Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 2]: The Supernatural

It’s Youth Group night at church; I’m a high school senior and have been tapped to give the sermon. I start with, “Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life.” Honest, that’s what I said. I remember writing it, I remember standing at the pulpit saying it. At home afterward my dad and my sister’s seminarian boyfriend (his name was Luther – honest) were snacking on roast preacher. “Where did you get that?” Luther asked, ‘Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life’ – where did you get that?” He was impressed. I don’t know, it was just an idea, it seemed obvious — religion is one of the things humans do.

Making Sense of Things

As we saw last time, religion is a “teleological”[1] strategy – it’s one of the ways we invest things, events people, ourselves, our lives, and life in general with purpose and meaning. For many people, religion and the supernatural are the go-to standard for teleological thinking.

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs’ are the best predictors of their ‘perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.’”[2]

The prefix “super” in “supernatural” means above, beyond, over, apart from. When we say supernatural, we mean there’s something or Someone out there that’s not limited to the natural world and flesh and blood, that has it all figured out, sees what we don’t see, knows that we don’t know, explains what we can’t explain, is better at life than we are. The supernatural is personified or objectified in what we call God, who has a better take than we’ll ever have: as author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Religion tries to teach us God’s view but generally accepts there are limits. Besides, if we could share God’s view, we wouldn’t need God anymore, we’d be God. Short of that, we can only believe God has view, and that it’s better, more complete, more perfect than our point of view. Which means that, compared to God, we and our existence are lesser, partial, flawed, while God represents the perfected version of us – what we would be if we could be God. And somehow, knowing that’s a comforting thought — I know it was for me when I first began to believe in God (a couple years after I gave that sermon), because at least God was better than the alternative, which was me having lost my bearings and making a mess of life.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[3]

Believe First, Then Rationalize

Enter the supernatural. Now I felt better. And once I was in, I backfilled the case for believing. Over the next few years I built my case, devouring Christian apologetics and other books that were making the rounds of my collegiate fellowship. That ancillary material became part of my new religious narrative, supporting the primary doctrinal narrative.

These days, neuro-psychological research indicates that we believe first, then rationalize. Rationalizing is not the same as acting rationally. Belief in the supernatural is a story – the story we tell about ourselves and our life that gives us identity and our life purpose and meaning. To the believer, it’s nonfiction – the way things really are, who they really are. If we’re not of similar persuasion, we may think it’s fiction – a fish story, or case of “teleological error”[4]. – but neither of us can prove the other wrong. Belief is ultimately indefensible and unassailable – it’s a “first thought” from which a host of others originate. Still, we like to think our beliefs are rational, chosen in the exercise of our own free will.

Free Will (or not)

Take away free will, and you take away a key sense of personal power. Free will gives us something we can do in the face of the apparent nonsense of life: we can stem the onslaught of meaninglessness by choosing to believe – in this case, in the supernatural. We still don’t understand, we still screw up, but at least we can rely on the supernatural to understand and model what we would be like if we weren’t so… mortal.

These days, neuro-psychology also challenges our usual assumptions about the self and free will, holding that our free will isn’t as free and intentional and rational as we’d like to think. Maybe so, but at least one leading brain scientist thinks that sometimes it might be better just to fool ourselves into believing we can choose what to believe – at least we’ll feel better.

“Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narratives or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going… These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them.

“This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic — an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effect on how we develop socially. … These thoughts and behavior may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. IN a sense, who we are comes down to those around us. We may be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even those emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors.

“We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the illusion.

“Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will — the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control.

“However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion… We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not.

“For example, I believe that the sentence that I just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually wanting it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.

“My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the discussion has been arrived at independently — a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of conscious of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

“Even if the self and our ability to exercise free will is an illusion, not all is lost. In fact, beliefs seem to produce consequences for our behavior.

“Beliefs about self-control, from wherever they may derive, are powerful motivators of human behavior.

“When we believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, we behave differently than those who deny the existence of free will and believe everything is determined.

“Maybe that’s why belief in free will predicts not only better job performance but also expected career success. Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues ,and this is recognized and rewarded by their superiors. So, when we believe in free will, we enjoy life more.

“The moral of the tale is that, even if free will doesn’t exist, then maybe it is best to ignore what the neuroscientists or philosophers say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”[5]

It seems we often greet paradigm-shifting scientific findings with a shrug. Maybe somebody in a lab coat figured something out, but there’s no apparent impact on us. Maybe somebody says free will is nothing more than the confluence of multiple neural pathways — okay fine, but we’ll take own misguided, self-deceptive sense of agency any day. It’s how we’re used to feeling, and there’s no apparent downside to contradicting a bunch of intellectual hooey. In fact, the downside is all on the side of science, which wants us to think there’s no point in anything.

Plus, if we believe in the supernatural, we enjoy the safety of numbers– especially if we live in the USA, where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of us believe in God, depending on how the question was asked. (By contrast, also in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 4% of Americans said they were atheists.[6])

For me personally, when I first learned about neuroscience’s case against free will, it didn’t feel devastating or hopeless, didn’t throw me into a pit of despair, didn’t make me want to wallow. It was weird, but no more. I was skeptical, and still assume there’s more to be discovered before we get the whole picture, but in time, I came to like the changes in outlook the absence of God and belief in God offered. Life and my place in it were cleaner and simpler somehow – if for no other reason that I no longer needed to expend the energy belief in the supernatural used to require.

The Religious Brain

Also back when I first got religion, I experienced something else current neuroscience tells us: that religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“Neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”[7]

The mutual reinforcement loop still operates, so that the brain steeped in religion gets better at religion, finds way to reinforce and substantiate its beliefs. As a result, the religious narrative becomes more and more true the more you practice it –experience increasingly conforms to religious dictates on both an individual and community level. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of “neurotheology,” observes that the religious brain promotes social cohesiveness and conformity to social moral norms.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’” says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discussion.’”[8]

As a result, when you stop practicing your religious narrative, as I did, your brain circuits are no longer engaged in actively supporting it, and are now available to process alternatives. As you detach from religious immersion, your prior conviction about its truth – i.e., its ability to explain reality, which was increasingly conforming to it — fades away. At that stage, the brain’s formerly religious wiring is equally adept at promoting other individual and communal beliefs and behaviors, as well as other narratives. Andew Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book[9] indicating that the formerly religious brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning.”[10]

These findings explain a range of religious behaviors: charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and beneficial “fellowship” dynamics at one end of the spectrum; and clergy sexual crimes, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other end. Plus, the entire spectrum is supported not only by religious neural network, but by the brain’s addictive feel-good hormones — right alongside sex, drugs, and rock n roll.

Lost in the Story

Religious narratives draw upon ancient storytelling for their source material, making liberal use of metaphors and allegories in scripture and wisdom literature to create parables, koans, riddles, myths, fables, cautionary tales, and poetry. Religious storytelling illuminates the human condition, illustrates what happens when Earthy existence is aligned or at odds with Heavenly purpose.[11]

Normally, metaphors and allegories are representational: they describe one thing in terms of another – i.e., in the case of religion, worldly, fleshly experience in light of divine, spiritual truth. Sometimes, though, religious practice recasts human experience into literal, explicit religious storytelling, in which the devotee is “in but not of the world”[12] to an extreme. As a result, the zealot dwells in religious metaphor, views themselves and others as religious characters, and interprets circumstances in terms of religious drama. At this extreme, reality becomes a pious fantasyland, in which religious imagery supplants worldly experience. Religious storytelling no longer illustrates and represents, it becomes perceived reality, as the believer remains in a closed, self-reinforcing system. The condition is euphoric, supported by feel-good brain hormones – as close to what it feels like to have God’s view as we’ll ever get.

I know this experience well — I did this a lot in my religious days, and not just with religion, but also with film, theater, books, and other stories – just as I had as a child. I have a lively imagination and have “the ability to become easily engrossed, such as in movies, novels or daydreams” [13] – traits that make it easy for me to generate religious experience and make me a good subject for hypnosis..

The best example of this kind of religious storytelling excess that I can think of are the lyrics of a hymn I remember singing in the church where I grew up:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story,
Because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

 I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story;
More wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies
Of all my golden dreams,
I love to tell the story,
It did so much for me;
And that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story;
Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it,
More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story;
For some have never heard
The message of salvation
From God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story;
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story,
That I have loved so long.

I used to wonder why religious experiences were so easy for me, compared to other people, until I became aware of the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive disposition. Discovering it, and learning to keep it from running away with me, turned about to be a key development in my drift away from religion, and from narrative in general.

More on narratives next time.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Andersen, Kurt, How America Lost Its Mind – The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history, The Atlantic (Dec. 28, 2017). See also Routledge, Supernatural, op. cit.

[3] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[4] See this blog’s Narratives-Of-Self-Purpose-And-Meaning-Part-1-Fish-Stories.

[5] The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

[6] /The Pew Research Center report is intriguingly nuanced, and worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

[7]The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Newberg, Andrew, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009)

[10] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

[11] For more on metaphor, see the classic and definitive text Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

[12] See, for example, this online Bible study on the phrase.

[13] See The Five Traits Of A Good Hypnotic Subject, Your Visual Mind. See also Wikipedia re: “Hypnotic Susceptibility.”

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 1]: Fish Stories

A friend of mine is a Christian, business leader, author, and fisherman. He tells fish stories in each of those roles. At least it feels that way to me, so I take his stories “with a grain of salt.” A Roman luminary named Pliny the Elder[1] used that phrase in a poison antidote in 77 A.D., and he meant it literally. Today, it describes how we respond when it feels like someone’s story – like the fish –  just keeps getting bigger.

I don’t care about my friend’s fish, I care about him. When he tells a fish story, he’s sharing his personal narrative. “This is who I am,” he’s saying, “And this is how I believe life works.”

“Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’, wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’”[2]

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives.”[3]

The Self

This kind of narrative assumes the self is an entity all its own, with a purpose also all its own, and that if you get both in hand, you’ll know the meaning of life – at least your own. Current neuro-psychology doesn’t see things that way.

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.”[4]

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless.”[5]

For most people, that scientific outlook is too harsh:

“From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[6]

Self-Actualization

Cultivating a sense of identity, purpose, and meaning sounds good, but who’s got time? Maslow’s iconic “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid recognizes that adult life puts the basics first.

“Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest. Moving up the ladder, Maslow mentions safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. But after all those have been satisfied, the motivating factor at the top of the pyramid involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy creative goals. As one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Maslow proposed that the path to self-transcendence and, ultimately, greater compassion for all of humanity requires the ‘self-actualisation’ at the top of his pyramid – fulfilling your true potential, and becoming your authentic self.”[7]

Columbia psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman thinks we ought to get self-actualization off the back burner, for the sake of ourselves and our world.

“‘We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,’ Kaufman wrote recently in a blog in Scientific American introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for.”[8]

Kaufman’s research suggests that making room for self-awareness and growth helps to develop character traits that the world could use more of:

“Participants’ total scores… correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the metatrait of ‘stability’, indicative of an ability to avoid impulses in the pursuit of one’s goals.

“Next, Kaufman turned to modern theories of wellbeing, such as self-determination theory, to see if people’s scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors.

“A criticism often levelled at Maslow’s notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an egocentric focus on one’s own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

“The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow’s ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Kaufman and he is optimistic. ‘I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],’ he told me. ‘A good way to start with that,’ he added, ‘is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalise on your highest characteristics but also don’t forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualisation … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it’s possible with conscientiousness and willpower.’”[9]

But What if There’s No Self to Actualize?

If there’s no unified self, then there’s no beneficiary for all that “concerted effort to change” and “conscientiousness and willpower.”

“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity.[10]

Again, it’s hard for most of us to live with that much existential angst[11]. We prefer instead to think there’s a unique self (soul) packed inside each of us, and to invest it with significance.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.

“Instead, people latch onto what I call teleological thinking. Teleological thinking is when people perceive phenomena in terms of purpose. When applied to natural phenomena, this type of thinking is generally considered to be flawed because it imposes design where there is no evidence for it. To impose purpose and design where there is none is what researchers refer to as a teleological error.”[12]

Teleological thinking finds design and purpose in the material world[13] to counter the feeling that we’re at the mercy of random pointlessness. We prefer our reality to be by design, so that we have a chance to align ourselves with it – a form of personal empowerment psychologists call “agency.”

“Each of us has a story we tell about our own life, a way of structuring the past and fitting events into a coherent narrative. Real life is chaotic; life narratives give it meaning and structure.”[14]

The Coming of Age Narrative

Further, we look to a specific cultural rite of passage – when we “come of age” in late adolescence — as the time when we first discover and take responsibility for our unique self and its identity and purpose. From there, we carry that sense of who we are and where we fit into responsible adult life.

“The protagonist has the double task of self-integration and integration into society… Take, for instance, the fact that the culminating fight scene in most superhero stories occurs only after the hero has learned his social lesson – what love is, how to work together, or who he’s ‘meant to be’. Romantic stories climax with the ultimate, run-to-the-airport revelation. The family-versus-work story has the protagonist making a final decision to be with his loved ones, but only after almost losing everything. Besides, for their dramatic benefit, the pointedness and singular rush of these scenes stems from the characters’ desire to finally gain control of their self: to ‘grow up’ with one action or ultimate understanding.[15]

The Redemption Narrative

The coming of age story is a variant of the “redemption” narrative, in which we learn that suffering is purposeful: it shapes and transforms us, so we can take our place in society.

“For the past 15 years, Daniel McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois, has explored this story and its five life stages: (1) an early life sense of being somehow different or special, along with (2) a strong feeling of moral steadfastness and determination, ultimately (3) tested by terrible ordeals that are (4) redeemed by a transformation into positive experiences and (5) zeal to improve society.

“This sequence doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual events of the storyteller’s life, of course. It’s about how people interpret what happened – their spin, what they emphasise in the telling and what they discard.” [16]

Redemption narratives make us good citizens, and never mind if there’s some ego involved:

“In his most recent study, the outcome of years of intensive interviews with 157 adults, McAdams has found that those who adopt [redemption narratives] tend to be generative – that is, to be a certain kind of big-hearted, responsible, constructive adult.

“Generative people are deeply concerned about the future; they’re serious mentors, teachers and parents; they might be involved in public service. They think about their legacy, and want to fix the world’s problems.

“But generative people aren’t necessarily mild-mannered do-gooders. Believing that you have a mandate to fix social problems – and that you have the moral authority and the ability to do so – also requires a sense of self-importance, even a touch of arrogance.”[17]

The American Way

Coming of age and redemption stories have been culturally and neurologically sustained in Western and Middle Eastern civilizations since the Abrahamic scriptures wrote about the Garden of Eden 5500 years ago. Americans, as heirs of this ideological legacy, have perfected it.

“For Americans, the redemption narrative is one of the most common and compelling life stories. In the arc of this life story, adversity is not meaningless suffering to be avoided or endured; it is transformative, a necessary step along the road to personal growth and fulfilment.[18]

“The coming-of-age tale has become an peculiarly American phenomenon, since self-understanding in the United States is largely predicated on a self-making mythos. Where, in Britain, one might be asked about one’s parents, one’s schooling or one’s background, Americans seem less interested in a person’s past and more interested in his or her future. More cynical observers have claimed, perhaps rightly, that this is because Americans don’t have a clear history and culture; but the coming-of-age tale has also become important in the US because of a constant – maybe optimistic, maybe pig-headed – insistence that one can always remake oneself. The past is nothing; the future is “everything.

“This idea of inherent, Adam-and-Eve innocence, and the particularly American interest in it, is perhaps tantamount to a renunciation of history. Such denialism infuses both American stories and narratives of national identity, said Ihab Hassan, the late Arab-American literary theorist. In any case, the American tale of growing up concerns itself with creating a singular, enterprising self out of supposed nothingness: an embrace of the future and its supposedly infinite possibilities.”[19]

American capitalism relies on the redemption narrative as its signature story genre.

“From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journaling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.

“Even the idea that there is a discreet transition from youth into adulthood, either via a life-altering ‘feeling’ or via the culmination of skill acquisition, means that selfhood is a task to be accomplished in the service of social gain, and in which notions of productivity and work can be applied to one’s identity. Many students, for instance, are encouraged to take ‘gap years’ to figure out ‘who they are’ and ‘what they want to do’. (‘Do’, of course, being a not-so-subtle synonym for ‘work’.) Maturation is necessarily related to finances, and the expectation of most young people is that they will become ‘independent’ by entering the workforce. In this way, the emphasis on coming of age reifies the moral importance of work.” [20]

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already harnessed the power of the redemption story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”[21]

Writing Your Own Story

There’s nothing like a good story to make you rethink your life. A bookseller friend’s slogan for his shop is “Life is a story. Tell a good one.”

“The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.

“New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.

“Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation.”[22]

As a result, some people think we ought to take Michel Foucault’s advice and meditate (practice “mindfulness”) and journal our way to a better self-understanding. As for journaling:

“In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity. Writing in the 1950s, the psychologist Erik Erikson put it this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and in prospect … to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.

“Intriguingly, there’s some evidence that prompting people to reflect on and tell their life stories – a process called ‘life review therapy’ – could be psychologically beneficial.”[23]

Consistent with Scott Barry Kaufman’s comments from earlier, the more you can put a coming of age or redemption story spin on your own narrative, the more likely journaling will improve your outlook.

“A relevant factor in this regard is the tone, complexity and mood of the stories that people tell themselves. For instance, it’s been shown that people who tell more positive stories, including referring to more instances of personal redemption, tend to enjoy higher self-esteem and greater ‘self-concept clarity’ (the confidence and lucidity in how you see yourself). Perhaps engaging in writing or talking about one’s past will have immediate benefits only for people whose stories are more positive.

“It remains unclear exactly why the life-chapter task had the self-esteem benefits that it did. It’s possible that the task led participants to consider how they had changed in positive ways. They might also have benefited from expressing and confronting their emotional reactions to these periods of their lives – this would certainly be consistent with the well-documented benefits of expressive writing and ‘affect labelling’ (the calming effect of putting our emotions into words).

“The researchers said: ‘Our findings suggest that the experience of systematically reviewing one’s life and identifying, describing and conceptually linking life chapters may serve to enhance the self, even in the absence of increased self-concept clarity and meaning.’”[24]

An American Life

My friend the storyteller is an exemplar of all the above. He’s an American, a Christian, and a capitalist. And when he starts his day by journaling, he believes he’s writing what he’s hearing from God. I was most of that, too for the couple decades he and I shared narratives and teleological outlook. I’ve since moved on:  at this writing, we’ve had no contact for over three years. I wondered if I could still call him a friend — whether that term still applies  after your stories diverge as entirely as ours . Yes you can and yes it does, I decided, although I honestly can’t say why.

Religion: Teleological Thinking Perfected

Personal narratives – especially actually writing your own story – aren’t for everyone. They require quiet, solitude, and reflection, plus doing that feels egotistical if you’re not used to it. Religion offers a more common teleological alternative, with its beliefs, rituals, and practices designed to put you in touch with an external, transcendent source of your identity, purpose, and meaning. “Don’t look inward, look up,” is its message.

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] . Wikipedia. Pliny the Elder was a naturalist, military leader, friend of the Emperor, and a victim of the Vesuvius eruption.

[2] I Am Not a Story: Some find it comforting to think of life as a story. Others find that absurd. So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative? Aeon (Sept. 3, 2015)

[3] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] The Coming-Of-Age Con: How can you go about finding ‘who you really are’ if the whole idea of the one true self is a big fabrication? Aeon (Sept. 8, 2017)

[5] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (2018)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Do You Have A Self-Actualised Personality? Maslow Revisited. Aeon (Mar. 5, 2019)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[11] Urban Dictionary: existential angst..

[12] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[13] Wikipedia.

[14] Silicon Phoenix: A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

[15] The Coming-Of-Age Con, op cit.

[16] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[17] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[18] Silicon Phoenix, op. cit.

[19] The Coming-Of-Age Con op. cit.

[20] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[21] Silicon Phoenix, op cit.

[22] The Power of Story, op. cit.

[23] To Boost Your Self-Esteem, Write About Chapters of Your Life. Aeon (Apr. 5, 2019)

[24] Ibid.

Reborn Losers: Christian Cosmology and Worldview Are a Setup to Failure

Christian cosmology and worldview are complicated, stressful, and impossible. Trying to comply with them is a set up to failure. That failure begins with the concept of who we are as human beings living in human bodies.

I was a Christian, now I’m not. Sometimes I find it useful to write about what I believed then and compare it to what I don’t believe now. I try to express it simply, avoid religious assumptions and overtones, resist the urge to cringe at what I used to think and exalt in what I think now. Instead, I try to lay aside judgment, notice what comes up, and wonder about it. That’s the ideal, anyway — sometimes it’s more difficult than others to remain dispassionate. Today was one of those.

I wrote about cosmology (how the universe is organized) and worldview (how life works on Earth). Reading it afterward, it seemed that the Christian beliefs, institutions, and culture that dominated my life — and have dominated Western thought for two millennia — are about equal parts quaint and fantasy. I didn’t see it that way when I was immersed in them, but my last several years of study– especially neuroscience, psychology, and history — have upended my former cosmology and worldview, and taken my self concept with them.

I previously understood “reality” and my place in it by reference to a Truth outside of me. Today, I’m aware that everything I experience – including what I believe or not – is processed within my biological being.[1] My new sense of self and reality are now physical, not spiritual.

That shift has brought new clarity, simplicity, decisiveness, energy, focus, hope, joy, freedom, gratitude, and lots of other new dynamics I really like. By contrast, what struck me most about my former beliefs was how complicated they were, how stressful to maintain, and ultimately how generally impossible. Clinging to them was a setup to failure – I especially like being free of that.

The Trouble Starts With A Soul

Approaching life here by reference to a Truth out there leads us to believe in things that exist outside of us– in people, in ideas, in entities, in institutions…. That kind of thinking derives naturally from another foundational belief: that each person has an independent existence — a soul living inside their body – that sorts through available belief options and chooses this one over that.

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individuals inside bodies is sometimes called the “ego theory,” although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”[2]

My Christian worldview bought all that, and also held that the soul is our highest and best self, because it came from where Truth dwells. It also held that it’s hard on a soul to be in a human body. The doctrinal specifics vary – we deliberately chose to screw things up and our souls took the hit for it, our souls got damaged in transit or in installation, or there was a flaw in the source code that eventually moved them away from their ideal nature, etc. – but the end result is that the soul’s potential good influence is minimized or lost, leaving us in the throes of “sin” – falling short of the perfect divine plan for what our souls could have been if they hadn’t gotten fouled up. And since the soul’s waywardness is foundational, its problem isn’t just sin but “original sin” – the beginning of all our troubles. We don’t just struggle with garden-variety human nature, which is bad enough, but with “the flesh,” which is worse, in fact so dreadful that it puts our eternal destiny at jeopardy.

That’s where it all begins:  with a divine, timeless, perfect soul trapped in an imperfect human body. The result is a hapless human subject to all kinds of cosmic misfortune.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Cosmology and Worldview That Was (And Still Is)

It’s tricky to line up a flawed soul in a flawed body with an external perfect standard of Truth. As a result, we’re constantly screwing up our reality compared to Reality. Plus there’s the problem of perception and deception –-not seeing Reality clearly – and the problem of temptation – enticements plying on our fleshly nature that just aren’t going to end well. It’s hard to keep a clear head in the midst of those pressures, and for that we have experts – people we have to trust to know things about Reality that the rest of us don’t.

But sooner or later all fall down – experts along with everybody else. Birth is the soul’s doorway into its precarious life in the flesh, and death is the doorway out. It would be nice if the door had been designed to swing both ways so we could check in with Truth and get straightened out now and then, but it shuts firmly in both directions, and no peeking. Which means our attempts to live here by reference to what’s over there are always seriously handicapped.

Sometimes you hear about people who get a backstage pass to go there and come back, and then they write books about it and go on tour and tell us what’s it’s like. That makes them a special kind of expert, but their reports often are full of all sorts of universality, which makes them doctrinally suspect. Fortunately, there are superhuman beings– kind of like us, kind of not, but at least conscious like us, and able to communicate – to help us out. Sometimes they make the trip over here, sometimes they snatch someone from here and show them around over there and then send them back, sometimes they open up a clear channel to communicate with somebody over here, and sometimes — and this is the best – they can be born as one of us and not have a problem with losing their soul’s connection to Truth while they’re here. The point is, one way or another, when they really need to communicate with us, they figure out how.

The whole lot of them rank higher than we do: the human race is in charge of the Earth, but they’re in charge of us (and everything else). God out-ranks everyone, of course – He[3] created everything, including them and us, and although the whole thing sure looks like a mess to us it doesn’t look that way to Him – or to them either, I guess. God is the ultimate creator, communicator, executive, and enforcer, and He has more consciousness than all the rest of us combined.

“Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over a house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists. For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.”[4]

Of course, God is busy, which is why He has all these underlings. They’re arranged in a hierarchy – it just makes sense that they would be – and range from great big scary powerful cosmic superheroes who get to make great big scary visitations and announcements and cause all kinds of great big scary events, all the way down to petty bureaucrats, drones, and proles just doing their dull but necessary jobs (but even they outrank us in the grand cosmic scheme).

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence: if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”[5]

These conscious beings from over there sometimes pick a human or a whole tribe of humans to mediate Truth to the rest of us. Those people get a special supernatural security clearance, and we give their key personnel special titles like prophet and priest.

So far so good, but even Truth – also known as Heaven – has its internal power struggles. There’s a war over there between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons, and other kinds of beings in the high places, and some of it spills over into reality on our side of the divide. We therefore need to be careful about which of our experts are authentic and which aren’t, who they’re really serving and who they aren’t. The stakes are high, and if we’re wrong we’re going to pay with a lot of pain and suffering, both in this life and forever when we go through death’s one-way door.

And just to make things more complicated, these other-worldly beings sometimes use human experts as their agents, and they can be undercover. Plus, to make things impossibly, incomprehensibly complicated for our by now totally overtaxed souls, God and the other good guys sometimes take a turn at being deceptive themselves. The Cosmic Screenwriter apparently thought of everything in a bid to make our predicament as over-the-top bad as possible. In fact, some of what’s going on behind the scenes, taken right out of the Bible, would make a modern fantasy series blush with inadequacy – for example the part about the war in high places[6]:

“Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith…. Some details might vary, but not the basic story.

“Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels…

“The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. .. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph.

“For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God.

“In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

Okay then.

But despite all this vast, elaborate cosmic tangle, over there mostly keeps its own counsel about it all, while still not letting us off the hook. And, although it’s tempting, I won’t even get into all the subterfuge and confusion and (over here, at least) just plain stupidity about when the whole mess is going to resolve into that final day when “God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

And On It Goes (And it went on way too long already, but I wanted to make a point.)

Western culture has been living with all that for over two millennia. A couple hundred years ago, in a time we call “The Great Enlightenment,” some thinkers started trying to convince us that enough is enough, maybe we ought to try out a different cosmology and worldview, based on rational thought and not just fantasy and belief. There’ve been some takers, but overall the Great Endarkenment has rolled on. I’m not as old as Yoda, but I’ve personally seen, heard, and lived all of it. A whole bunch people in the States still do, and not all of them live in Texas.

The cosmology and worldview I just reviewed are complicated, fanciful, stressful, and impose impossible demands on that impaired soul seeing it all through a glass darkly. No wonder belief systems – both secular and religious – devolve into take-it-or-leave-it fundamentalism, where questioning is punished by both God and man, and you can delegate your cosmic responsibilities to the demigods in charge. Fundamentalism dispatches our impossible obligations and blinds us to what the Bible itself says is the final outcome of all our believing: The Big Fail.

The Big Fail

We really should have seen it coming – the Bible lays out the ultimate terms of what it means to believe all of this in brutally unmistakable terms. At the end of a much-quoted and much-beloved recitation of faith heroes, the Epistle to the Hebrews provides this summary of what it means to be your highest and best self:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

That’s how it ends: total failure — all promises broken, all expectations dashed, all frauds revealed … after it’s way too late for any remedy.

Can We Find a Better Way?

Yes, I am aware that there’s one last phrase in that passage:

“…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[8]

What precisely is that “something better”? I’m clueless, but all the obvious difficulties don’t stop at least one thinker[9] from trying to preserve the value of the soul as our highest and best self, even if modern neuroscience has finally ended its sufferings. The key, he says, is to reinvent the soul to make it relevant to modernity:

“What is the point of gaining the whole world if you lose your soul? Today, far fewer people are likely to catch the scriptural echoes of this question than would have been the case 50 years ago. But the question retains its urgency. We might not quite know what we mean by the soul any more, but intuitively we grasp what is meant by the loss in question – the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips from sight, and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.

“It used to be thought that science and technology would gain us the world. But it now looks as though they are allowing us to destroy it. The fault lies not with scientific knowledge itself, which is among humanity’s finest achievements, but with our greed and short-sightedness in exploiting that knowledge. There’s a real danger we might end up with the worst of all possible scenarios – we’ve lost the world, and lost our souls as well.

“But what is the soul? The modern scientific impulse is to dispense with supposedly occult or ‘spooky’ notions such as souls and spirits, and to understand ourselves instead as wholly and completely part of the natural world, existing and operating through the same physical, chemical and biological processes that we find anywhere else in the environment.

“We need not deny the value of the scientific perspective. But there are many aspects of human experience that cannot adequately be captured in the impersonal, quantitatively based terminology of scientific enquiry. The concept of the soul might not be part of the language of science; but we immediately recognise and respond to what is meant in poetry, novels and ordinary speech, when the term ‘soul’ is used in that it alerts us to certain powerful and transformative experiences that give meaning to our lives.

“Such precious experiences depend on certain characteristic human sensibilities that we would not wish to lose at any price. In using the term ‘soul’ to refer to them, we don’t have to think of ourselves as ghostly immaterial substances. We can think of ‘soul’ as referring, instead, to a set of attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness – that might depend on the biological processes that underpin them, and yet enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“Entering this world requires distinctively human qualities of thought and rationality. But we’re not abstract intellects, detached from the physical world, contemplating it and manipulating it from a distance. To realise what makes us most fully human, we need to pay attention to the richness and depth of the emotional responses that connect us to the world. Bringing our emotional lives into harmony with our rationally chosen goals and projects is a vital part of the healing and integration of the human soul.”

Full Acceptance

It seems honorable that someone would attempt this kind of synthesis, but I personally don’t see anything worth salvaging. Instead, I think this might be a good time to acknowledge something that Christianity’s troublesome cosmology and worldview have dismissed all along: human nature. In that regard, I find the following thoughts from a writer I particularly admire[10] to be bracingly clarifying, and in that, hopeful

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. .. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of conscientiousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others. [citing Gray, Straw Dogs]

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

We are not going to “conquer our humanness” by continuing our fundamentalist allegiance to a complicated, stressful, and self-negating cosmology and worldview. How about if instead we try full acceptance of our conflicted and flawed humanity, where we find not grandiose visions but simple hope for our small todays?

[1] I also believe there is an independent reality that is more than my brain’s construction of it. Not everyone thinks so. Maybe more on that another time.

[2] Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012)

[3] We get that theoretically God, as a spiritual being, probably wouldn’t have a gender, but we’re generally more comfortable giving him the male pronouns.

[4] Graziano, Michael S. A., Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013)

[5] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

[6] Hart, David Bentley, Everything You Know About The Gospel Of Paul Is Likely Wrong, Aeon (Jan. 8, 2018). David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator, who recently published a translation of The New Testament (2017).

[7] Hebrews 11: 35-39.

[8] Hebrews 11: 40.

[9] Cottingham, John, What is the soul if not a better version of ourselves? Aeon (Mar. 11, 2020). John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading, professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Roehampton, London, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford University.

[10] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

 

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).

How Impossible Becomes Possible

active nerve cell in human neural system

network

Scientific materialism explains a lot about how the brain creates consciousness, but hasn’t yet fully accounted for subjective awareness. As a result, the “hard problem” of consciousness remains unsolved, and we’re alternately urged to either concede that the human brain just isn’t ready to figure itself out, or conclude that reality is ultimately determined subjectively.

Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor Michael S. A. Graziano isn’t ready to do either. He thinks the “hard problem” label is itself the problem, because it cuts off further inquiry:

“Many thinkers are pessimistic about ever finding an explanation of consciousness. The philosopher Chalmers in 1995, put it in a way that has become particularly popular. He suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems. One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What it meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable. Again, calling it the hard problem is a euphemism, it is the impossible problem.

“The hard-problem view has a pinch of defeatism in it. I suspect that for some people it also has a pinch of religiosity. It is a keep-your-scientific-hands-off-my-mystery perspective. In the hard problem view, rather than try to explain consciousness, we should marvel at its insolubility. We have no choice but to accept it as a mystery.

“One conceptual difficulty with the hard-problem view is that it argues against any explanation of consciousness without knowing what explanations might arise. It is difficult to make a cogent argument against the unknown. Perhaps an explanation exists such that, once we see what it is, once we understand it, we will find that it makes sense and accounts for consciousness.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. by Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

I.e., if science is going to explain consciousness, it needs to reframe its inquiry, so that what is now an “impossible,” “scientifically unapproachable” problem becomes a “technically possible problem” that can be solved “given a lot of scientific work.”

Technology and innovation writer Steven Johnson describes how he thinks the impossible becomes possible in Where Good Ideas Come From — available as a TED talk. book, and animated whiteboard drawing piece on YouTube. In his TED talk, he contrasted popular subjective notions with what neuroscience has discovered about how the brain actually works:

“[We] have to do away with a lot of the way in which our conventional metaphors and language steer us towards certain concepts of idea-creation. We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration. We have … the flash of insight, the stroke of insight, we have epiphanies, we have ‘eureka!’ moments, we have the lightbulb moments… All of these concepts, as kind of rhetorically florid as they are, share this basic assumption, which is that an idea is a single thing, it’s something that happens often in a wonderful illuminating moment.

“But in fact, what I would argue is … that an idea is a network on the most elemental level. I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is, how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

Johnson expands on the work of biologist and complex systems researcher Stuart Kauffman, who dubbed this idea the “adjacent possibility.” Adjacent possibility is where the brain’s neural networks (top picture above) meet data networks (the bottom picture):  neither is a static, closed environment; both are dynamic, constantly shifting and re-organizing, with each node representing a new point from which the network can expand. Thus the shift from unknown to known is always a next step away:

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Vittorio Loreto and his colleagues at Sapienza University of Rome turned adjacent possibility into a mathematical model which they then submitted to objective, empirical, real world testing. As he said in his TED talk:

“Experiencing the new means exploring a very peculiar space, the space of what could be, the space of the possible, the space of possibilities.

“We conceived our mathematical formulation for the adjacent possible, 20 years after the original Kauffman proposals.

“We had to work out this theory, and we came up with a certain number of predictions to be tested in real life.”

Their test results suggest that adjacent possibility is good science — that impossible doesn’t step out of the ether, it waits at the edge of expanding neural networks, ready to become possible.[1] As Steven Johnson said above, that’s a far cry from our popular romantic notions of revelations, big ideas, and flashes of brilliance. We look more at those next time.

[1] For a nerdier version, see this Wired piece: The ‘Adjacent Possible’ of Big Data: What Evolution Teaches About Insights Generation.

So Consciousness Has a Hard Problem… Now What?

god helmet

We’ve been looking at the “hard problem” of consciousness:

  • Neuroscience can identify the brain circuits that create the elements of consciousness and otherwise parse out how “the meat thinks,” but it can’t quite get its discoveries all the way around the mysteries of subjective experience.
  • That’s a problem because we’re used to thinking along Descartes’ dualistic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is objective, empirical, and invites disproving, and belief-based conviction, which is subjective, can’t be tested and doesn’t want to be.
  • What’s worse, science’s recent work in quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has blurred those dualistic lines by exposing the primacy of subjectivity even in scientific inquiry.
  • All of which frustrates our evolutionary survival need to know how the world really works.[1]

Some people are ready to declare that subjective belief wins, and science will just have to get over it. That’s what happened with the “God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article), Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the helmet for use in neuro-religious research:

“This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. ‘If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,’ [says Dr. Persinger].” [3]

The God Helmet creates subjective experiences shared among various religions, such as sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. Since all of these states have been either measured or induced in the laboratory, you’d think that might dampen allegiance to the belief that they are God-given, but not so. Instead, when the God Helmet was tested on a group of meditating nuns, their conclusion was, how wonderful that God equipped the brain in that way, so he could communicate with us. Similarly,

 “Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science. Aeon Magazine (Oct. 9, 2013)

If we’re not willing to concede the primacy of subjectivity, then what? Well, we could give up on the idea that the human race is equipped to figure out everything it would really like to know.

 “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (1997)

Evolutionary biologist David Barash attributes our inability to the vastly different pace of biological evolution (what the operative biology of our brains can process) vs. cultural evolution (what we keep learning and inventing and hypothesizing about). Trouble is, the latter moves way too fast for the former to keep up.

“On the one hand, there is our biological evolution, a relatively slow-moving organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and that nearly always requires an enormous number of generations for any appreciable effect to arise.

“On the other hand is cultural evolution, a process that is, by contrast, extraordinary in its speed.

“Whereas biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes, cultural evolution is … powered by a nongenetic ‘inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become almost entirely independent of any biological moorings.

“We are, via our cultural evolution, in over our biological heads.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, David P. Barash (2018)

Give in to subjectivity, or just give up…. We’ll look at another option next time.

[1] The study of how we know things is Epistemology.

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

Zombies and the Consciousness Hard Problem

              night of the living dead                   Walking Dead

                      Poster from the 1968 movie     https://comicbook.com/thewalkingdead

Philosophers and psychologists call human traits like feelings, conscience, and self- awareness “qualia,” and believe that, if zombies can lack them but still look and act like us (on a really bad day), then locating consciousness entirely in human biology (“physicalism”) can’t be right.

“Physicalism allows us to imagine a world without consciousness, a ‘Zombie world’ that looks exactly like our own, peopled with beings who act exactly like us but aren’t conscious. Such Zombies have no feelings, emotions or subjective experience; they live lives without qualia. As [philosopher David Chalmers][1] has noted, there is literally nothing it is like to be Zombie. And if Zombies can exist in the physicalist account of the world, then, according to Chalmers, that account can’t be a complete description of our world, where feelings do  exist: something more is needed, beyond the laws of nature, to account for conscious subjective experience.”

I Feel Therefore I Am, Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

To physicalists, says the article, “those are fighting words, and some scientists are fighting back”:

“In the frontline are the neuroscientists who, with increasing frequency, are proposing theories for how subjective experience might emerge from a matrix of neurons and brain chemistry. A slew of books over the past two decades have proffered solutions to the ‘problem’ of consciousness. Among the best known are Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach (2004); Giulio Tononi and Gerald Edelman’s A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (2000); Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness (1999); and the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s bluntly titled Consciousness Explained (1991).”

Of particular interest in that battery of academic firepower is Daniel Dennett, who has a unique take on Zombies and the consciousness “hard problem”:

“Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness.

“Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat. Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on.

“To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with.

“This is the point at which the debate tends to collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking: neither camp can quite believe what the other is saying. To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. (Chalmers has speculated, largely in jest, that Dennett himself might be a Zombie.)

“More than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away  Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do… However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

Zombies also appear in another current scientific inquiry:  whether artificially intelligent machines can be conscious. “Who’s to say machines don’t already have minds?” asks this article.[2] If they do, then “we need a better way to define and test for consciousness,” but formulating one means you “still face what you might call the Zombie problem.” (Oh great — so a machine could be a Zombie, too, as if there weren’t already enough of them already.)

Suppose you create a test to detect human qualia in machines, and weed out the Zombies, but who’s going to believe it if it comes back positive?

“Suppose a test finds that a thermostat is conscious. If you’re inclined to think a thermostat is conscious, you will feel vindicated. If sentient thermostats strike you as silly, you will reject the verdict. In that case, why bother conducting the test at all?”

Consciousness Creep

And if conscious thermostats aren’t enough to make you “collapse into incredulous laughter and head-shaking,” then how about finding consciousness in … insects? Turns out, they, too, have a Zombie problem, according to this article, co-written by a biologist and a philosopher.[3]

What happened to science that it’s tackling these issues, and with a straight face? I promised last time we’d look into that. We’ll do that next.

[1] As we saw last time, David Chalmers defined the “easy” and “hard” problems of consciousness.

[2] Consciousness Creep:  Our machines could become self-aware without our knowing it. Aeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

[3] Bee-Brained;  Are Insects ‘Philosophical Zombies’ With No Inner Life? Close attention to their behaviours and moods suggests otherwise, Aeon Magazine (Sept. 27, 2018)

The Greatest Unsolved Mystery

sherlock holmes

Academic disciplines take turns being more or less in the public eye — although, as we saw a couple posts back, metaphysicians think their discipline ought to be the perennial front runner. After all, it’s about figuring out the real nature of things”[1] and what could be more important than that?

Figuring out the human mind that’s doing the figuring, that’s what![2] Thus neuroscience’s quest to understand human consciousness finds itself at the front of the line as the greatest unsolved scientific mystery of our time.

“Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, [David] Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today.

“I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem [of consciousness], the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science, Aeon Magazine Oct. 9, 2013

“Hard problem” is a term of art in the consciousness quest:

“The philosopher [David] Chalmers … suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems.

“One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What is meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

Solving the “easy” problem requires objective, empirical inquiry into how our brains are organized and wired, what brain areas and neural circuits process which kinds of experience, how they all share relevant information, etc. Armed with MRIs and other technologies, neuroscience has made great progress on all that. What it can’t seem to get its instruments around is the personal and  private subjection interpretation of the brain’s objective processing of experience.

“First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer.”

I Feel Therefore I Am  Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

Neuroscience does objective just fine, but meets its match with subjective.

“The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table. Another, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, declared in 1989 that ‘nothing worth reading has been written on it’.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Recently though, neuroscience has unleashed new urgency on the hard problem:

“For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

“A triple barrage of neuroscientific, computational and evolutionary artillery promises to reduce the hard problem to a pile of rubble. Today’s consciousness jockeys talk of p‑zombies and Global Workspace Theory, mirror neurons, ego tunnels, and attention schemata. They bow before that deus ex machina of brain science, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Impressive, but are they making progress? Not so much.

“Their work is frequently very impressive and it explains a lot. All the same, it is reasonable to doubt whether it can ever hope to land a blow on the hard problem.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

The quest to map and measure the “personalized feeling level” of consciousness has taken researchers to some odd places indeed — as we saw in the video featured last time. Zombies also feature prominently:

“All those tests still face what you might call the zombie problem. How do you know your uncle, let alone your computer, isn’t a pod person – a zombie in the philosophical sense, going through the motions but lacking an internal life? He could look, act, and talk like your uncle, but have no experience of being your uncle. None of us can ever enter another mind, so we can never really know whether anyone’s home.”

Consciousness CreepAeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

More about Zombies and other consciousness conundrums coming up, along with a look at what made consciousness shoot to the top of the unsolved scientific mysteries pile.

[1] Encyclopedia Briitanica

[2] We’ll see later in this series what made illuminating the human mind so critical to science in general, not just neuroscience in particular.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [9]:  Reckoning With Mystery

pontius pilate

“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate
John 18:38 (NIV)

On the science side of Cartesian dualism, truth must be falsifiable — we have to be able to prove it’s untrue. On the religious side, to falsify is to doubt, doubt becomes heresy, and heresy meets the bad end it deserves.

Neither side likes mystery, because both are trying to satisfy a more primal need:  to know, explain, and be right. It’s a survival skill:  we need to be right about a lot of things to stay alive, and there’s nothing more primal to a mortal being than staying alive. Mystery is nice if you’ve got the time, but at some point it won’t help you eat and avoid being eaten.

Science tackles mysteries with experiments and theories, religion with doctrine and ritual. Both try to nail their truth down to every “jot and tittle,” while mystery bides its time, aloof and unimpressed.

I once heard a street preacher offer his rationale for the existence of God. “Think about how big the universe is,” he said, “It’s too big for me to understand. There has to be a God behind it.” That’s God explained on a street corner:  “I don’t get it, so there has be a higher up who does. His name is God.” The preacher’s God has the expansive consciousness we lack, and if we don’t always understand, that’s part of the deal:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

Compare that to a cognitive neuroscientist’s take on our ability to perceive reality, as explained in this video.

“Many scientists believe that natural selection brought our perception of reality into clearer and deeper focus, reasoning that growing more attuned to the outside world gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations. In this interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, Hoffman explains why he believes that perception must necessarily hide reality for conscious agents to survive and reproduce. With that view serving as a springboard, the wide-ranging discussion also touches on Hoffman’s consciousness-centric framework for reality, and its potential implications for our everyday lives.”

The video is 40 minutes long, but a few minutes will suffice to make today/s point. Prof. Hoffman admits his theory is counterintuitive and bizarre, but promises he’s still working on it (moving it toward falsifiability). I personally favor scientific materialism’s explanation of consciousness, and I actually get the theory behind Prof. Hoffman’s ideas, but when I watch this I can’t help but think its’s amazing how far science and religion will go to define their versions of how things work. That’s why I quit trying to read philosophy:  all that meticulous logic trying to block all exits and close all loopholes, but sooner or later some mystery leaks out a seam, and when it does the whole thing seems overwrought and silly.

The street preacher thinks reality is out there, and we’re given enough brain to both get by and know when to quit trying and trust a higher intelligence that has it all figured out. The scientist starts in here, with the brain (“the meat that thinks”), then tries to describe how it creates a useful enough version of reality to help us get by in the external world.

The preacher likes the eternal human soul; the scientist goes for the bio-neuro-cultural construction we call the self. Positions established, each side takes and receives metaphysical potshots from the other. For example, when science clamors after the non-falsifiable multiverse theory of quantum physics, the intelligent designers gleefully point out that the so-called scientists are leapers of faith just like them:

“Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

“And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

And so it goes. But what would be so wrong with letting mystery stay… well, um… mysterious?

We’ll look at that next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [5]: Looking For the Self in the Brain

My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again?
My city’s in ruins,
My city’s in ruins.

Bruce Springsteen

Neuroscience looks for the soul in the brain and can’t find it. What it finds instead are the elements of consciousness — sensory perception, language, cognition, memory,  etc. — in various neural networks and regions of the brain, and those diverse networks collaborating to generate a composite conscious experience. Meanwhile, the master network — the one that is equivalent to conventional notions of the soul or self — remains elusive.

Prof. Bruce Hood lays out the progression from conventional belief in a separate self to the current brain network theory:

“Psychologist Susan Blackmore makes the point that the word “illusion” does not mean that it does not exist — rather an illusion is not what it seems. We all certainly experience some form of self, but what we experience is a powerful deception generated by our brains for our own benefit.

“Understanding that the self could be an illusion is really difficult… Our self seems so convincing, so real to us. But then again, many aspects of our experience are not what they seem.

“In challenging what is the self, what most people think is the self must first be considered. If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individual inside bodies is sometimes called the ‘ego theory,’ although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’

“In contrast to this ego view, there is an alternative version of the self, based on the ‘bundle theory’ after the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume… He tried to describe his inner self and thought that there was no single entity, but rather bundles of sensations, perceptions and thoughts piled on top of each other. He concluded that the self emerged out of the bundling together of these experiences.

“If the self is the sum of our thoughts and actions, then the first inescapable fact is that these depend on brains. Thoughts and actions are not exclusively the brain because we are always thinking about and acting upon things in the world with our bodies, but the brain is primarily responsible for coordinating these activities. In effect, we are our brains or at least, the brain is the most critical body part when it comes to who we are.

“There is no center in the brain where the self is constructed. The brain has many distributed jobs. It processes incoming information from the external world into meaningful patterns that are interpreted and stored for future reference. It generates different levels and types of motivations that are the human drives, emotions, and feelings. It produces all sorts of behavior — some of them automatic while other are acquired thought skill, practice, and sheer effort.

“The sense of self that most of us experience is not to be found in any one area. Rather it emerges out of the orchestra of different brain processes.”

The Self Illusion:  How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano uses an “attention schema theory” to describe this collaboration of neural networks. “The heart of the theory is that awareness is a schematized, descriptive model of attention,” he says, and expands as follows:

“In the present theory, the content of consciousness, the stuff in the conscious mind, is distributed over a large set of brain areas, areas that encode vision, emotion, language, action plans, and so on. The full set of information that is present in consciousness at any one time has been called the ‘global workspace.’ In the present theory, the global workspace spans many diverse areas of the brain. But the specific property of awareness, the essence of awareness added to the global workspace, is constructed by an expert system in a limited part of the brain…. The computed property of awareness can be bound to the larger whole… One could think of awareness as information.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013)

To those who hold fast to the common belief (as most people do) that the soul is something transcendent, noble, unique, special, poetic, and divine, referring to consciousness and the self as “global workspace” and calling awareness “information” lacks a little something. But is that any reason to reject the bundle theory as untrue?

Meanwhile, Prof. Graziano admits that “the attention schema theory does not even seek to answer the question of existential reality but instead tries to describe what is constructed by the brain.” And besides, is science really after truth anyway?

We’ll look at those questions next time.