't be confirmed directly. Statements like these about the existence and persistence of material objects independent of perception are realist claims -- they're statements about a real world that exists whether or not there are any humans around,
These statements are fundamental to science. Yet some of the positivists, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, dismissed realist claims as meaningless too, because they can't be verified by experience. All that is meaningful, on the positivists' account, are statements about perceptions, along with the purely logical statements of mathematics.
Obviously mysticism isn't a mathematical enterprise. But leaving that aside, over the fourteen years I've been writing on this blog I've heard countless (more or less) stories of how someone had a vision of God, or of Jesus, or of a guru, or of divine light and sound, or whatever.
When I and other skeptics would ask for evidence that those mystical experiences were real, typically the response would be along this line: "I know what I experienced, and it felt genuine to me, so you should believe that it was real."
This is basically a positivist argument.
Of course, unlike scientific positivism, there really isn't any way for other people to reproduce that experience -- though believers in mystic visions like to say things like, "You just need to meditate in this fashion for a long time, and have faith in God/guru/angelic beings/whatever."
I'm going to turn now to Becker's analogy, which hopefully will make my point more clear. He uses something most of us are familiar with, a TV remote control that has stopped working, to illustrate the distinction between positivism and realism.
Quine's paper, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," took aim at the core of the positivist program, the verification theory of meaning. Quine pointed out that there was no way to verify single statements -- all attempts to verify a statement inevitably involve the assumed truth of other statements, which are themselves subject to the same problem.
For example, say the remote control for your TV isn't working, and you can't turn the TV on. You suspect that the batteries in the remote are dead. You can verify this by replacing the batteries and trying to turn on the TV with the remote again. You do this, and the TV turns on.
Does that mean you were right? No.
It's entirely possible that the batteries in the remote control weren't dead at all. Maybe the remote had a short and will only work intermittently, no matter what batteries you use. Or maybe the old batteries were in backward, and you didn't notice; you just popped them out and put in new ones pointing the right way.
Or maybe something more exotic is going on: maybe the remote always worked, but when you tried it before, the TV mysteriously shifted its picture to the infrared and its sound to the ultrasonic, so you couldn't see or hear it; the TV happened to go back to normal after you changed the batteries, but not because you changed them.
The last idea is clearly preposterous -- how could that happen? -- but the point remains that in testing out the new batteries in the remote, you've assumed a wide variety of basic facts about the world, all based on previous experience, and any of which could, in principle, be wrong.
This isn't merely true of suppositions about batteries in remote controls; verification of any statement behaves this way
Looking out the window and saying, "It's raining outside," assumes that your view through the window's glass gives you an accurate picture of the outside world, and that your eyes are functioning property, and that the dimmed light and falling droplets are in fact caused by a rain cloud and not an alien spaceship blotting out the Sun and dropping some exotic substance onto your front lawn.
So you can never verify a single statement: you're always stuck verifying the entirety of your knowledge about the world, or at least a very large fraction of it. As Quine put it, "Our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body."
With the verification theory of meaning left gasping for air, Quine dismissed the idea that it's meaningless to talk about unobservable things. Unverifiable statements must have meaning, because no individual statement is verifiable.
Thus the "metaphysics" so dreaded by the positivists came roaring back: rather than speaking simply of sensations, Quine contended that it was perfectly intelligible to speak of physical objects with existence independent of the speaker.
So this gets me back to the title of this post: reality requires a broad scientific look, not narrow mystic visions.
I'll talk about this more in another blog post, because this one is plenty long already. For now I'll simply observe that without using these terms, for quite a few years I've been engaged with positivist believers in mystical experiences who don't want to take a broad realistic view of the cosmos.
For example, a supernatural experience typically demands that someone assume that human consciousness can function outside of the physical brain; that there are spiritual realms of existence beyond the physical universe; that there are "laws of nature" unknown to science, and so on. This sort of worldview requires a very different understanding of reality than is known either to science or everyday experience.
Which is why I no longer believe in it.
Brian, I'll follow future blogs on this topic with interest. Always had a healthy suspicion of what constitutes experience (even my own) , especially when it comes to the last hope and bastion of religion and spirituality - consciousness.
Posted by: Turan | September 20, 2018 at 02:25 AM
Thanks for posting this, Brian. This is a welcome change of pace from the sordid details of the financial mess at RSSB, and the equally sordid squabbling in the Comments section that those details would inevitably end up resulting in.
Loved this post of yours, and I'm looking forward to your further exploration of this book and this subject.
Although I realize you're only channeling Adam Becker here, and the contents of the book will not yield answers not in any case already present there -- that's a "realist" take, isn't it? :-) -- but still, some thoughts:
"they're statements about a real world that exists whether or not there are any humans around,"
I'm not sure I get this. What more than a model of the world can we ever think up, no matter how advanced our science? The idea is to make this model approach "reality" as closely as possible, sure, but by definition anything and everything we know about the world is simply a model, no more. Isn't it?
Of course, unlike scientific positivism, there really isn't any way for other people to reproduce that experience
Surely that (alleged) reproducibility is central to mysticism? The whole point of mysticism, as I understand it, is that it provides "a way for other people to reproduce that experience". Isn't it?
Of course, in as much one fails to reproduce those results within a time frame that one subjectively considers reasonable and acceptable, to that extent the process fails. As it did with you, personally. But this qualification is a separate matter, surely, and does not take away from what mysticism is supposed to be.
"With the verification theory of meaning left gasping for air, Quine dismissed the idea that it's meaningless to talk about unobservable things. Unverifiable statements must have meaning, because no individual statement is verifiable."|
Doesn't Occam's Razor -- that simple yet elegant heuristic -- neatly step in so that one no longer has to gasp for air?
I don't get why we must necessarily bring "unverifiable" statements into this. Irrespective of whether we're talking of the real, macro world, or the quantum world. (But of course, that's only because I'm so very ignorant about all this. Would you have any ideas, yourself, about this?)
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | September 20, 2018 at 07:46 AM
Appreciative Reader, I'll have more to say in another post. I think this post pretty much speaks for itself, but here's a few additional thoughts.
There's a vast coherent body of knowledge about the physical universe, our world, and ourselves. Cosmology, physics, evolutionary science, genetics, medicine, biology, neuroscience, psychology, chemistry -- the list goes on and on.
By contrast, there is only vague hearsay about a possible supernatural realm. Further, there is no evident connection between supposed supernatural mystical experience and this world.
No one has increased knowledge of this world after having such an experience. No one has a "superpower" after having such an experience. As I've noted in other blog posts, there really is no way to distinguish someone who claims to have had such an experience from people who say they haven't.
Yet there's vast systems of dogma, or theologies, about supposed supernatural realms. But since there's no coherence to these dogmas, and there's no connection with human knowledge of this world, there's no viable foundation for claims of supernatural mystical experience.
As noted in this post, we're supposed to believe that consciousness exists apart from the human brain, that it is possible for that consciousness to journey to heavenly realms, and so on, Again, there's zero evidence for this.
Of course meditation affects the brain. Lots of things affect the brain, meditation being one of them. Certain psychedelics mimic mystical experiences so completely, the two are virtually indistinguishable. So it's unarguable that people can have mind-blowing experiences through a variety of physical means.
But precisely no one has had a supposed supernatural mystical experience when they weren't alive as a physical human being with a physical brain. So the most likely explanation of these experiences is that they are products of the human brain, not anything "divine."
Posted by: Brian Hines | September 20, 2018 at 09:50 AM
"Certain psychedelics mimic mystical experiences so completely, the two are virtually indistinguishable. "
That's why some people take 20 years to learn to see lights and sounds, and others simply pay 20 dollars and do it now.
Posted by: Jesse | September 20, 2018 at 10:13 AM
Anyone truly interested in psychedelics / mystical experiences should give DMT a whirl, but be sure to do 3 hits.
You are instantly catapulted out of this world into another dimension. That dimension is so intricate, complex that I could not have just imagined it on my own. It goes way beyond seeing a few lights. [What I saw kinda reminded me of Alex Grey's artwork.]
Another thing that's interesting about a DMT experience is that people in different socio-cultural contexts describe seeing the same thing in their subjective experiences. Things like circuitry made of light, mechanical/mischievous elf creatures, etc. Not the Jesus, Guru visions we're programmed to have.
You can also read the book, DMT The Spirit Molecule, but that is a poor substitute for experience.
Posted by: Psychonaut | September 20, 2018 at 10:41 AM
I am fascinated by Bender's citation of Quine: "Our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body."
That sounds very much like a restatement of Bishop Barkeley's argument in support of the external world's existence via deity perception by substituting recorded corporate tribal perception for the role and function of a metaphysical being.
Posted by: E.M. | September 20, 2018 at 07:06 PM
I think the science around meditation verifies its healthy benefits to brain and body.
If imagining your Master leads to ecstacy, visions, inner regions and happiness; of submitting all cares to your Master helps you shoulder the most difficult moments of your life, so that you can carry on with your duty to others, then there is the proof. It's exhaustive.
It isn't proof of that subjective inner reality as objective fact.
It is only proof of that inner reality as a healthy source of strength.
So long as each of us understands the distinction, spirituality is all upside.
When we confuse the two, you get religion, superstition, arguments and wars. Entirely unnecessary.
The real miracle of spirituality, and specifically meditation, is that it completely changes our attitude. It puts our daily struggles in a larger, noble context and pursuit.
And physiologically, it improves the functioning of the brain so we can better appreciate the elegance of science, philosophy and the wonder that our senses report.
Posted by: Spence Tepper | September 21, 2018 at 05:32 AM
It is you whom I have to thank for helping me understand and honor the distinction, so that I may enjoy both.
Posted by: Spence Tepper | September 21, 2018 at 05:34 AM
Brian, I agree cent percent with what you say there, in that comment of yours.
But my own point (in the portion of my earlier comment, that dealt specifically with mysticism) was different from what you say there.
You’d said, in your post, that one way in which mysticism differs from scientific positivism is that the latter is based on the principle of reproducibility (and therefore of falsifiability), while the former does not admit of this reproducibility (and falsifiability). And that is what I was disagreeing with. It seems to me that in that specific respect, mysticism is the exact opposite of how your represent it.
Yes, faith itself does not admit of reproducibility or of falsifiability, and nor do faith-based religions. But the essential difference between mysticism and blind faith is precisely this : that mysticism is about first-hand experiences. (And if it turns out that these alleged first-hand experiences are a myth, then that still does not negate the fact that mysticism is about first-hand experiences. You see what I’m saying, don’t you?)
For instance : I’ve heard it mentioned here, more than once, in Comments in your blog, the 40-day trial thing in RSSB. (Of course, it could be that this is not true ; someone better versed with RSSB than I will have to take a call on whether this is indeed part of RSSB teachings, or whether the person commenting had themselves been mistaking in putting this view forward ; but I use this only as example.) Apparently the idea is that you take any 40-day period, and for those 40 days you stick fully to all of the prescriptions and proscriptions of RSSB, including the 2½ hour daily meditation : and you are, apparently, bound to get results in the form of either lights and sounds as prescribed, and/or in the form of refulgent GIHF appearing before you. Or so goes the claim. A clearly verifiable/falsifiable claim.
This was just one example that came to mind, sourced from within this blog itself. I can think of many more such examples, from other traditions.
You’re making the argument, in your comment addressed to me, that mysticism in general is ‘false’, and in any case bereft of any deeper significance. That may or may not be true, but that is different from what I am saying. I am disagreeing with your earlier contention, in the opening post (and also implied in the title of the post/thread), that mysticism is not reproducible (and therefore not verifiable, not falsifiable) ; I’m saying that, on the contrary, it is this reproducibility and the consequent verifiability (and falsifiability) that sets mysticism apart from blind-faith-based religion. A somewhat subtle but important distinction, that.
Again, I do realize that there are many factors that, in practice, end up diluting beyond acceptable limits this reproducibility/verifiability/falsifiability factor of mysticism. Sometimes this time frame is stretched to such ridiculous lengths as to make any kind of actual verification impossible. For instance, stretching the 40-day period indefinitely, to not just a lifetime but four! Then we have people indulging in all manner of post-facto rationalizations over why some mystic experience did not actually manifest. Most of these rationalizations are variations on the No-True-Scotsman fallacy. (My devotion must have been wanting ; or my technique itself may have been wanting ; or my mind was not free of lust ; or my trust on my Guru was lacking ; or my mind was far too wrapped up in worldly affairs ; et cetera, ad nauseam).
Further : what is experienced (or not experienced) in mysticism -- what is reproducible and verifiable and falsifiable, all that, in mysticism -- are simply the experiences themselves. Not the theology built around those experiences. As you say in your comment -- and I agree with you fully. The fact that you might see the prescribed lights and hear the prescribed sounds, does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the extravagant cosmology that the theology describes is true. No, absolutely not.
But brush aside these post-facto rationalizations, and brush aside these irrational theologies and convoluted cosmologies, and what you’re left with is the fact -- the incontrovertible fact -- that in its essence, mysticism is indeed potentially reproducible, and therefore verifiable, that is, it is falsifiable. (Your own personal story, Brian, as it relates to RSSB, is living proof of this!) Mysticism may well be 'false', as you say, sure, I’m not claiming it isn’t. (That is, I don’t hold any opinion on this, one way or the other, at this stage of my own personal experimentation on this subject). But contrary to what you’d said in your post proper, it is, indeed (allegedly) reproducible and therefore (potentially) verifiable -- that is, it is indeed 'falsifiable'.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | September 21, 2018 at 06:40 AM
Psychonaut, thanks for bringing up this DMT business Absolutely fascinating stuff, this.
A couple of posters have, as I recall, spoken extensively here on this in the past. One of them was tAo, way back, perhaps as much as a decade back ; and the other, more recently, was Manjit. There may have been others, of course, but I recall these two speaking extensively on this, and from their own personal experience.
As for trying this out oneself : speaking for myself, thanks but no thanks! I’m fascinated by this, absolutely, really and truly fascinated, but I’m afraid I value my health and my sanity far too much to risk them by experimenting with chemicals that may well have deleterious after-effects.
Which is not to detract, at all, from how important a subject this is! I laud those who’ve had the courage to take the necessary personal risk, and try this out themselves.
You seem to have tried this thing out yourself, Psychonaut. If you wouldn’t mind taking the effort to compose a detailed comment or two on this, then I’d be very interested to know of your own personal experience.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | September 21, 2018 at 06:46 AM
DMT's sister psychedelic is Ayahuasca.
Posted by: Bombay Blonde | September 21, 2018 at 08:22 AM
Ah yes, Ayahuasca. A lot of these psychotropic formulations have originally been used by indigenous peoples and religions to bring about their own peculiar brand of "spiritual" experiences. Marijuana/cannabis, then Ayahuasca (as you say). And who can forget Carlos Castenada's accounts of his peyote-fueled out-of-the world trips, in those celebrated books of his?
Just looked up Ayahuasca online, incidentally, and apparently DMT is actually one of the components of what makes up Ayahuasca. Who knows -- and I suppose one can look that up easily enough, if one wanted to -- we may well have discovered this DMT itself by reverse-engineering Ayahuasca?
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | September 22, 2018 at 05:35 AM
Sant Mat had been labeled the science of the soul precisely because it is experientially based.
If the apple drops often enough, you have support for the concept of "gravity" though gravity waves have never been detected (until very recently, and even there, it's highly theoretical).
In quantum physics we must predict the probability of the existence of something we cannot actually measure. We do this by the detection of the effect of that hypothesized particle or wave on other particles and waves.
The architecture of DNA was not photographed. Only the reflections made by bouncing x-rays off those tiny acids, as recorded on xray plates, could be used and then those reflections had to fit a hypothesized structure. When the design fit the data, there was the DNA model.
Experiences can be indirect evidence of something else.
When, in meditation, as thoughts gradually die down and we relax, focused on the repetition, we begin to hear a gentle and sweet sound, and then listening intently to it we become very happy, and the sound deepens, into a rushing wind, and then an immense reverbrating bell, and soon we find ourselves in an immense place, huge and flooded with light these are just experiences. And as this light pours into us, we are filled with joy. We are in a sea of light that is love. What we were is no more. We feel we have left our body, so tiny and limited, and are now the light itself.
And these are only the most initial ones from basic practice. Just opening that tenth door. Took me twenty years to get that. Now it's every day, and just the start.
What do they mean?
Well, some who haven't experienced these things say they aren't supernatural. That's their hypothesis.
Traditionally the Saints say this is the divine Word experienced as light and sound.
It is something real. It is connected to the human brain of course.
I think the confusion is trying to make this non existent, hallucination, unimportant. That's throwing the baby out with the bath water.
But it is amazingly reliable and consistent for the practitioner who maintains stable effort and conditions.
And it is amazingly consistent with spiritual writings..
"Lay up your treasures in heaven. If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be filled with light..... Blessed are those who hear the Word of the Lord...Blessed are those who hear the joyful sound"
These experiences are something like quantum physics in that they may be the sensory correlates of something else. We detect one thing, but it may be something else. But they are reliably reproducible by the practitioner. So they are real. But real what?
And that reliability opens the door to investigation.
Trying to say it isn't spirit or its just hallucination or its just suggestion doesn't capture the consistancy and repeatability of these results. And what science has found conflicts with this hypothesis.
There is more there to investigate. So it remains a potential for what AJ suggested: a survey, perhaps confidential, a study, a registry of long term meditators experiences.
We already know that physically, the brains of long term meditators are nothing like the brains of individuals exposed to drugs, or even to the normal human brain. They are much healthier and younger.
So to compare the experiences from brain damage to those of the healthier long term meditators is not likely a measure of the same actual events.
What is needed is more investigation of those long term meditators who can control and repeat those experiences, and who can also submit to hypnosis and brain stimulation so that they can compare and contrast these different experiences, all while their brainwaves are being measured.
Brainwaves during deep meditation are unique and nothing like the brainwaves of individuals taking hallucinogens or undergoing electric simulation of neurons. It's unfounded to claim they are.
This might not be "spirit" but it is unlikely that it is suggestion or hallucination.
And it is worthy of investigation.
Of course any initiate has the tools to conduct their own personal investigation to get a deeper personal understanding of the experience.
Posted by: Spence Tepper | September 22, 2018 at 09:06 PM
Brian, I do hope you don't mind our hijacking of this thread by speaking on what appears, to both Spence and to me, the obvious verifiability/falsifiality of mysticism. (Except, of course, we differ in our views, he and I, about the end result of this verification/falsification process. Spence believes he has actually verified it to his satisfaction, while I myself haven't and am agnostic about it.)
This falsifiabitlity business seemed crucial to the point you were making (and which you therefore mentioned in your thread title as well), and so I took the liberty of discussing at length here my own thoughts on this, such as they are.
But this is just a detail, just a nuance. And we eagerly await your further thoughts on Adam Becker's book.
[ I guess this means we're shamelessly piggy-backing on your effort in going through and understanding the contents of this book -- but that is what we do all the time here, and we love it, and are grateful to you for allowing us to so easily share in your own understanding! :-) ]
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | September 23, 2018 at 06:27 AM
"Spence believes he has actually verified it to his satisfaction, while I myself haven't and am agnostic about it.)"
I would like to qualify that and say that the verification is a personal verification to a very well defined sequence of events, which developed gradually through practice over several years, including Master's visible and constant presence. It developed in stages. What had been sporadic in the beginning became systematic and reliable. And those events find anecdotal witness in spiritual writings.
Spirit could really just be an important and magnificent area of brain activity and experience that is subject to development.
But the qualification is that these are personal and subjective and do not meet the standard of verifiable objective fact.
They are, like any other reportable event, potentially subject to significant research.
Posted by: Spence Tepper | September 23, 2018 at 08:17 AM
Absolutely, Spencer. And I agree with all of that. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.
Brian hasn't spoken about this particular aspect of the matter yet, at least not in this thread, but I imagine he'd agree too, given how closely this gels with his own ideas, expressed earlier, about subjective experience.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | September 24, 2018 at 06:47 AM