After thirty-five years of believing in weird mystical stuff, I've become a naturalist.
I'm still open to the possibility that there's more to reality than what's evident in the natural world, but lacking solid evidence of that possibility, my bet is that it doesn't exist.
Yet in no way do I feel a diminishment of cosmic awe. There's plenty to be amazed at without imagining a realm beyond the physical.
A story by Kathryn Schulz in the April 5, 2021 issue of The New Yorker provides a good example of this. My mind was blown by "Where the Wild Things Go: How animals navigate the world."
(The online version has a different title.)
Consider how we humans would look upon a member of our species who could do what a rock lobster is capable of.
You can cover a rock lobster’s eyes, put it in an opaque container filled with seawater from its native environment, line the container with magnets suspended from strings so they swing in all directions, put the container in a truck, drive the truck in circles on the way to a boat, steer the boat in circles on the way to a distant location, drop the lobster back in the water, and—voilà—it will strike off confidently in the direction of home.
Scientists have done these things to rock lobsters in order to eliminate the most obvious mechanisms a lobster could use to navigate, such as using the earth's magnetic field to track its location.
We'd be amazed if a person could do what a rock lobster does, as the New Yorker story says in the next paragraph.
Needless to say, you and I cannot do this. If you blindfold human subjects, take them on a disorienting bus ride, let them off in a field, remove the blindfolds, and ask them to head back toward where they started, they will promptly wander off in all directions. If you forgo the bus and the blindfolds, ask them to walk across a field toward a target, and then conceal the target after they start moving, they will stray off course in approximately eight seconds.
Of course, humans also are capable of amazing navigation feats. But we've done this largely through learning, not instinct.
The Polynesians were able to move from island to island in vast reaches of the south Pacific through careful observation of currents, clouds, birds, and such, then pass on that knowledge to another generation.
Some animals also learn from members of their species -- geese learn a migration route from their elders -- but much of animal navigation is based on talents we're mostly clueless about.
Cats, bats, elephant seals, red-tailed hawks, wildebeests, gypsy moths, cuttlefish, slime mold, emperor penguins: to one degree or another, every animal on earth knows how to navigate—and, to one degree or another, scientists remain perplexed by how they do so.
Yet even though what animals are capable of seems miraculous, no reputable scientist claims that animals possess some supernatural power. We don't know how they navigate, but almost certainly some day we will.
So in the realm of animal navigation there's agreement that natural causes are producing amazing effects. Why would the mystery of human consciousness be any different? Just because something is astonishing doesn't mean it stems from a supernatural source.
More generally, the astonishment is that any physiology can contain a navigational system capable of such journeys. A bird that migrates over long distances must maintain its trajectory by day and by night, in every kind of weather, often with no landmarks in sight.
If its travels take more than a few days, it must compensate for the fact that virtually everything it could use to stay oriented will change, from the elevation of the sun to the length of the day and the constellations overhead at night.
Most bewildering of all, it must know where it is going—even the first time, when it has never been there before—and it must know where that destination lies compared with its current position.
Other species making other journeys face additional difficulties: how to navigate entirely underground, or how to navigate beneath the waters of a vast and seemingly undifferentiated ocean.
The New Yorker story describes various mechanisms animals use to find their way around. I don't want to give the impression that scientists are clueless about how animal navigation works.
My point is that astounding capabilities require careful research to understand what is going on. This applies to exceptional human feats, whether mental or physical. There's a huge amount to learn about the natural world.
None of that learning needs to be based on supernatural fantasies.