The reliability of the senses, perception, and memory has long been the subject of debate. A great many thinkers have weighed in with their opinions on these essential functions of the brain. Science is currently expending enormous effort in making experimental assessments. A lot is at stake. It is vital that we know just how far we can trust our innate abilities to collect information about the world around us. We need to know how well we convert sensory data into basic concepts (tree, rock, person, and so on). We must also have some idea of how well we remember those reflexive perceptions once we have formed them.
UFO or cloud? It is foolish to be uncritical of your own experiences; you must make them a matter of conscience and knowledge. How you choose to interpret and remember the experience does matter.
The strong presence of science in the debate has prompted some taking of sides. For example, American science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe (of whom I am an enormous fan) believes that rejecting the memory of a personal experience because it violates the Western scientific paradigm constitutes self-distortion, a bending of sensory input to make it conform to a preconceived notion. He is expressing an increasingly popular attitude.
This position is incorrect. The issue here is not sensory input but the secondary process of perception. That is to say, what is in question is what we (or our minds) do with the sensory input. Here are some examples of experiences that many want to believe in, but science will not accept: seeing a ghost, seeing a UFO, experiencing or witnessing a miracle. Anyone who genuinely believes they have had an experience like these has converted sensory data into perceptions or concepts that violate the Western scientific paradigm. The debate is not over the sensory data itself but over the interpretation of the data. Science insists that an interpretation of an experience must be verified, not just asserted, before it is considered legitimate. It must be repeatable within that verified interpretation and not just a bizarre vehemently proclaimed one-off. A collection of asserted unverified one-offs, as in the case with UFO “sightings,” does not constitute repeatability.
In fact, the person who insists on interpreting various visual phenomena as ghosts or UFOs is guilty of bending their sensory input to fit a preconceived notion – the very crime that the attitude Wolfe is defending wants to pin on the Western scientific paradigm.
Applying the scientific paradigm to a questionable experience does not involve bending sensory input, rejecting a memory, or self-distortion. It means applying a corrective. Comparing subjective experience with a reputable objective paradigm filters out junk and helps maintain a sane, rational recollection of your life and its experiences, thereby promoting sane and rational behaviour in the here and now. Failure to do this allows the accumulation of errors and misconceptions, a situation that, over time, may impair your ability to deal with reality.
There is a tremendous advantage in vetting your “experiences” by recourse to the scientific paradigm. Consider the colonial whites who could walk with impunity in the African dark while the natives cowered in their huts, terrified to set foot outside for fear they would encounter the spirits of the dead.
16 thoughts on “Filter the Junk from Your Experience”
I think it’s justifiable to accept a non-provable experience as valid for yourself, as long as you don’t insist that it’s literally true.
You make a valid point, as usual, Catana.
You sum up the rationalist position brilliantly, as ever, Thomas.
Thanks, Lucinda. I truly believe there is a big benefit in steering clear of questionable interpretations of strange occurrences. Working out how the world really works requires a sound footing on which to build your understanding. If you do not have that solid foundation, everything eventually falls down.
The flaw in the argument comes when you point out that:
“Science insists that an interpretation of an experience must be verified, not just asserted, before it is considered legitimate. It must be repeatable within that verified interpretation”
Underneath the claim that only things that can be shown to be repeatable are true, or ‘legitimate’ lies a massive assumption about how the universe works. Although to the modern mind this seems like common sense, that does not mean it is true. Whether or not it is true is impossible to prove. Like so much of science there is an inductive argument lurking somewhere behind the deductive one.
Not that I believe in UFOs mind you, and there is obviously huge scope to fool ourselves about all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. IMO one of the ways we fool ourselves in believing is that a single set of tools, a single vantage point, is sufficient to make sense of existence which is still, for all our cleverness, very much a mystery.
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Marcus. The case you make is often offered to justify the various kinds of spiritual mysticism, personal subjectivity, and, as in your case, the nebulous “broad- or open-mindedness” that sees itself as being somehow superior to the “narrow” or “limited” outlook of science. I believe human beings are irrevocably subjective in their dealings with the world so I am not opposed to personal interpretations and opinions — where there is room to maneuver – and several of my posts deal with this difficult aspect of the human condition. (If you are interested, blog search individual subjectivity to bring up a list.)
We must approach the relationship between science and subjectivity from both an external and an internal perspective.
Externally (objectively), we must consider the obvious fact that, as yet, no one has developed an alternative to science when it comes to explaining the cosmos in ways that are actually of some use. In terms of utility, science has no peers. This ability to apply science (technology) is what justifies its claim to accuracy and truth. We then extrapolate: anything that (apparently) violates the known principles of science must therefore be inaccurate and untrue; i.e. it verifiably does not work. While few scientists would claim science has all the answers, we have no other way of objectively dealing with reality. Outside of science, all is subjective.
Internally (subjectively) we must consider the unconscious mind and its perpetual activity just below our threshold of conscious awareness. As I have noted in some of my posts ( The Guiding Hand of the Unconscious Mind, Cargo Cults of the Unconscious Mind, etc.), this situation leads to vague feelings of numinosity that inspire all kinds of mystical beliefs while intuitively lending them a solid feeling of validity. The solution is to recognize the situation and explore the unconscious – thereby “depotentiating” it, as the Jungians would say. For good or for ill, many of us love these mystical feelings and the notions they spawn, and are thus unwilling to explore the unconscious for fear we may indeed disperse them.
Thanks for your reply, I’ve had a look round the articles you suggested — interesting website!
I’d like to respond to some of the points you made, firstly to point out that your assumption that I believe that science is in some way inferior to other ways of knowing is incorrect. I am interest in science, I admire the work scientists do and I hold it in high esteem. Neither am I interested in taking literally mystical experiences in the form of visions or ephemeral feelings of holiness, or God, or UFOS. However I do feel that the scientific world-view is more limited than you allow, and that in certain contexts other ways of knowing have more value than you allow.
“This ability to apply science (technology) is what justifies its claim to accuracy and truth.”
That is fine so far as it goes, but there are other perspectives which bring more richness to that picture.
Firstly, the counterpoint to noticing how technology succeeds is noticing the accompanying limitations and failures. While it may do what we want at one level, it always has unintended consequences when applied on any significant scale in the real world. These are often contrary to the designers deeper wishes, and always beyond their abilities to predict or control. The result is an endless cycle of adjustment and compensation as each new iteration meets hard reality.
The point here is that scientific knowledge and technological control, though often successful, are also partial, and limited by all sorts of practical, theoretical, and even basic mathematical factors which cannot be sidestepped. All of which is fine, but makes a rather poor basis for a universal system of truth.
One explanation as to why technology so often falls short in its larger aims while succeeding magnificently in its more limited ones is that the scientific project is based on another unverifiable and essentially subjective assumption, which is that the universe is fully resolvable by reason, and is not inherently paradoxical.
There is absolutely no valid scientific or rational basis on which to claim this as fact. It is a hypothesis, and a pretty shaky one. If anything the tendency of important scientific discoveries to open up further questions to resolve rather than reaching a point of closure, indicates the opposite.
This is further illustrated by the fact that there are fields where the application of technological thinking doesn’t actually work very well at all. For example trying to apply scientific methodology to human beings on any significant scale (aka social engineering) is almost always a dismal failure. I am suspicious about claims for the universality of a method which fails so completely to work when applied in such important spheres of human experience.
Besides this, any claim of ultimate truth for science is undermined by the fact that it is constantly evolving. It is not fixed, new discoveries are constantly being made, causing old ones to be modified, discarded, or re-framed. This process has been going on for hundreds of years, and shows no sign of stopping. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it makes a strange basis for a claim of *fixed* truth and accuracy. And if one cannot claim *fixed* truth and accuracy, then science starts to look more like one among a number of ways of knowing. A very successful way, certainly the most practically useful, but whether or not it is the best way depends, perhaps, on what it is we wish to know.
There are many questions which science simply doesn’t have that much to say about. How do we treat each other as human beings? What do we wish to do with our lives and why? These questions cannot be answered by the scientific method, and answering them can only draw on scientific knowledge to a limited degree. They cannot be adequately dealt with without drawing heavily on subjective sources of understanding. Which, if nothing else, is a good reason for treating those sources of understanding, subjective or not, with a healthy level of respect. After all, these are the sort of questions that most people find most important in their lives. They are also, incidentally, the questions which underpin the existence, direction and success of the scientific project.
Leaving all that aside, science has no explanation for the most fundamental and basic aspect of our experience, which is the fact that we *do* experience. There is no remotely convincing explanation in science for the existence of awareness and qualia. Brain science can’t begin to explain them. Scanning the brain in operation does not shed any light at all on the assumption that one particular arrangement of electro-chemical events leads to such phenomena, while another one, similar in every major respect, does not. There are theories, but no one is remotely in a position to claim they know what makes us aware, or even that they have a decent handle on the question. The fact that science is not able to cast any significant light on the one thing without which the question, the questioner, and science itself, could not exist, is a pretty significant hole in any explanation of existence that wishes to claim universality.
Anyway, to come to your point regarding ‘mystical’ experience (horrible term!), it seems to me that you are conflating different phenomenon. I am sure you are right when you say that some of those ‘mystical’ or numinous experiences people have may be nothing more than the workings of the unconscious and that, through lack of understanding, they seem mysterious, and hence special and precious. However there are other types of supra-rational experience which are very different to this.
For example, there are those in which the experience is not of mystery, but of clarity — in which things which are not resolvable (or even expressible) in rational terms are seen clearly and resolved in relation to one another without the mediation of reason. The experience is not of mystery, or luminosity, or divinity, but of straightforward, though non-verbal, understanding.
If someone (irrationally) refuses to entertain the possibility that existence may not be able to fully and coherently explicated by rationality, then this sort of experience can only be dismissed as inherently un-meaningful. If on the other hand one sees the possibility that existence may not be able to be completely tied down and circumscribed by rationality, this leaves open the possibility of seeing glimpses of a different order of unity to that which is revealed by science; glimpses which, because of their non-rational, non-verbal nature, cannot be expressed adequately in words. Such experiences are partial and subjective, but (assuming an un-resolve-able and inherently paradoxical universe) that does not make them *untrue*.
As to what use these experiences are, one may as well ask what use it is to listen to a Bach Fugue, or to read a great and complex poem. Momentarily there is a deeper perception of the way things are, that goes beyond the rather limited mental landscape that rationality has constructed for itself — and this is enriching. Like loving someone, or dancing. To me that is reason enough.
Marcus, I am going to answer at length here because I believe you have raised some vitally important questions while laying out the idea that the non-rational alternatives to science may have some merit. At the risk of repeating myself later, I must state that science makes no claims of universality and is not wedded to the idea that everything must come from reason.
Let me first address the issue of the overall efficacy of science, which you seem to question because things do not always go well.
The scientific method put roots down in Europe during the 13th century. At that time, few people ever journeyed more than 10 miles from where they were born and transport depended on horses and the ox-drawn cart; this after many tens of thousands of years of human development. In just half a dozen centuries science wiped out smallpox, eliminated leprosy and famine in the western world, put men on the moon, raised the average human lifespan from 40 to 80 years, set global transportation networks in place, conjured up the personal computer and the Internet, and accomplished any number of other fabulous things. Yes, we have suffered some setbacks, but these come mostly from human errors in judgement and our general lack of foresight. Science, or rather the scientific method is not at fault here. Your intolerance for the “endless cycle of adjustment and compensation” is symptomatic of the widespread perfectionism and loss of vision so prevalent in the comfortable (because of science) West. There is nothing wrong with proceeding by trial and error. The benefits far outweigh the costs. Science does work it all out in the end, and this “we will get there eventually” aspect of science is why it really is a sound basis for the pursuit of ultimate truths. We just haven’t got there yet.
A couple of simple examples: Fur-hat makers once went mad from mercury poisoning. We now make hats safely. Canadian pulp and paper mills once unknowingly contaminated streams and rivers with mercury (thus poisoning nearby aboriginal peoples who lived heavily off the fish), but we have since cleaned this up. Fur-hats and paper were not lost because of our admittedly-tragic blunders. We do get to keep our advances. On a more dramatic scale, nuclear power will survive the horrors of Chernobyl and Fukushima. In future, reactors will be much safer and more efficient. Millions, and quite possibly billions, will benefit.
Your attempt to legitimize the notion of paradox is another popular idea of our increasingly non-rational times. This one is a classic example of the linguistic trap. It is entirely possible to verbally lay out paradoxical notions (“I am a human being; I can walk through walls”) or make simple paradoxical statements (“I always lie”), but in reality, paradoxes never occur (the mystics who infest particle physics notwithstanding). When we encounter a paradox, it means we have simplified the situation to the point where it no longer makes any sense. We have made a mistake. We have eliminated—or missed—the actual reasons why things turned out the way they did. Reverse course, find the missing data, add back the complexities and subtleties, and the so-called paradox will evaporate. Contrary to what you claim, the notion of a paradoxical cosmos (based entirely on hunch and language, and not on observation) is actually the wildly subjective assumption. Science, on the other hand, continues to work out one problem after another, and as you have pointed out, there is no reason to assume this process will end.
Let’s move on to your arguments about the failures of science when it comes to “social engineering” and the human condition. Here, it is important to distinguish between hard sciences (such as mathematics and physics) and soft sciences (like psychology and anthropology). Some aspects of the human experience are, by their very nature, more amenable to the scientific method than are others. This does not mean we cannot work things out. It does mean it will be much more difficult—and take much longer—than reaching a true understanding of more straightforward human activity. Remember that we cannot stage large studies where we split open people’s skulls and experiment with the brain inside, nor is it possible to track human behavior at intimate levels without raising howls of protest about the invasion of privacy. In other words, we cannot corral hordes of people and put them through their behavioural paces while closely observing the results.
Yet science is making progress on some immensely difficult fronts. My posts about creativity research reveal how far we have come in understanding what motivates the creative individual and how the once-mysterious creative process unfolds. Psychology has revealed the vital importance of associative or non-rational (as opposed to irrational) thinking. Chaos theory promises eventual understanding of how large complex systems function as a whole.
This brings me to your remarks about science being open-ended, subject to change, and therefore of dubious value as a source of “fixed” (I assume you mean “absolute”) truths. I have touched on this earlier and explained that this process of re-evaluation and correction is not a problem in the longer term. It is, in fact, a vital asset. Fixed ideas and systems are rigid and unchangeable. They are like a straight-jacket, designed to confine rather than liberate. Here I will add that science makes no claims of absolute truths except where experimental data and actual experience have laid all doubts and ambiguities to rest. Gravity exists; its effect really is inversely proportional to distance. All our space probes would fail if this were not true. Science’s “claim to fame” is not a set of universal truths, but a process—the scientific method—that has proven itself capable of generating increased understanding wherever it is applied.
The key realization here is that the number of things we know for sure is steadily growing. We are making scientific progress. No other way of seeing the cosmos can make any similar claim to forward movement or improved understanding. They can only offer “fixed” or so-called absolute concepts that either please or displease while doing little more than affecting how we feel. The taste for fixed or absolute ideas that explain everything or tell us what to do reveals a need for certainty that is unattainable in the real world.
How we treat each other as human beings moves us into the realm of ethics and morality and you claim science has little to say about these matters. How we wish to live our lives, and why, seems a largely non-scientific question to you. Yet science has indeed begun to explore these complex areas of human behaviour. Jung’s idea of emotionally-important ideas led to the discovery of emotional-cognitive structures in the brain. I spent years studying in this area and learned that our ethics and morals are laid down when we are small children as our genetically programmed behaviour interacts with the social milieu in which we are raised. Once established, these values remain with us throughout our lives (although they may be painfully submerged by conscious attempts to conform with a later milieu or present an idealized false self). Also ingested while we are children are a favoured set of feeling-tones or subtle moods. Creativity research has revealed the centrality of these feeling-tones in motivating creators to pursue their particular art or scientific field. The creator seeks (sometimes unconsciously) to recreate, or re-experience these “special” moods from the past. See my post, How Mood Activates Creative People.
I will mention that each person’s unique set of emotionally-important ideas, which contain their own personal authentic values, should be used as a guide in life. I write about this in my posts, The Constant Self Is Real, and Ego Must Vow Allegiance to the Self. Note that these personal values are indeed fixed. Note also that they are not universal. After all, we are not clones.
You are correct when you say that science cannot (yet) explain awareness in a full and comprehensive way; but consider my post, Fishing Language from the Sensory Deprivation Tank. The complete elimination of awareness when we remove sensory input reveals the mundane external origin of consciousness. No sensory input; no consciousness. Think about it. Our experience of consciousness may seem incredibly special to us, but it is clearly nothing more than an offshoot or side effect of the brain processing data from outside. Personally, I find this both intriguing and liberating. It means we may safely dismiss all vague mysticism and get on with the exciting task of searching out the mechanisms that explain the observed phenomenon. We will find the answers!
I believe the sense of clarity you describe may have two points of origin. One is that the feeling is merely an illusion (or even a delusion), like thinking you understand something in a dream only to wake up and find it was all just a mirage rather than an actuality. As I have noted, the unconscious is quite capable of providing the most extraordinarily powerful sense of rightness when a particular result is strongly desired (as I sense is the case with you, Marcus). This mental phenomenon is known as “anchoring.”
The sense of clarity may also arise from the making of non-rational associative connections. Creativity researchers have studied this fascinating aspect of brain function and findings have revealed a strong link between non-linear associative thinking and the creative process. That is, creative people use both linear rational thinking and non-linear associative thinking. The hallmark of the highly creative individual is the ability to blend skilfully the two modes of thought. See my posts, Synergistic Thinking, Janusian and Synergistic Thinking, and Androgynous Minds Produce Synergistic Thinking, among others, for more on this.
Science has both broadened and deepened in recent decades. It is not necessary to live exclusively within the confines of reason to be a believer in science and the scientific method.
I am enjoying this discussion and would like to continue, but in order to keep it to a manageable scope I suggest that, it it’s OK with you, we ditch those parts of it which are not central to what is being discussed, I suggest as follows:
Firstly, regarding the overall efficacy of technology: I share your admiration for what it has achieved, and appreciate the benefits that has brought me personally (though perhaps not those who have been sacrificed in the pursuit of it (they are many). However I don’t share your apparent optimism about how the continued pursuit of technological solutions in the context of a growing population and the decrease of easily available resources is likely to pan out over the next 50-100 years. However, reading your website I get the impression we are unlikely to ever agree over this, and since it is not central to the discussion I suggest we put it to one side and agree to disagree!
Secondly, the question of social engineering. I disagree with parts of what you are saying, but my disagreements hinges on some of the more fundamental points we are talking about, so again I would like to leave that, and perhaps come back to it later once the more fundamental questions have been explored further (assuming you want to continue the discussion).
Moving on. Regarding your comments on what I said about “the endless cycle of adjustment and compensation”: Just to clarify, I was pointing it out as a phenomenon, I wasn’t implying any personal intolerance or dislike of it. My argument was to do with the theoretical limitations of technology, it was not implying a critique of iterative processes. I am well aware of the sort of processes which necessarily lie behind any creative endeavour, scientific or otherwise. As a professional craftsman (and previously musician), trial and error is my bread and butter. I don’t have a problem, with it at all! The opposite in fact.
On a related point, when you write that: “Fixed ideas and systems are rigid and unchangeable. They are like a straight-jacket, designed to confine rather than liberate”, I can only say that I agree wholeheartedly. Again, in drawing attention to the evolving nature of science I was not expressing personal dislike of that aspect of it. The opposite is true — that is one of the things that I enjoy in science. I was merely pointing out that the fact that it is evolving calls into question claims that it is an ultimate arbiter of ‘truth’.
I should have been more specific. By ‘truth’ I was not talking about the specific truths of gravitation, or the laws of thermodynamics or what have you, which of course I accept as much as you do. I was referring to the epistemological question of which ways of knowing we believe have validity. I was arguing that the fact that science is open and evolving, and will (in my opinion) almost certainly never reach an end implies that it is fundamentally always incomplete. That is not a criticism, it is an observation. It can never provide a complete picture of reality and is always partial. That incompleteness means that it can never be a final arbiter of ‘how things are in a global sense’, because there will always be something beyond it. Again, to be clear, I don’t have a personal problem with that at all, and I don’t think that means that scientific discoveries do not have validity.
My sense of it is that science doesn’t substantially alter the ratio of what we know to what we don’t. We learn more, but that in turn throws up more questions. Through science, both what we know *and* what we don’t know increases. My point in relation to this is that science will always leave us with a partial picture or reality, which in turn leaves space which can only be filled (and in fact often *must* be filled) by other forms of knowing. And often these forms of knowing serve us perfectly well.
It is interesting (amusing, actually) to see how, as science gets more involved in researching in the social and artistic sphere, it tries to claim ownership and discovery of things that were in fact well known before. For example a lot of the things I have read on your website as being related to the latest research have actually been known for a very long time indeed — in fact have always been part of the tacit toolkit and worldview of people involved in serious creative work. An example is what you call ‘Synergistic thinking’ ie combining linear and non-linear ways of thinking. Obviously all humans do this as a matter of course, and any who are reasonably thoughtful and reflective will have noticed and be aware of it, though they may couch it in different terms.
‘Associative thinking’ is what poets have, perfectly consciously, been working with since before Homer, and very subtle and acute observations have been made about it over the centuries. In that respect science is not leading the way, it has an awful lot of catching up to do.
Similarly, the observation that a large part of the artistic quest is the attempt to express/share particularly valued ‘feeling tones’, is hardly earth-shattering news. Any artist who is at all thoughtful knows this perfectly well. I first noticed it in my late teens when I was struggling to express things at the piano. I was also at least partially aware, even then, as to the source of these feelings.
I think that the fundamental difference between our positions on consciousness and the mind (if I’m understanding you correctly) is that you believe that phenomena such as associative thinking (and consciousness itself) will one day be fully explainable in scientific terms, whereas I believe that the pursuit of this scientific explanation will one day come to reveal a fundamental limitation in the scientific project.
From my point of view, even to ask the question in those terms is to make a serious category error. But then I have noticed that people who (for whatever reason) have a very strong emotional need to believe that science will solve the consciousness conundrum, often tend to let go of their normally high standard of reasoning when discussing it. For example I would point out that your statement regarding the isolation tank “The complete elimination of awareness when we remove sensory input reveals the mundane external origin of consciousness.” is incorrect. All that is revealed by this experiment is that consciousness is *contingent* on sensory input. There is nothing at all in the experiment that proves *causality*.
The clarity that I described in my previous post is not the same as anchoring/focalism, neither is it an unconscious attempt to take refuge in familiar feeling tones. It is in fact to do with the opposite of that. It is neither linear, nor comparative, but a perception that is so direct and clear that it is simultaneously a spontaneous and intelligent response to that fact. And it is by the *response* that one knows it, not by a feeling tone.
There is a lot more I could say about this, but I am have to get on, so I will stop there.
I enjoy a good exchange of ideas myself, Marcus, so I am certainly willing to go a few more rounds. I agree that the scope of our discussion could indeed become unmanageable if we continue to debate all points raised so far. You commented at length so I responded in kind and quantity. This is, after all, a blog and I reply with an eye to the thousands who read posts here as much as for the occasional commenter. This post had a paucity of responses and needed some “beefing up.”
I do understand your position on science. I go on about science’s accomplishments merely to reinforce the reality that it is capable of getting verifiable useful results whereas all other “ways of knowing,” as you put it, contribute little beyond fostering fruitless (albeit entertaining) philosophical debate. Such amusements are all well and good, but not likely to enhance the survival potential of the human race. As for social engineering, I do not believe in it myself. My remarks aimed at outlining the considerable difficulties faced by scientific enquiry in this area.
I cannot let your comments about growing population and resource shortages go unchallenged. You are rehashing the outmoded ideas of visionless men like Thomas Malthus and remarkably short-sighted groups such as The Club of Rome. In reality, the world is a big empty (even though it may not seem so locally) and now faces an impending crisis of population collapse. (Why have kids when you can use contraceptives and spend on your selfish self all the time and money you save?)This will spark a resource glut and generally wreak economic havoc on a global scale. So deeply ingrained are your ideas in the leftist West that it is well-nigh impossible to explain what is really going on. Given the current obsession with environmentalism and ecosystems, let me put it this way: if, in order to survive, a species of birds needed to lay 2.1 eggs for every pair, but was only laying an average of 1.5 eggs per pair, what would you predict for the future of this species? Caucasians are so far down this foolish road that they will be effectively extinct in a few generations. With but a few exceptions, the rest of the world is hot on our tails. As one example here, consider that a fertility rate of 1.1 children per woman (now the situation over huge areas of Europe) means that each generation is only HALF as big as the previous one! Some other examples: Statisticians predict zero children will be born in Denmark by 2050; Russia’s population declines by 750,000 people each year; Japan’s population has been declining since 2007.
“After peaking seven years ago, at 128 million, Japan’s population has been falling — and is on a path to decline by about a million people a year. By 2060, the government estimates, there will be just 87 million people in Japan; nearly half of them will be over 65. Without a dramatic change in either the birthrate or its restrictive immigration policies, Japan simply won’t have enough workers to support its retirees, and will enter a demographic death spiral. Yet the babies aren’t coming.” — The Week “Everything you need to know about Japan’s population crisis,” January 11, 2014
Time to wake up, Marcus!
Okay, on to the things you do want to talk about. Your biggest problem with science seems to be your sense that it is somehow incomplete. You feel a need for more, for completeness, (the classic symptom of active unintegrated unconscious contents) and therefore choose to believe that mysterious other ways of knowing are required to round out the existential picture. Well — Now, I am going to get all shrinky on you Marcus. 🙂 Few people like this, so brace yourself. What you really need is to embark upon a journey of self-discovery and the integration of your troublesome unconscious contents. What you are looking for does not lie in some alternative way of knowing; it lies in knowing yourself. You are the great mystery. The incompleteness is within you. All those who believe there is something “beyond” are in the same psychological boat.
I speak from experience here. At midlife, I had a massive ego inflation followed by a complete nervous breakdown. I am a manic-depressive, after all, so I do things in a big way! My repressed unconscious took over and I became very “spiritual,” even mystical, in my outlook. I was also incredibly angry. Fortunately, the local mental health authorities spotted me and I wound up in therapy. As I learned and accepted more and more about who I really am (not pretty), and what I really wanted to do with my life (far different from what I had been doing) I found the need for spirituality in the traditional sense declined sharply. I became much more interested in the world as it actually is. Seeing the benefit, I studied Jung’s work and took an intellectual interest in the therapeutic process. I made the difficult journey of individuation and lost entirely both the sense of something lying “beyond” and the feeling that “there must be more to life than this.”
If you haven’t thrown your computer out the window, I will go on. 🙂
You say, “Through science, both what we know and what we don’t know increases.” This, like the notion of paradox, is a linguistic trap. What we do not know is x. Each time we learn something we get x-1. What increases is the visibility of what we do not know. Every discovery opens up new vistas on what remains as yet unknown. This can seem daunting, but knowledge has a way of linking together. Learn something key, and suddenly, all sorts of things fall into place and form a coherent picture. Furthermore, some things do not need to be explored at this time and can be safely ignored. Science is still in its childhood. Give it time to mature.
I cannot agree with your assessment of how well artists and other creators understand their own process. I have read more than 120 biographies of writers, poets, sculptors, and so on, (see my Goodreads page) and can say without hesitation that most of them have only a poor grasp of what underlies their creative process. The widespread phenomenon of writers’ block (or more generally, creators’ block) illustrates this rather well, as does the confusion and emotional turmoil seen so often in creators’ lives. In fact, many creators get into the arts in order to explore themselves more thoroughly through whatever medium they choose. Poets may use associative thinking extensively, but they talk about rhyme, metre, and the densely allusive prose called free verse. They wrestle with relevance, visual imagery, and verbal allusion. They do not ramble on about non-linear thinking, the unconscious mind, and how people process poetry at the “cognitive” level. Science has put all this on the table.
Nor is it true that ordinary people know perfectly well that they function with a combination of rational linear and associative non-linear thinking. Marcus, this is absurd. Most folks do not have a blanking clue. I certainly know I did not. My posts on synergistic thinking rival my most popular creativity posts when it comes to views. People are looking to learn about these things.
As for the currency of what I am saying about creativity: these ideas may not seem “new” to some younger folks because the basic principles were popularized in the mid-nineties. I’m 64, so this qualifies as recent in my book, and the research continues to hone and refine what has already been learned while expanding into further areas of inquiry. As a personal anecdote, I wrote (or struggled with) moody works for years before encountering these ideas, yet found the notion of recapturing a coveted feeling tone an eye-opening revelation. I recognized the truth only after I saw it on the page. The popularity of my creativity posts (some of which have clocked thousands of views) attests to the continuing freshness and power of these ideas.
(I see this is already getting rather lengthy so please do not feel you have to reply right away. A more leisurely pace would be advantageous to us both, I think.)
Before I wrap up, I will try to lay out the logic of why the sensory-deprivation-tank experiments prove that sensory input causes consciousness. You claim instead a situation based on contingency. For anything to be contingent upon some later phenomenon or event, it must pre-exist that phenomenon or event in a more-basic form—just waiting to fire up or swing into action at the appropriate moment. This raises an obvious difficulty: if consciousness is contingent upon sensory input, then what does it look like, or feel like, in that earlier state. The root of the problem here is that consciousness is not a thing; it is a process. To speak of contingency we must go back a step to what hosts conscious awareness; namely, the brain. Remove the physical brain and all possibility of the process we call consciousness is gone; it has no existence in and of itself.
Here I will draw on Darwin’s discoveries.
Where life is concerned, nothing comes into existence without a cause. (This concept of causality is at the very heart of the scientific worldview and the basis of its power.) The need for causality includes the brain and our sense organs. How do we know this? Because fish, scorpions, crabs, and spiders that have moved into, and then further evolved in, deep caves—where there is no light—eventually lose their eyes. Light is required to cause organs of sight to develop. It is even required to keep those eyes in place once they have evolved! No light; no eyes. Light is furthermore required to cause vision. No light; no vision. Think of it this way. We may say that the usefulness of a physical eye is contingent upon the presence of light, but we cannot say that vision is contingent upon light because there is no vision until light, by energizing nerves and neurons , causes the process to begin. Once evolved, the physical eye (and related brain structures) pre-exists the arrival of light; the process of vision does not.
Consciousness works in an entirely analogous way. The usefulness of the physical portions of the brain that host awareness are, just like the particular regions that host the various senses, contingent upon the presence of sensory input. But we cannot say that consciousness is contingent upon sensory input because there is no consciousness until sensory input, by energizing nerves and neurons, causes the process to begin. Once evolved, the physical brain pre-exists the arrival of sensory input; the process of consciousness does not.
Bon chance, Marcus!
Thanks for your reply Thomas, yes a slower pace is a good idea! This is another long one I’m afraid. This are so many interesting threads in this conversation that it’s hard to keep it in check. I’ve done my best!
Just to clarify a few things at the beginning, I want to reiterate again that I don’t have a problem with the incompleteness of science. I do not feel any sense of discomfort with the fact that there is more to discover, or any need for that to be otherwise.
Also, I do not experience a troublesome feeling that ‘there should be more to life than this’.
Your assumption that I have not already been on my own journey of self-discovery, including the exploration and integration of the unconsciousness is incorrect. Your personal experience is very interesting, but it doesn’t make you any kind of authority on the psychological and emotional states of others. You were ill and you got better. That’s good news, but so have many other people, and not all of them have come to the same conclusions as you in the process.
I don’t have a desire to throw my computer out of the window in response to what you wrote! I’m fairly robust, and can cope well enough with someone attempting to pathologize me on the basis of a short email exchange. I do think it’s a bit silly though.
Anyway, moving on:
Regarding the assessment of how well artists and writers understand their own creative process, I couldn’t find your list of good reads, so I don’t know whose biographies you have been reading. However, most of the ‘creative people’ throughout history have not really been ‘artists’ in the dramatic, romantic, sense of the word. The definition of an artist as a tormented, passionate individual was pretty much an invention of the romantic period, it wasn’t how such people were generally seen before that. Most people in creative jobs — architects, ‘functional’ artists, ‘functional’ musicians and writers etc. have needed to earn a crust and support a family in a hard world, and couldn’t afford the luxury of an ‘artistic temperament’. On the whole they were reasonably sensible, professional people, and didn’t have biographies written about them.
The notion there are two types of thinking really is very old indeed, and I’m surprised that as a philosopher you are not aware of this. The differentiation between reason and imagination (which in the past was a word of much richer meaning than it has now, more or less equating with the general concept of associative thinking) goes back to at least as far as Plato, and has been discussed ever since. Obviously the ideas have become more refined, but the basic acknowledgement of the existence of these two modes is fundamental both to art and philosophy. Anyone who is at all tuned in to Western culture should have come across it.
I would suggest that biographies are not the best place to gain an insight into a person’s creative process. That can best be gleaned from the work itself, and from studying things like artists’ letters and essays, where they discuss directly what they are doing. Yes, of course you will find plenty of obviously incorrect ideas, but you will also find a great deal of genuine understanding if you are willing to look with an open mind.
I’m tempted to ask whether you believe you are a greater artist than many of those whose creative process you are so keen to denigrate and dismiss (lets say Shakespeare, Milton and Bach!). And if not, why you think that those who you seem to consider so ignorant and un-self aware managed to produce such astonishingly good art. Do you really believe that art of that level is achievable without some insight into the process? Good art is not *just* about feeling tones (that’s an aspect of it) it is also an intelligent, informed and conscious exploration of ones subject, oneself and the world around one. That is the difference between great art and self-indulgent rubbish. If you really think that the great art of the past was produced without access to the sort of knowledge and insights you are talking about, perhaps it would make more sense for those seeking to produce work of a similar standard to ignore your advice and do whatever you think those people were doing. Because, I can assure you, their work was of a higher quality than yours. And of mine too.
By the way, I did not write that ‘ordinary people’ know perfectly well that they function with a combination of rational linear and associative non-linear thinking. I said that “those who are thoughtful and reflective will have noticed it”. I leave it to you to decide what proportion of the population that is, though it will certainly include many of those who work in creative fields, as this sort of work often attract that type of person.
Regarding the unconscious, the idea that there are unconscious processes in the human mind is at least as old as the Renaissance. I believe the first exponent of this idea was the physician and occultist Paracelsus. He has been a significant influence on many artists since then. It is widely acknowledged by critics that many of Shakespeare’s plays explore the role of the unconscious, and would have required some kind of understanding of unconscious processes in order to have been written. His psychological insight is one reason why his work is so revered. Freud’s work on the mind was foreshadowed by philosophers going as far back as Spinoza. Even Jung’s version of the theory, and his many insights into the relationship between it and creativity are getting on for a hundred years old, so we are hardly talking cutting-edge stuff here! By the way, In passing I would be intrigued to know your personal view of Jung. He was into some pretty woo-woo stuff if I recall correctly…..
I mentioned poets and poetry criticism as being a particularly fruitful place to look for insight into associative thinking because metaphor is the primary concern of poetry, and metaphor is obviously intimately related to this type of thought. In this regard, it is interesting to note that the term ‘unconscious mind’ was introduced into English (via Schelling) by the 18th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I agree though that the sorts of ideas you are discussing have been popularised recently, I expect because now more people have more time in which to pursue creative activities. The knowledge of the ‘elite’ of ‘creative people’ who were the once the only people who really needed it, is therefore now becoming much more widely known. This is, of course, a good thing.
Anyway, regarding our discussion about consciousness: In relation to the contingency issue you said:
“For anything to be contingent upon some later phenomenon or event, it must pre-exist that phenomenon or event in a more-basic form—just waiting to fire up or swing into action at the appropriate moment. This raises an obvious difficulty: if consciousness is contingent upon sensory input, then what does it look like, or feel like, in that earlier state.”
It is not a very serious difficulty! One answer is that it is entirely possible that in the sensory-deprivation chamber, when the thought process has stopped, there is some very low level of background consciousness (ie a background sense of presence, or being, without thought or image) which is simply not accessible to memory afterwards, because nothing was being recorded in memory. This basic background state could be what precedes full-blown *cognitive* consciousness.
The only reason we remember being conscious in the past is because we remember what happened, or what we thought or felt when we *were* conscious. An example is car accident victims who are conscious through the aftermath of an accident but then can’t remember any of it when they recover, because it is too traumatic. And yet they actually *were* conscious during that time.
It’s worth noting in this context that various mental states of ‘awareness of being’ without accompanying image or linear thought are in fact a well known and documented phenomenon. Many oriental mediation practices, for example, are designed to induce exactly this sort of state. I believe a certain amount of scientific research has been done on this, quite apart from centuries of non-empirical experience and documentation of this type of thing.
Your further argument about consciousness falls apart the moment you realise that you are begging the question. You give the answer to the question “what is the nature of consciousness” first (ie “it is a process”) and then base you subsequent argument on the assumption that your answer is true!
Just to be clear, I am not talking about consciousness as simply a synonym for thought (either linear or non-linear), which I agree is probably a physical process. I am talking of the sense of ‘being here’, of ‘experiencing’, and the related phenomenon of the experience of qualia. I think you have done what the adherents of scientism (as opposed to science) so often do when faced with what is actually a genuinely baffling conundrum — ie you have avoided the problem by ignoring it. Let me use an analogy to explain what I mean:
I read on your website that you consider the brain (and hence, in your view, consciousness) to be analogous to a computer. This is quite a popular viewpoint at the moment. I think one of the reasons is that computers are often experienced as almost ‘magical’ because their operation is completely invisible to the eye. A bit like the mind in fact. So it make the analogy easier to swallow.
Anyway, leaving aside the fact that the way the brain works is in fact not very much like a computer at all (in the sense of a Von Neumann machine or something similar), lets demystify the computer analogy by making the whole think more concrete. A computer consists, basically, of a series of interlinked switches, a clock and a program. Well lets imagine one built at the scale of Babbage’s mechanical difference engine. In this case the switches are mechanical rather than electronic, but the underlying principle is similar to the electronic version.
Some input is fed in, the switches respond, an output is produced, which the human operator observes. What is going on exactly? Things are moving according to Newtonian Physics. Switches open and close. Is this conscious? Not in the sense that I am, the metal is not ‘having an experience’, or a sense of ‘being’ like humans do. Metal components are moving, that’s all.
So let’s make it much bigger, maybe put in various other similar machines to feed back information to it (in an attempt to give it ‘self awareness’ perhaps). Let’s say that we are clever enough to implement some kind of (so called) artificial intelligence program whereby it can translate one language to another. We run the machine again. What is happening this time? Things are moving according to Newtonian physics. Switches open and close. Metal components are moving. The only difference is that the process is bigger, the output is different and more complex, but *qualitatively* it’s exactly the same sort of process.
Is this process conscious? Again, it is clearly not in the sense that I am, it is not ‘having an experience’. There is no sense of being a ‘thing’ in the world. it is just metal in movement. And you could extend that principle until the whole planet was covered in these mechanical switches and, no matter how complex, clever and evolved the program, no matter what was being achieved computationally, still all that would be happening is newtonian movement. Just metal moving according to the laws of classical mechanics. *Qualitatively* there is no difference at all between the smallest computer like this and the largest. There is some kind of mechanical computational process going on, but there is nothing having an experience in the way humans have an experience.
Furthermore, that process does not have any meaning at all until a conscious observer looks at it. Without a human observer it is just undifferentiated physical events. It is only the conscious observer that makes it meaningful. No matter how many extra steps and complexity you add to the process, it is still only the final step of adding an observer into the equation that allows the process that is happening to be experienced. So I posit that consciousness is not the physical process of thought, but the *observation* of that process. And I further suggest that neither you, I, or anyone else understands at present what that is. Just to be clear, I am not positing the existence of a ‘soul’ that is doing the watching.
Anyway, to finish off with something different, I just want to return briefly again to the central argument of your original article above. This is I think, roughly, that if one has an experience that does not fit in with the facts of science, then one should assume that the experience was an illusion. But this clearly doesn’t fit in with the way science evolves. For example, before quantum physics was developed, if someone had described to a scientist the operation of a quantum computer (they exist now, amazingly) then the scientist would have rejected this as impossible under the accepted facts of science at that time. But it is not impossible. The ‘old’ laws of science have not been broken, but their context has been so massively extended that what once seemed to break them is now seen to be possible. The pre-quantum-mechanics scientist would not have accepted that so many unexpected things could be added to science that something like a quantum computer would be consistent within its rules. You are acting exactly like that pre-quantum mechanics scientist, ie tacitly assuming that the science of your time is more-or-less the final version, and that there will be no more paradigm-shifting discoveries to re-write the context in which the rules we know are understood. I think that the passage of time will prove you wrong.
By the way, I noted in passing that your argument about consciousness was begging the question. It seems to me that this is something you do a lot. You seem to have a habit of arguing by stating your conclusion at the beginning of an argument as an unsupported, though apparently obvious, fact, and then referring back to this ‘fact’ as a source of authority during your subsequent argument, to end up ‘proving’ the conclusion you stated at the beginning!