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.



Dubois David said...

Well put, Jayarava !

But what about consciousness ?

Whatever be the case regarding the reality - the objectivity - of the content - the objet - of my experience, experience remains necessary. Even if we assume everything to be an illusion, an experience of that illusion is necessary for that illusion to manifest as illusion or whatever. Hence experiencing (anubhava, dṛśi) is not itself an objet. It, in that sense, transcends the objet. And the Self is one of those objets. Therefore, consciousness (cit, saṃvit) is not the body, nor the mind. Because the body is an objet for consciousness, like this table. Because thoughts and feelings pass, like clouds in the sky.

This argument is a very strong one, I believe, in favor of the thesis that consciousness is not the body, not any physical phenomena.

What, will you ask, is the relevance to the question of supernatural belief ? The relevance is this : in so-called spiritual circles, this affirmation that consciousness or awareness is not an objet functions as a cornerstone for all sorts of beliefs in the supernatural. Because if consciousness is not an objet, a thing, then we know of at least one instance of a, literally, supernatural entity - even if consciousness is not a thing proper. Then isn't the door open for all sorts of supernatural things ? If consciousness is evidently supernatural, then why not ghosts, souls, or anything else ?

I contend that supernatural beliefs won't be threatened as long as this argument stands. This argument is detailed in many non-dualists texts - vedanta, but also some admittedly strange brands of buddhism, like dzogchen.
Buddhism itself doesn't offer any answer to this argument. There is a chapter on Vedānta in Nakamura's History of Early Vedanta Philosophy. This chapter is as thick as the evidence is thin. Buddhism didn't answer, as you know, to the challenge of non buddhists non dualisms. To this day, only clichés remain.

So what would you answer ?

Jayarava said...

Hi David

Experience is an object - it is the object of the mind sense (manas) and gives rise to mind-cognition (mano-viññāna). It is also, though I'm not sure of the traditional terminology for this, the object of reflexive awareness. Thus you know that you are having an experience.

Thus experience does not transcend anything. Consciousness is always consciousness *of* something, even if only consciousness of itself - Buddhist theory does not make an entity out of cognition. Therefore your argument doesn't stand scrutiny. What you are doing is asserting a belief about consciousness not an argument anyway.

Think about it. If consciousness was not an object how could you know anything about it? In order for there to be knowledge, and you are claiming to have certain knowledge of the nature of consciousness, then it must be an object of cognition. But your knowledge proclaims that consciousness is not an object (and thus cannot be known in any form) and thus you are caught in a contradiction. You can't know what you claim to know, if what you know is true! You can only have that knowledge if your claim is false.

Thus we need not proceed with a detailed critique of your ideas because the fundamental premise on which they are built is false, and this falsifies the whole edifice. QED.

Dubois David said...

Did you receive my last comment ?

D. Dubois

Jayarava said...

Apparently not.

Dubois David said...

My question was about reflexive awareness and ist implications within the buddhist purview:

What, then, is reflexive awareness (sva-saṃvedana) ?
And if awareness (same as consciousness) is an object, then does that mean that you reject the difference between subjet and object ? But then, how do you explain that all objects are not aware ?
You say all awareness is awareness of an object. All awareness is "aware of", for sure. And THAT is what I mean by "transcendence". But of an "object" ? And why would, for that matter, awareness need be an object ? By "object", I mean what is delimited in space, time and shape, and what is devoid of awareness.
If all awareness is awareness of an objet, then reflexive awareness - necessary to account for memory and other instances of "awareness of awareness" - would be awareness of awareness as an object. But how could that be ? By awareness, I mean the power to manifest, to make known (and that is also the meaning of "cum-sciencia" : "with knowledge"). How can awareness be manifested as that which manifests while retaining its "manifesting" aspect ? Wouldn't that be like trying to conceive a round square ?
And if awareness can be known only as an objet, then who knows that objet ? Another awareness, meaning another cognition ? But that cognition would require another cognition to be known as an objet, and so on, ad infinitum. And so reflexive awareness would never come about. So awareness of an object isn't itself an object of awareness.
Another problem would be that, as every cognition last only one instant, reflexive awareness would need to be a cognition of a past cognition. But that would require to posit a substrate for those cognitions.
By the way, saying that reflexive awareness is also cognition of an objet is the position of the Nyāya. The (Buddhist) idea of reflexive awareness was precisely designed to avoid having to posit a substratum of cognition : every cognition, every awareness, is both self-aware and aware of the objet, simultaneously. But this aspect of self-awareness (even without positing a Self), how could it be awareness of an object ? Rather, it is a direct (sākṣāt), immediate cognition, an intuition of the most radical kind. All reflexive awareness is aware of... itself, but not as an object. It knows itself by itself, without objectification, hence without being delimited in space and time and shape. The Buddhist metaphor is that of a lamp. A lamp illuminates objects, but doesn't need another lamp to manifest itself.
An objection to that being used as an argument for belief in supernatural could be to ask whether that awareness can exists without a brain - independently of a brain.
David D.

Jayarava said...

Hi David,

I can't really speak to those questions which are based in an unfamiliar jargon because I have no idea what the underlying assumptions are. None of the Sanskrit words you carefully supply are familiar to me. I'm not even sure why you want to use that jargon on me? It seems more than a little weird.

The argument here is not being made on traditional grounds in any case. If you read my essay again you will see that.

I think you must have dialled a wrong number...

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