For many years, about 37, I was deeply attracted to mysticism. One of the reasons was that I loved how mystic teachings taught the self was an illusion and our sense of free will masked God's overarching control over all things, including human actions.
But gradually I realized the downsides of mysticism. There was no demonstrable evidence that God or anything supernatural existed. And my love of science eventually led me to embrace reality, rather than religion -- of which mysticism is an offshoot.
Now, though, I've come to a pleasing conclusion: modern science actually is more mystical than ancient mysticism, so scientific reality contains a big part of what I found so appealing in supernaturalism.
I've started re-reading Paul Singh's fascinating book, "The Great Illusion: The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self." I was drawn to do this after seeing a mention of the book in a recent comment on one of my posts, which caused me to order a copy from Amazon.
When the book arrived, it looked familiar.
Indeed, it didn't take me long to find a highly highlighted copy on a bookshelf. So I'm going to give the new Amazon copy to my wife for sharing with members of an atheist/freethinkers discussion group she's organized here in Salem, Oregon.
I've found that because my views on science, the world, and reality keep evolving (good thing!), often I'll get fresh insights from a book I've enjoyed even if I read it fairly recently.
Such is happening already with The Great Illusion after re-reading only the Preface and the first chapter, Only God's Will. What struck me today is how modern science is able to dispel illusions (maya, if you like) in a much more powerful and convincing way than mysticism.
Here's how Paul Singh describes himself:
Paul Singh is a biochemist, mathematician, surgeon-physician, and a urogynecologist. He is a scholar of eastern and western intellectual traditions. He is a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in the College of Medicine at the University of Science, Arts and Technology at Montserrat, British West Indies.
And here's some excerpts from his book about how us humans are deceived about the true nature of free will and the self:
My lifelong research has confirmed what modern science has shown -- that free will, consciousness, and the self are illusions... Consciousness is any qualitative first-person experience. The feelings that you get when you pinch yourself, drink a glass of water, or feel bored are examples of consciousness.
Consciousness is certainly a fact (you who are reading this sentence are obviously conscious at this moment), but modern brain research suggests very strongly that consciousness cannot exist without a brain.
...Although it is correct to say that we have barely touched upon the perplexing complexity of the human brain, we have come far enough in our understanding that we can declare with confidence that these three entities -- free will, consciousness, and the self -- do not have any independent existence of their own independent of the human brain.
Their illusory existence is dependent upon the brain just like a mirage is dependent upon the brain and possesses no independent reality of its own.
Singh then talks about how evolution has given rise to our sense of individual identity, which includes the false notion of "souls" or "spirits" that supposedly enable our identity to live on even after the death of the physical body. Of course, religious and mystical beliefs also are products of the brain. So the brain generates the illusion that consciousness can exist without the brain.
It's impossible to escape from this hall of mirrors by any means other than modern science. Singh writes:
First, the beliefs, that have been found to be illusions by science, are essential for human survival. Since we cannot think any other way than to believe that we are, somehow, independent of our bodies, such a belief must have played an important role in our evolutionary past.
We don't know where the "I" or "self" resides, but we all feel there is such a self. That is what led philosophers for thousands of years to think there is a "ghost in the machine." Ancient Hindus wrote thousands of treatises on this subject and they are still writing them today. But science has demonstrated that these philosophers and religious thinkers were all wrong.
What scientists discover through the scientific method is often counter-intuitive. In the absence of science, we often draw unwarranted conclusions, based on simple observations, frequently mixing our emotions with our observations... The brain determines subjective experience in exactly the same way it determines all other bodily functions.
...We like to think of ourselves as being something other than our bodies, but actually, as modern science has shown, we are our bodies, You are your body; you wouldn't be you without your body wired together with your brain. Without your brain, you wouldn't be you.
Everything about you as a person can be explained by what goes on in your brain. Who you are and what you are like, all of your emotions and every one of your ideas, how you think and what you think about, and our own personal story, come from your brain. You would have no idea of your own existence without your brain.
The body you will leave behind when you die will carry your name, because it was your body, and not someone else's. The very possibility of imagining that you can float free of your body is conceivable only because it is your brain that thinks these things.
...Your inner self, your soul, and the god you worship are nothing else but your own brain interconnected with the rest of your body.
So what's the way out of this brain maze, which sometimes leads us to a correct understanding of reality, yet also leads us astray when it comes to believing in God, soul, spirit, free will, life after death, and the nature of consciousness? Science!
The brain doesn't have the job of "speaking up" and revealing what it does, and the conscious awareness that the brain does produce cannot automatically seem organic or even physical. Only through studying the brain scientifically can we explain why we aren't normally alerted to innumerable details about what our brains are doing as we go about living our lives.
In a way, projecting what is sensed and thought into an alternative sort of reality was something that the human brain had to do as intelligence grew.
...Because science arrived late to the human scene, non-scientific explanations had plenty of time to get entrenched in so many stories that humans have been telling themselves, and the concepts in these stories got embedded in the languages we all learn to speak as children,
...For people, "mind" has most of the same meanings that "spirit' had millennia ago, and most people today expect mind to share in the same destiny as spirit.
But what seems like undeniable common sense, confirmed by our intuitions and assumed by the ordinary words we speak, is really just a built-up web of imaginative notions that developed over the long course of ordinary human events, hardened by regular use as people lived out their mundane paths in life.
Those notions and fabulous stories conveying them have made many people feel extremely special, perhaps so special that it can seem as if the whole of creation is really about them.
Your brain is quite real. What the brain is busily doing in so many special ways must be largely hidden from awareness. Our innate curiosity can raise good questions about what is going on. After that, however, only science can responsibly investigate what the brain actually does and how it accomplishes all the special things it can do.
The true story of the human brain is more amazing than anything imagined before.
Nicely said, Dr. Singh.
What Singh talks about in his book isn't all that different from what I've read in many other books about neuroscience, the illusion of free will, and how consciousness arises in the brain.
But reading the excerpts I've shared led to a more solid realization in my own brain that all of mysticism, all of meditation, all of religion, all of everything, is the product of nerve cells firing in the marvelously complex cranium of us Homo sapiens.
Our clear understanding of reality, along with the illusions that confuse us -- all this arises from a single source: the human brain. There is no way a brain can understand itself, since most of what transpires in the brain occurs outside of conscious awareness.
So modern science is the only way to reveal the secrets that lie hidden within us. Not mysticism, because mystics are subject to the same illusions regarding free will, consciousness, and the self that everyone else is. Yes, meditation can result in different brain states.
But so can drugs, extreme sports, a walk under the night sky, loving someone deeply, and so much else. There's no way out of the maze of the brain except through the collaboration of many brains working together to cut through illusion and reveal reality.
Which is a damn good description of modern science.