15 March 2013

Supernatural Disenchantment

I've already commented on this issue, but this is another take on my attitude to the supernatural coming at it from a slightly different angle. There are some experiences, waking experiences, don't when we have them we know that they are weird or unusual. I've written quiet often about out-of body experiences. It was reading Thomas Metzinger's account of his out-of-body experiences, and his realisation that when he analysed the phenomenon that there was no need to assume that his consciousness left this body, that finally set me free of believing in the supernatural. However in the UK belief in the supernatural is widespread (and do scroll down to see Derren Brown's response).

Super means 'over, above', so the supernatural is conceived of as a realm over and above nature, a higher realm. It is particularly the realm of God.  The 18th century writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg were influential in establishing the idea that one could communicate with spirits, and that there were multiple unseen realms (was he influenced by Indian cosmology in this?) The word 'supernatural' has been applied to the 'world' inhabited by ghosts and like entities since the 19th century. I suppose that this coincides with the rise of Spiritualism, itself said to begin in 1848 when Kate and Maggie Fox pulled off one of the great hoaxes of history: convincing people they could communicate with the dead.
"There is no such thing as a spirit manifestation. That I have been mainly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of spiritualism upon a too-confiding public many of you already know. It is the greatest sorrow of my life . . . When I began this deception, I was too young to know right from wrong." Margaret Fox (1888), quoted in Joseph F. Rinn, Searchlight on Psychical Research, 1954 (via BBC - Religions)
What we call "the supernatural" is actually a fairly loose collection of beliefs that invoke unseen entities and forces to explain unusual experiences. Some of these beliefs are old, and some, like spiritualism are more recent. They represent an strong form of mind/body dualism in which consciousness can exist in a refined realm of 'pure spirit', disconnected from the gross (impure) material world. Indeed many people appear to see the body as a vessel which temporarily holds consciousness in this inferior and unsatisfactory material world. Interest in this material world--particularly science--is seen as gauche and unsophisticated.

Unseen forces emanating from this other realm can affect our lives in various ways. They are responsible for luck and fortune for example. And for all manner of events which cannot otherwise be explained. Though they can affect the material world, the unseen forces are not like the physical forces (such as gravity or electro-magnetism). Unseen forces can not be measured, or detected by physical instruments. Indeed ghosts are difficult to photograph even though they can be seen with the eye. This highlights one of the fundamental contradictions of this way of thinking. What is the difference between the eye and a camera? It is precisely the brain interpreting the images that are formed by the lens of the eye.

The way that the supernatural interacts with this world is random and inconceivable, thus the interactions cannot be understood systematically. Most people believe in an ordered universe, but the supernatural subverts and defies this order, indeed it is when the order of the universe breaks down that the supernatural is apt to be invoked. Particularly it is when we are disappointed or disconcerted. Hence the supernatural beliefs which swirl around the subject of death. The bad things that happen to us, for example, are caused by luck, karma, fate, gremlins, God testing us, etc. The supernatural is an explanation for the inexplicable.

As the 20th century progressed the Supernatural accumulated more and more aspects, and Westerners began to explore other forms of religion and culture they incorporated exotic elements into their version of the supernatural. Folk beliefs from pre-Christian antiquity were partially preserved, and combined with Christian superstitions. To them are added some of the more exotic ideas of modern life like flying saucers and quantum mechanics.

Another rich source of superstition is India and its folk beliefs such as rebirth, and the 'vibrations' of mantras (especially hypostatized into crystals). I've written about the way we project profundity onto the Sanskrit language for instance. Some people literally believe that cakras (Sanskrit 'wheels') are supernatural entities ('energy centres') within our bodies. I've even met people with a rather literal belief our possession of a third eye. Western Buddhists in particular often seem to suffer no cognitive dissonance combining supernatural beliefs from Europe and India. Like the villagers of the Pāli Canon we are maṅgalika. For example seem happy to take on taboos against the left hand (despite the fact that few of us remember the original meaning of the word 'sinister') and the feet (See: Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition?).

One of the odd features of the supernatural in modern times is the attempt to 'prove' the existence of the supernatural despite the fact that by definition it ought not to be provable. Many popular books purport to 'prove' everything from UFOs to reincarnation. And these popular books are taken quite seriously and uncritically as proof of their subjects. However the more rigorous that scientific experiments are at eliminating the possibility of hoax or prestidigitation, the less likely they are to succeed in detecting the supernatural. Under the strictest conditions which allow for no human intervention, where any observed effects must necessarily be due to the supernatural, nothing is ever observed. The Amazing Randi, a stage magician, has made a second career out of successfully debunking such experiments by showing how conjuring tricks are involved. Derren Brown has done similar work to show how psychics and other fakers do their tricks. (See On Credulity). However, like the confession of the Foxes, debunking does little to damp the enthusiasm for the supernatural.

Since pre-scientific cultures typically have some kind of supernatural belief, our contemporary encounters with them are seen as confirmation of our own remnant of folk beliefs. And virtually all our religious texts are written in pre-scientific milieus. Buddhism for example originates in the Iron Age and, though it continues to develop, it never quite throws off that Iron Age worldview. There is confirmation bias involved so that any experience which appears to confirm our belief is eagerly embraced. Stories of the supernatural are sought out, preserved, and spread. Reports that cast doubt are set aside as uninteresting or materialistic. Reports of fakers are also dismissed. Some fakers, having been caught out, have come back careers in the the same field (Uri Geller). I've explored some of this territory before: Derren Brown etc. (Again, see On Credulity).

Ignorance of Science.

It's become apparent to me as an adult with a university education in science that, although everyone in the West studies science at school to some extent, there is a large section of the population who have no good grasp of basic concepts like forces, energy, chemical elements and compounds, or crystals (let alone the more sophisticated versions of these ideas). Many of the words are treated almost like magic spells used to invoke unseen forces and entities, when in fact they all refer to seen entities (seen in the sense of being subject to reliable measurement). As well as being, or perhaps because they are, weak on science these people seem to be susceptible to pseudo-science. I seems that many people actively want to see the world in magical terms. In a world where public aesthetics often tend towards brutalism (concrete boxes and sharp edges) people want a little magic in their lives. Whether it be a woo belief (in fairies, angels, ghosts, lay-lines, God, aliens etc.), a penchant for hallucinogenics, or just a fascination with horror movies (which mostly invoke the supernatural in some way) people want to be enchanted. These Romantics like to quote Shakespeare (Hamlet Act 1, scene 5):
Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet:    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
               There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
               Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
People have quoted this text at me time and again to show how limited my thinking is. No one stops to ask what Shakespeare can have meant by "philosophy" in Elizabethan times. They seem to forget that 400 years have passed in the meantime and the scientific revolution has made Horatio's philosophy, such as it was, completely outmoded and superseded. There is today far more to science than any one person could possibly hope to encompass and comprehend. Even with training and a sustained interest in science I can only scratch the surface. On the other hand to know nothing about the science is to be close to barbarism. For better of worse our fates are now bound up with science and technology.

Seeing Things

All human beings have a mild form of apophenia. This is the ability to attribute meaning to patterns or events; and significance to stimuli. We need this ability to interpret our sensorium, but the ability is typically tuned to err slightly on the side of significance. Consider our ability to see shapes in the clouds. We most often see faces and animals, because these are the patterns we seek out in the jumble of sensory stimuli. At its worst this tendency to see patterns and attribute meaning to them can become pathological. A portrayal of this pathology can be found in the film A Beautiful Mind, based on the life of mathematician John Nash. Actually though he was a gifted mathematician, his mind was not that beautiful a lot of the time. In his development of Game Theory he viewed humanity in terms of his own psychotic aetiology: delusional, paranoid, self-seeking. And these qualities are built into Game Theory which now informs everything from 'target culture' in the UK Health Service and Education sector; to massive bonuses for bankers; to military strategy. But that is another story.

Unusual experiences are often thought to be especially significant. However, many of these experiences seem to be merely attention grabbers. I know a lot of people who believe they have experienced ghosts or similar phenomenon (the Triratna Buddhist Order owns a haunted house in Cambridge: the story of its haunting is elaborated by an outsider here). Almost none of these experiences are significant except that they are good stories, telling them gets attention, and they act as a confirmation of the supernatural paradigm. They keep the magic alive. Just like in Peter Pan (the archetypal puer aeternus) there is magic because we all believe (and when we stop believing a fairy dies). People who see things that have no substance don't want to be told that they had a hallucination. Hallucinations are significant in the wrong way and reflect badly on the seer. So anyone who wished to report their experience is likely to insist on the significance of it in order not to look foolish. They may even, unconsciously, embellish the details in order to make it seem more plausible.

The particular hallucinations we see are to some extent culturally determined, but how we interpret what see see or hear is strongly culturally determined. If you don't believe in ghosts to begin with, then you are unlikely to experience one, or if you experience something (say, sleep paralysis) then you are far less likely to ascribe the experience to supernatural entities or forces (See Encultured Hallucinations - Genealogy of Religion). Belief itself changes what we think we see, and how we interpret what we see.

In discussion I always try to make it clear that what I doubt is the explanation of the experience, not the experience itself. We all know that the mind plays tricks on us. We all mistakenly attribute significance to experience, and we misidentify stimuli some of the time. And we don't like to think that we simply made a mistake if the experience felt significant or made us feel important. On the other hand there are uncanny and unnerving experiences and these are difficult to explain and we are seldom content with no explanation for the disappointing or disconcerting experiences we have.

We chose the explanations we give to experiences. We choose explanations on a number of different bases, but underlying this is a mechanism in which facts are given an emotional 'weight' and the facts that seem most salient to us are the ones that we have given weight to (the one's that feel right). For this picture I've suggested the analogy that belief systems distort the space in which facts have mass, causing reason to move in curves; in come cases, closed curves or circles.

Without an explanation we feel a sense of unease and dissatisfaction. People who believe in the supernatural have said to me "science can't explain everything" which I acknowledge. But they themselves seek to fill in all the explanatory gaps by invoking the supernatural. And the irony and the blatant contradiction inherent in this approach to knowledge is lost on them. Perhaps we have not changed so much from our animistic ancestors who saw the world as full of living beings, who anthropomorphized the forces of nature and ascribed motivations to them? Perhaps most of us still feel at the mercy of a capricious universe and want an explanation; or a lever to change the behaviour of the gods; or some kind of advantage in the confusion? Or maybe it's all of the above? In any case superstition is alive and well.

Related Posts with Thumbnails