Brain, Thinking and Knowledge Podcast Episode #3: The Ambiguity of Language and the Answer to History’s Most Famous Philosophic Riddle

Third in a series on brains, thinking and knowledge, this 20-minute episode by cognitive scientist and philosopher David Cycleback is a look at that tricky, maddening, mysterious thing called human symbolic language.

To download for free David Cycleback’s peer-reviewed books in cognitive science and philosophy visit his titles published by bookboon.

Is A Far Left’s Anti-Racism Model Antisemitic?

by David Cycleback

 

“All models are false, but some are useful”– George E.P. Box

“People view the world through their theories”– Thomas Kuhn

Recently, a reason dawned on me behind why some people believe antisemitism is a problem within some American and British progressive movements. A– I didn’t say the, as I know people on the left with different definitions– standard definition amongst many progressives and progressive movements use is that racism = prejudice + power. As these groups define Jews as part of the white privileged, or ‘white supremacy’ (their term for white America), that means that the adherents to that definition are saying antisemitism isn’t racism. Or, if they say antisemitism is racism, they’ve undercut their own definition.

Perhaps they say that antisemitism is not racism but a different form of bigotry– and that is a fair topic for debate. How to define race, what is race and the question of if Jews are a race are interesting questions. Many scholars, the United Nations and the World Jewish Congress, define antisemitism as a type of racism, and many textbooks and international laws define racism as including both race and ethnicity. Anne Frank House states that race is an artificial cultural construct and, thus, Jews are not a race, but that the classification of Jews as a race and discrimination based on that is racism.

A Jewish friend said the question of if Jews are a race or an ethnicity is a matter of semantics, and joked “When you find out which we are, let me know.” This all says that the world, societies, structures, concepts and ethnic oppression are far more complex and nuanced than a simple equation or definition can define or encompass.  

Racial categories are an artificial and arbitrary social not biological or genetic construct, and people on all parts of the political spectrum have long drawn the lines to suit their political ideologies and agendas. Depending on the prevailing or particular and often political and ideological sentiments, Jews, Japanese, Latinos, Irish, Greeks and Arabs have fallen in and out of the “white” category. 

Armenians have alternately been classified by US courts as “yellow” and “white.” Though if you ask Armenians themselves, they usually will not label themselves as a color, as that is not how they, and many other non-Westerners, define race.

I attended a lecture on Islam by two Somali immigrants. One said they didn’t like it when Americans called them black “because that’s not how Somalis view people.”

There is no denying that the particular American artificial color codes constructs have been socially and psychologically influential in American history and used and designed for ill, including being made to justify slavery and Jim Crow Laws.  Though, as this article shows, many Jews say artificial color codes and stereotyping that have been decried are now being used by the far left to pigeonhole and oppress them.  They point out the hypocrisy and that two wrongs don’t make a right.

A problem with power as a necessary and required element in the definition is that Jews have been persecuted (as a race– at least that’s how the Nazis defined them and how White Supremacists define them– and, according to Anne Frank House that is thus racism) in major part because of the perception they had power.

In the 1800s to early 1900s many elite universities– including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, McGill and Toronto–, had quotas on Jewish students because they were too successful.  Physics Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman could not get into Columbia University as an undergraduate because of quotas on Jews, and National Medal of Science winner Norbert Weiner was rejected for a professorship at Harvard due to like quota.  Interestingly, Feynman was secular and identified himself as Jewish only ethnically.

The Nazis and White Supremacists defined/define Jews as both having power/privilege and being an inferior people/race. This all points out that there are many ways, types and directions of discrimination, racism, oppression and persecution. 

Another common point that has often been brought up is that it is incorrect, or at the very least problematic, to generalize across all members about their privilege and power. There, of course, have been many poor and powerless Jews and Jewish communities throughout history, and a homeless opioid-addicted white man in rural West Virginia will likely question the existence of his privilege and power in the United States.  

Rabbi Michael Lerner says the ‘privileged’ categorization is a stereotype. “This argu­ment leaves out the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have not ‘made it’ the way their Manhattan brothers and sisters may have.” (Lerner 2019)

Further, equating “Jews” with “power and privilege”– as the ‘racism = privilege + power’ equation does– is one of the age-old stereotypes and prejudices long used against Jews. It should be disturbing that some groups and movements on today’s far-left use and play into this same trope that has been and are used by antisemitic movements on the far right, including the KKK and Neo-Nazis.  The definition defines Jews, as an entire group, as oppressors. 

A complaint from many Jews is that some progressive movements and people trivialize or dismiss the significance of antisemitism, and many Jews say that some progressive movements are antisemitic (Flayton 2019). That has been an accusation of British Labour and the BDS (Boycot, Divest and Sanction) movement. A Jewish congregant I know opined there is much antisemitism in the progressive movements, and said “We have been listening to this White Privilege stuff for 5000 years.”

Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson said, “If Jews are seen as ‘white’ (which, in this permutation of progressivism, they are), and ‘whites’ cannot be subjected to racist attacks, then antisemitism becomes a trivial concern.” (Johnson in Dunst 2018)

Robert Walker, director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, says that left activists on university campuses often dismiss the opinions of Jews, including on issues of discrimination because Jews are cataloged as privileged (Lungen 2018).

Walker says: “Our fellows have seen more instances where a pro-Israel side is dismissed in a summary manner, merely because many of our students are Jews, (and are) therefore seen to be privileged and therefore excluded from consideration or mainstream dialogue . . . Their opinion is often dismissed for being Jewish or pro-Israel and seen as part of the privileged white bourgeoisie . . . People are dismissed simply for who they are. We’re seeing this more and more.” (Walker in Lungen 2018)

To the average person, automatically dismissing a person’s opinion simply because of their race or ethnicity is racism.

Rabbi Michael Lerner says many Jews, including he, do not consider Jews white, and consider categorizing Jews as white an act of oppression. He says some on the far left categorizing Jews as white is an attempt to paint them not as a historically marginalized and persecuted people with their own unique culture and history, but a part of the generic oppressive power structure. (Lerner 2019)

Lerner writes “Jews are not white, and those who claim we are and exclude our history and literature from their newly emerging multicultural canon are our oppressors . . . Jews can only be deemed ‘white’ if there is massive amnesia on the part of non-Jews about the monumental history of anti-Semitism.” (Lerner 2019)

I was talking with an English Jewish woman in London. As an American curious about her perspective, I asked her if she thought there was antisemitism in the British Labour Party, and she said “Yes, in my opinion, and generally in the left.”

I said, “The American far left– or some on the far left, I don’t wish to generalize– use the same stereotypes about Jews as the far right.”

Her response was, “Yes, exactly.”

I attended a racial justice group where one ardent supporter of the White Supremacy Culture model (a common name for this racism = prejudice + power’ anti-racism model) did not want the group to read an article by a Jewish professor “because he is white.” She wanted a vetter to prevent articles from such voices from even reaching group members.  I am not generalizing about the group, as two group members said they thought the article was worthy of discussing, if in a different forum.

Whatever one’s definitions for the terms, it should be obvious the rhetorical odiousness of the telling Auschwitz survivors in Pittsburgh or Charleston that they are part of “White Supremacy” and part of the “racist oppression.” Following that up by then telling those survivors that any offense they take is “white fragility” is nothing short of gaslighting.

A Jewish woman who objected to being called a member of the “White Supremacy” by people on the far left explained, “It is not a matter of intectually debating the issue. It simply is offensive.”

I know people on the left, progressives, people of color and Jews with a variety of opinions and views and considerations, including on this topic. Thus, I am not painting with a broad brush or generalizing. I know many progressives and people of color who do not subscribe to that definition of racism and its anti-racism theory.

In fact, the far left’s anti-racism, anti-oppression models and ideological language do not represent the beliefs or language of the vast majority of the minority groups the advocates are supposedly speaking for.  The theories and terms are fringe including within the particular minority groups. The definition of racism also is counter to common usage and understanding of the term, and, dare I say, common sense. (Monk 2018) (Thinknow 2019)(Douthat 2020)

However, as with any theory or model, a key is how the ‘racism = prejudice + power’ definition is considered. 

The recently deceased Physics Nobel Prize winner and philosopher of science Phillip Anderson was an antireductionist and was for complexity in modeling. He correctly saw that reality, and any area within it, was far too complex and nuanced to be reduced to a simple theory or model, and said that “more is different.” (Horgan 2020).

All models or theories are artificial, arbitrary, myopic and, thus, false representations of reality. However, when used and considered as one of many different lenses to view things, a theory can be useful and offer insight.  Science uses multiple and often competing theories to examine an area, each theory limited but together giving a fuller, if still incomplete, picture.  Philosopher Paul Feyerabend correctly wrote, “No theory ever agrees with all the facts in its domain.”

The anti-racism “racism = prejudice + power” definition and theory is an interesting and useful lens to view things through. However, as with any theory, it is simplistic and narrow and must be just one of many different lenses which to look at the complexity of racism and oppression. Making it the only lens– and making it dogma and ideology, and saying that no other lenses, theories or viewpoints can be expressed or used – is false and foolish.

An atheist friend and colleague of mine once dismissed the Hindus because they “believe in thousands of gods.” I said that Hindus believe in one god, but know that God is too big and complex to be understood or approached through one deity, or lens, and that they take none of their many deities literally.

Race, racism, ethnicity, oppression, marginalization and bigotry are incredibly complex and multifaceted areas, full of gray areas, diversity, contradictions, paradoxes, subjectivity and diverse personal life experiences that cannot be defined much less solved by one model, theory or equation.  Jews demonstrate that one can both be privileged and marginalized, that oppression and persecution can involve both punching down and punching up, and that someone can both be oppressed and oppress. Defining any race, ethnicity or large group as monolithically “all this” or “all that” is simplistic and a type of simplistic, and false, stereotyping that one would think anti-racism is supposedly aspiring to overcome.

If the ‘racism = prejudice + power’ and White Supremacy Culture theory is dogmatically used as the sole or key definition and lens through which to view the world, social structures and people– as some and some groups on the far left do–, it is clearly antisemitic, using dangerous and ignorant stereotypes, charectorizations and theories about Jews.

Ironically, if antisemitism is a form of racism (and I will let you answer that question for yourself), that would make that particular anti-racism model racist.

 

References

Douthat R (2020), “Liberalism’s Latinx Problem,” nytimes.com/2019/11/05/opinion/latinix-warren-democrats.html

Dunst C (2018), “Is antisemitism a form of racism,” .jpost.com/Diaspora/Antisemitism/Is-antisemistism-a-form-of-racism-564712

Flaton B (2019) “On the Frontlines of Progressive Anti-Semitism,” nytimes.com/2019/11/14/opinion/college-israel-anti-semitism.html

Lerner M (2019) “Jews Are Not White,” villagevoice.com/2019/07/25/the-white-issue-jews-are-not-white/

Horgan J (2020) “Philip Anderson, Gruff Guru of Physics and Complexity Research, Dies,” blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/philip-anderson-gruff-guru-of-physics-and-complexity-research-dies/

Lungen P (2018), “Check Your Jewish Privilege,” cjnews.com/living-jewish/check-your-jewish-privilege

Monk Y (2018), “Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture,” theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/large-majorities-dislike-political-correctness/572581/

ThinkNow (2019), “Progressive Latino pollster: 98% of Latinos do not identify with “Latinx” label,”  medium.com/@ThinkNowTweets/progressive-latino-pollster-trust-me-latinos-do-not-identify-with-latinx-63229adebcea 

Brains, Thinking and Knowledge Podcast Episode #2: “Questions about Intelligence in Artificial Intelligence”

Second is a podcast series on brains, thinking and knowledge by cognitive scientist and philosopher David Cycleback, this episode looks a four key questions about artificial brains, or artificial intelligence.

  1. How can the existence of intelligence in a computer be confirmed?
  2. Do the AI intelligence tests really identify thinking?
  3. Does it matter if a computer is really thinking?
  4. Can we ever know if artificial intelligence has real thinking, sentience and consciousness?

These questions may seem simple to answer, yet they are profoundly challenging and have long been debated by the greatest minds in the field, including Alan Turing, Marvin Minsky and Hubert Dreyfus.

 

To download for free David Cycleback’s peer reviewed books in cognitive science and philosophy visit his titles published by bookboon.

Podcast Episode: What Mystical Experiences Tell Us About Human Knowledge

The following recording is the first in a podcast series on brains, thinking and knowledge by cognitive scientist and philosopher David Cycleback.  The episode examines normal and abnormal normal ways human brains work, and what this shows us about the nature and limits of human knowledge.   22 minutes

To download for free David Cycleback’s peer reviewed books in cognitive science and philosophy visit his titles published by bookboon.

Humans Cannot Have Certain Knowledge, and Considerations of that Fact

HUMANS CANNOT HAVE CERTAIN KNOWLEDGE

A problem in epistemology, Munchausen’s Trilema demonstrates that any theory of knowledge, including in mathematics, science and logic, cannot be certain and that no human beliefs, theories or models can ultimately be proven certain. Baron von Munchausen was a teller of tall tales and fantastical arguments, including that he impossibly pulled himself out of quicksand by pulling himself up by his own ponytail.

All statements of knowledge can be questioned as to their veracity, and, for certainty, must be proved true. The trilemma says there are three ways to try to answer questioned statements: 1) circular argument, 2) infinite regression or 3) axiomatic argument. Each proves to be incapable of finding certainty. 

 

 

  1. Circular reasoning, or begging the question

 

This is when you essentially use the statement to (try to) prove it true:

 

John: “God is real.”

Mary: “What is your justification for believing that true?”

John: “The Bible says God is real.”

Mary: “What is your justification for believing the Bible is true?”

John: “It is the word of God.”

 

This is circular reasoning with John saying God is real because God is real and says so

 

Nancy: “My sight is reliable?”

Pat: “Why do you say that?”

Nancy: “Because my eyes see that apple.”

Pat: “How do you know the apple is real and really there?”

Nancy: “Because I can see it right sitting right there.”

Nancy is basically arguing that her sight is reliable because her sight is reliable.

 

A logician saying logic is accurate because logic has shown this is circular reasoning. Science saying science proves that science is reliable is another example. No belief system, theory or way of thinking can prove itself true.

 

2) Infinite regression

This is like the young child who continually asks “But why?” to every answer you give. 

 

A is true because of b

B is true because of c

C is true because of d

Repeat until infinity

 

Carl: “My sight perception is an accurate perception of reality?”

Charlie: “How do you know that?”

Carl: “Because I took an eye test last week.”

Charlie: “How do you know the eye test is reliable?”

Carl: “Because it was performed by an optometrist who is an expert in eyes,”

Charlie: “How does the optometrist know that eyesight is an accurate representation of physical reality?”

Repeat until infinity or one quits in frustration or boredom or one or both of the two quit.

 

Some like this line of reasoning, at is the line of reasoning used in science, because it can involve lengthy analysis and, with proper arguments, the arguments will not be shown to be wrong. But it will never reach certainty because the questions continue forever without a final answer. 

Some philosophers say infinite regression is an elongated way of saying “I don’t know” or “I can’t be certain.” However, good long arguments can be considered ‘provisional truths,’ meaning working answers that are considered true for the time being, though may be found to be false in the future. However, it is likely that longer along the line you get, you will find questions you can’t answer or something that contradict the belief.

“The more deeply we explore any subject matter the more surely we are going to arrive at unexplained phenomena which challenge the entire framework of our quest for knowledge . . . The pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit from comprehension to incomprehension. We always start with something we know fairly well and end up with big puzzles.” – Philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind.

This says humans must be prepared for their rules to possibly if not probably be proven wrong, or at least having exceptions and needing refinements.

 

3) Axiomatic argument

This involves making unproven and often unprovable assumptions, or axioms.

 

John: “My sight perception gives a reliable view of physical nature.”

Nancy: “How do you come to that answer?”

John: “I assume my perception is reliable. Don’t you assume yours is?”

 

All human endeavors and conceptions, including yours and mine and the most famous scientists and philosophers, involve unproven or unprovable assumptions.

Circular reasoning, or begging the question, can be considered really to be axiomatic reasoning. “I believe God is real, because (I assume) God is real.”

 

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems also illustrate the limits of knowledge and certainty within theories and models, both scientific and unscientific.

Mathematician and logician Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems showed that no closed system can prove everything and cannot be used to prove its own accuracy or everything within its own system. The latter is similar to the philosophical fact that “A human cannot determine the accuracy of its own mind, because the tool used to test and judge the accuracy (its mind) is of undetermined accuracy.” Gödel’s incompleteness theorems show that any logical system either has contradictions or statements that cannot be proven.

And if you add parts to the system in an attempt to check a closed system’s reliability, you’re merely created a larger closed system. Godel’s theorem cannot be escaped.

At a time when mathematicians and philosophers were trying to create a logical and neatly structured system to show everything, Godel’s theorems were considered earth-shattering and today are ranked as landmarks in the history of mathematics, science and philosophy.

They also demonstrate that today’s physicists trying to create a certain “Theory of Everything” are playing a fool’s game.

Gödel’s discovery not only applied to mathematics but all branches of science, logic and human knowledge.

 

Conclusion

The Munchausen Trilemma and Godel’s Incompleteness how certain knowledge, including in science and logic, is unattainable.

 

CONSIDERATIONS AND DIFFERING OPINIONS ABOUT THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS

While it is simply fact that humans can’t have certain knowledge, there is a wide variety of considerations and opinions about the significance and relevance of this uncertainty. 

To some, the lack of knowledge is of profound relevance. If one is concerned with the search for metaphysical and objective truths about reality, the inability to even know the reliability of one’s own sensory perception and mind is of profound significance and often deep disappointment. 

To others, the uncertainty does not bother them or is irrelevant to their practical purposes and interests. I have a hardcore atheist medical scientist colleague at Oxford, and I asked her for her philosophy behind her atheism. She said she intentionally removed the question and topic of God from her life, so she could focus on other things. 

Some may rightly say that, yes, there is uncertainty in all things including science, but science still produces reliable results within its scope and purpose. There is much unknown about quantum physics but it produces usable results and practical products. There are uncertainties and biases in engineering, but it builds sturdy bridges and working cars. To many engineers, the inability to know metaphysical meaning and many areas lay outside of science, is beside the point to their work. 

Further, humans have evolved to function in ambiguity and uncertainty. They were born, raised and go about our lives not knowing many things, have evolved to act in social situations where they don’t know and can’t know what others think, act and make decisions for an unknown future and ambiguous present. The human ability to function, survive and thrive in an environment of constant uncertainty and ambiguity is a great skill. 

Some people simply can psychologically live in uncertainty better and more contentedly than others. Some psychologically “need answers and for there to be answers,” while others do not.

And many of the greatest and proudest achievements of humans are the products of uncertainty. Many great and moving artworks, many scientific and knowledge discoveries, are the products of being faced with mystery. 

Gauguin

‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We Doing? Where Are We Going?’ by Paul Gauguin (1897)

However, whatever one’s opinion, consideration or viewpoint on the limits of one’s knowledge, the lack of uncertainty is a fact.

HOW BEING BIPOLAR AND AUTISTIC HAS INFLUENCED MY WORK IN COGNITIVE SCIENCE AND EPISTEMOLOGY

“There is much in the universe we will never know, and it is equally certain that we will never know all that we do not know.”–  Joseph Silk, Gresham Professor of Astrophysics, Oxford University

 

As a longtime academic scholar who has also written about being Type I bipolar and on the autistic spectrum, I was asked to write about how being bipolar has affected my academic work.

The short answer is very much.  My different way of thinking and perceiving has greatly influenced my work and has been a key element to my innovation and success.  Thinking and feeling differently means seeing different things, seeing things from a different viewpoint and not accepting orthodoxy that is naturally accepted by the majority.

This essay touches both on my mental illness in relation to my work, and my academic work itself.  They are related.

*  *  *  *

My work is in cognitive science and epistemology.  I study and write about minds (human, non-human animal, artificial, group, theoretical), how they work and their limits, and the nature and limits of human knowledge. Areas of study have included art perception, mystical experiences, artificial intelligence, visual illusions, symbolic language, the nature and limits of science and logic, the psychology of religion and belief systems, and what humans can and cannot know. 

understanding-human-minds-and-their-limits

My cognitive science and philosophy textbooks

There are many different ways of thinking and organizing information, and all human conceptions, theories and belief systems are created by the mind. Psychology, as an academic discipline, should go hand in hand with philosophy, science, political science, theology and all academic areas.  A philosopher’s philosophy can no more escape his mind than he can escape being human. The same with a scientist, theologian and any other type of thinker.

Immanuel Kant wrote that there are things as they appear to humans, and these constitute the immanent world of common, personal experience. He said these appearances are illusions because they are translations by the human senses and mind, and that things in their true nature and forms are beyond empirical access. He said things in their true nature belong to reality and transcend human experience, knowledge and senses, and that humans cannot have true knowledge of reality.

Humans cannot step outside out of their own minds and senses, outside of themselves and the human species to see the blind spots, delusions and biases that they are unaware of. This is one of the essential limits of human thought, conceptions and knowledge, and of self-assessment.

* * * *

I am Type I bipolar and autistic. Type I bipolar is a mental illness, and I’ve exhibited symptoms since I was a little kid.  The illness and its causes are complex and, as with most areas, not fully understood or easily categorized. There often is a genetic and environmental component, with the brain cognitively, chemically and emotionally functioning differently than normal. Autism also involves organizing and perceiving information differently, and having differernt emotional perceptions and intretations of things.

I won’t go through my colorful personal history dealing with the mental illness other than to say that I’ve been on lithium or anti-seizure medications for more than half of my life and have had psychotic episodes and mystical experiences throughout my life at least since I was seven years old.  

While adapting to society’s norms and expectations has been a skill practiced and developed over time, I don’t say that I’ve succeeded in my work as a scholar despite my mental illness but because I think differently than others. I am an original and fiercely independent thinker, one looking at things from different and new viewpoints. Do I consider my thinking differently a curse?  Of course not. It’s a gift and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am proud of who I am.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have what I call my “traits.”

  • I don’t think or naturally express myself linearly, or at least linearly by society’s conventions.  I aesthetically like disorder, complexity, ambiguity, and dislike neatness, order, simplicity and symmetry. I don’t like or participate in group ceremonies and dislike cliches, buzz words, crowd following and groupthink.  
  • I don’t have the same emotional reactions and sensibilities as others.  While social and gregarious, I don’t form close emotional connections as others do or have a need to.
  •  I’m a well known as a contrarian who questions orthodoxy, and rejects dogma.
  •  I’m well known for my off-beat and provocative sense of humor

When I was young, my engineering professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.”  He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.

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My dad and I when I was four

*  *  *  *

Humans are sensory information processors

Humans receive limited sensory information and use various complex internal methods to process, categorize and try to make sense of the information in order to make perception, judgments and pick courses of action.  That is what humans are about.  Much of my work has been studying how humans and non-humans process information.

There are countless real and theoretical ways for a brain to process sensory information.  Each method is limited and has its own set of biases, subjectivity and trade-offs. Humans cannot know which, if any, is the ”best” or  “correct” way, or even if there is a best or correct way.  Non-human animals and artificial intelligence process information differently and can do it better for their particular, narrow purposes.

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Along with the limited sensory information received, this is one of the limitations of human knowledge.  We have no idea if our way of thinking is correct, and in fact knowing it has many problems, distortions and limitations.

13174095_10206316102436997_8158184228856698302_n (2)

Visual illusions demonstrate that physical reality and human perception of reality are different things. Despite the appearance, the middle bar does not change in color or tone. If you cover up the image so only the bar is showing, you will see this.

*  *  *  *

Simplifying and generalizing this greatly for this essay, humans normally use two competing and simultaneous forms of thinking to function. Think of them as offering two viewpoints and checks and balances on each other, or two heads are better than one.  Neither is correct, each gives a different limited view and different perspective, but working together they allow the human to function well in the world

Parts of the brain process and interpret the sensory information in an emotional, aesthetic, visceral, holistic way– and this forms much of our emotional, intuitive, aesthetic reactions to stimuli.  

Separately but simultaneously other parts of the brain order, categorize, label and “intellectually” processes information. The raw sensory information has to be given some structure, categories and labels to try to understand what to do with it.  To do this brain unconsciously creates an artificial imaginary structure to the information. To humans, their perceptions of physical geography, categories, identities and the way they mark and perceive time are artificial constructs created by their brains.

Human symbolic language is a distinctly human thing where the parts of the brain artificially order and label things for convenient use. Not unlike a computer, humans translate sensory information into symbols.  

Link: Numeral systems and psychology

In my area of epistemology (the study of the natue and limits of knowledge), a key to know is that human biology and thinking are primary about functioning and survival, and function involves and in fact requires the distortion and suppression of information, the use of unconscious biases and even lying to oneself.  Human perception and thinking is distorted and delusory in many ways.

Whether our mental methods used for function can also, as a side effect, prove or examine objective and metaphysica.truth is a question to ponder and one humans cannot actually answer. Though I am highly skeptical.

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The impossible trident visual illusion demonstrates how humans form perceptions by focusing on some information while ignoring other. The viewer forms a perception about the whole from looking at just one end. When she looks at the other end, she realizes her perception was wrong. Unlike some visual illusions where part of the image is blocked and left to the viewer’s imagination, there is no missing information here. All of the information is there for the viewer see, but the viewer forms the initial perception as if information is hidden. She mentally hides, or ignores, the information herself. Part of the explanation is that the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to cognitively process the sensory information it receives all at once, and so focuses and ignores.

* * * *

Mental illnesses and processing information differently

People with mental illnesses process sensory information differently than normal. 

Schizophrenics, for example, perceive all the normal sensory information but lack the standard methods normal people have to cognitively structure, order and label the information as normal people do.  This is the reason they have trouble adapting to society’s norms.

However, as they perceive and experience information in a different way, schizophrenics have included original artists, thinkers and mystics.  A schizophrenic artist said being schizophrenics is great for painting and writing poetry, but horrible for driving because you are constantly immediately aware of every crack and leaf in the road.  Many famous ancient mystics, prophets and aboriginal societies, who processed sensory information in valid but different ways, would be cataloged today as schizophrenic.  

For me, there are two major aspects of my mental illness that are relevant: a different cognitive ordering of information, and having different emotional experiences and associations.  These are often closely tied together.

 

Cognitive ordering

All functional systems require assumptions, definitions, labels, categorization and rules to function.

Humans must translate things to understand and perceive them.  Thus, how humans translate things– what particular models, styles, narratives, perceptions of time and space and categories, language– is of great significance because it forms how humans perceive things. All human translations, including the socially standard ones, involve arbitrary and artificial rules and definitions, and unproven and often unprovable assumptions.  

Humans must translate things in order to understand them, but what they understand is the translation.

I have a different than normal ways of cognitively ordering things, and, when left to my own devices, a different way of expressing them.  This is particularly true in how I organize and make narratives about information.

Narrative is an integral part of how humans perceive, identify and judge information. A narrative is the conscious and non-conscious story people see and tell about their lives, used to describe observed situations and even still objects. Narrative includes perception of time, plotting, mood, point of view, emphasis (what is important. what is not), character motives, etc. When humans look at a still photo or painting or a distant stranger couple standing at the light we perceive a story in progress. 

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Describe what going on above. Even though this is an absctract combination of dots and lines, most will say this shows two balls racing towards each other. Viewers can even describe what they see as happening before and after this image. However, unlike a movie still or snapshot photo, there neither is nor was any before or after. As I am the one who created this design, I can assure that thia is the only image, the one and only existense of these dots and lines. There is no narrative with this image other than as speculated by the viewer. That it shows balls on a line is itself a product of the viewer’s imagination.

Narrative is how we understand, assign meaning and communicate ideas.  In schoolroom lessons, religious allegories and daily conversation, stories are a method to explain ideas to others.  Though the stories are often false and misleading, humans are storytellers.

The following link explores the different and competing ways humans can and do narrate information.

Link: Narrative and the perception of still information

I tend to apply different narratives, ordering and aesthetic styles to information.  This is expressed in the ways I talk, and in the way I write.  Though I conform to standard writing styles in my academic books and here, I find the standard and academic narratives and styles to be arbitrary, artificial, stifling and thus false. Unlike my textbooks, my books Noise Music and Return Trip represent my natural non-linear way of thinking, writing and aesthetic sense.  They are also in part commentaries on how aesthetic and narrative biases affect knowledge.

 

Emotional meaning and associations

Emotions, emotional intuition and aesthetic biases are integral parts of human thinking and function.  They are integral parts of human intelligence and reason, including as used by scientists, mathematicians and logicians.  London School of Philosophy lecturer Rachel Paine compared emotions to sensory perception: 

“Emotions bear complex relationships to rationality. On one hand they are seen as arational or irrational, on the other they make our actions intelligible and arguably lift us above the purely mechanistic behaviours of machines. Much like human sensory perception, emotions perform an essential function: they inform us about the world.”

Much important human thinking, conceptions and beliefs– such as about metaphysical and emotional meaning, morality, aesthetics and ethics, art, social life, beauty, social intelligence, life decisions– are beyond objectivity and logic, and are based in subjective and emotional thinking. Having different emotional and aesthetic interpretations and emotions are thus of great significance.

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The academic and abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky studied how colors, patterns and shapes conveyed emotional and spiritual meaning to viewers.

Being Type I bipolar and autistic, especially when one has it during one’s formative childhood years, involves having and developing different emotional and intuitive interpretations and associations. Considering the cognitive significance of emotions in making assumptions, forming world views and answering subjective metaphysical questions, this has profound significance.

Since I was young, I’ve also had a different general sense of the world and the things in it. I’ve felt things differently. 

Mystical experiences are a common symptom of bipolar mania, along with epilepsy and schizophrenia.  Mystical experiences happen when the normal cognitive structures that define time, space and categories are suppressed in the brain and the sensory information is processed emotionally.  This results in a radically different perception of the world and the things in it.

Link: Mystical Experiences: The Neverending Debate

These different emotional and aesthetic ways of perceiving the world and things in it forces one to question conventional assumptions and perceptions, and not rotely accept the views and subjective truths and assumptions that are widely held by others.  I’m noted for not being human-centric in my writing, and, as, an academic studying minds, I can more objectively observe how others think and perceive.

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Some have suggested than Van Gogh was bipolar

My Oxford University medical scientist colleague and friend says, as with other bipolar people she knows, I’ve been trained to follow the social rules and norms but they do not come intuitively to me as I feel things differently.  Bipolar people and schizophrenics can have impaired theory of mind, meaning having less of an ability to identify mental states in others and themselves. My friends says, through repetition and habit as being part of society, I go through the motions without with intuitive feelings.

In peer reviewing my books, such as Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, she and I can be at philosophical odds.  As a medical scientist, she views humanity from within, while, as a philosopher, I tend to it from outside. She wants me to refer to humans as ‘we’ instead of my usual ‘they.’    

Many bipolar people have a love-hate relationship with the medicine and treatments.  The medicine and treatments are about thinking and functioning according to society’s norms (which is important), but many bipolar people, often artists, do not like how it suppresses their different and creative ways of thinking.  Studies have pointed to creativity, intelligence and bipolar disorder having the same underlying genetic traits.

Link: Intelligence, creativity and bipolar disorder may share underlying genetics

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My being able to perceive and cognitively order things differently has shown the arbitrary, artificialness and dubiousness of the standard human way of thinking.  However, it has not shown that my way of thinking and perceiving is better, but that there are other ways.  I often point out that my way of thinking isn’t better or more correct, just different. 

The essential conclusions of my cognitive science and epistemological work are that there are different ways of perceiving, interpreting and categorizing sensory information, and that each way has its own subjectivity, biases, distortion, unprovable assumptions and limits.  In part due to this, humans cannot obtain certain knowledge and everything is opinion.

Though, while that humans cannot obtain certain knowledge is the answer to that philosophical question, the vast areas of subjectivity and opinion– speculation, imagination art, spiritually, political science, making choices in an ambiguous and unknowable envirnoment– is another philosophical area full of further study.

 

COGNITIVE INFLUENCES BEHIND BELIEFS IN AND CONCEPTIONS OF GOD

This post is an excerpt from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.

OVERVIEW

There are many innate cognitive reasons and processes for people believing in and having particular conceptions of God or religious higher power. The belief in and description of god or higher power are byproducts, or extensions, of innate unconscious psychological tendencies humans use to function and survive as a species.

The human brain is a meaning-making machine. Humans constantly look for patterns, meaning, purpose, motives and cause-and-effect relationships wherever they go. These contribute to many religious and spiritual beliefs. Just as one tries to find motives, patterns and identifications in a room, photograph or abstract paintings, so do humans when contemplating the universe and unknowable. 

The following are some of the cognitive processes that lead to religious beliefs.

 

THE SEARCH AND DESIRE FOR ORDER 

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1496 diagram of the cosmos. Symmetrical, neat and orderly

Humans tend to desire and strive to find order in situations, both in their daily lives and in ambiguous and chaotic information and situations. This is a natural part of identification, and an essential aspect of function and survival. Chapter 4 demonstrated how humans make up artificial identifications in ambiguous designs, such as seeing animals in clouds and faces in tree bark.

This extends to people’s perceptions about the unknowable universe and reality. Not only do many people want order and structure in the universe, they imagine it exists and artificially create it. This desire for order, structure and identity influences people in believing in God, a higher power and orderly universe. While not believing in God, many non-theists and scientists imagine that there are order and structure to the universe, even though it is impossible to know there is order. Even if there is order, it may be in a different form than humans can conceive of or sense. 

In some religions, God brings order out of chaos, and religion is a fight for order in the face of chaos. The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum created earth and its order and principles out of chaos and darkness. It was the Egyptians’ duty to live moral and ethical lives to keep the chaos at bay. 

It is a common religious belief that moral order comes from God or higher power, and some religious thus believe that an atheist cannot have morals.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Triumph of Death,’ showing chaos and disorder

 

THE INNATE TENDENCY TO PERCEIVE MEANING AND PURPOSE BEHIND THINGS AND EVENTS

It is an innate tendency for humans to perceive and try to find meaning and purpose behind things. As with finding patterns and identification, this has been essential for human survival and function. 

Knowing what is the purpose and meaning of a scene event, groups of people or non-human animals is part of social function and survival. If a group of people or dogs approach you, you want to know and do guess what is their purpose. If you hear a bang in the dead of night in your house, you want to know what is behind it and assume something is. Safety and self preservation are about erring on assuming the worst, which is why many people get out of bed to check for intruder. Humans would not have survived as a species if they did not err on the side of safety. 

In her paper Why Are Rocks Pointy? Children’s Preference for Teleological Explanations of the Natural World (source), psychology professor Deborah Keleman wrote that if you ask children why a group of rocks is pointy, many theorize that it is so animals don’t sit on them and break them. She said if you ask children why a river exists, they will often say so humans can fish in it. The children assign a meaning and purpose where they don’t exist, and ones that match their expectations, biases and human logic. Also note that they perceive the rivers to exist to serve humans.

Because of this bias, Kelemen says that children are able to come to the idea of a being that created the universe and earth with a purpose and meaning. This bias or tendency extends to many adults.

It takes training and education for one to overcome or be able to question these rote beliefs.

“Romanian Roma adults with little formal schooling (less than six years on average) were more than twice as likely to endorse purposeful answers than highly educated Roma adults (averaging approximately 12 years of schooling). They also more closely resembled American schoolchildren (first through fourth grades) than either highly educated Romanian adults or American adults. These results suggest that the tendency toward extending teleological reasoning from living to non-living natural things may recur across cultures, and that it is not merely outgrown but must be out-educated for it to go away.” — Justin L. Barrett Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology (reference )

 

HUMANS PERCEIVE MINDS BEYOND THEIR OWN

Humans are able to perceive others having minds. This is a part of function and survival of the species. Humans are social animals and need to guess the thoughts and intentions of human and non-human animals.

What is telling is that humans not only imagine minds in humans and other animals, but they imagine or project minds and thinking on inanimate objects. These include teddy bears, figures, artworks, dolls, toys, cars, movie projections. Humans easily accept cartoon characters that talk and think, even when the characters are cars, toasters and trees. Humans talk to paintings on their walls, and what the subject is thinking and doing.

Many either figuratively or literally imagine nature and the universe having minds, and this can lead to conceptions of God or higher power. Even non-religious scientists and philosophers talk about plants, the planet and the universe having consciousness, which, some could argue, is coming very close to believing in God. 

 

ANTHROPOMORPHISM

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Humans have an innate tendency to perceive non-humans as thinking and feeling as humans do. Humans often incorrectly believe or imagine that a non-human animal thinks like a human and feels the same way about a happening as humans. Humans make non-human animal and non-animal cartoon characters that act like humans, see human faces in abstract information, and describe inanimate objects and nature in human terms: mother earth, father time. It should not surprise that humans can imagine the unseen universal reality as a being, that deities and Gods are depicted in human-like forms and having human-like thoughts, motives and ideas.

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Similarly, humans often depict non-animal forms as having animal qualities. Howl of the wind, the hound of love. Many deities and gods are depicted in non-human animal forms.

Anthropomorphism is not always meant literally, but often as a symbolic translation. However, this all shows how humans see things and translate things in human terms, even nature, random information and the unknowable.

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Depiction of God in a 15th century German prayer book

Article by Psychology professor Rick Naert : Why Do We Anthropomorphize?

 

HUMANS PERCEIVE THINGS, EVERYTHING, IN HUMAN EMOTIONAL TERMS

Emotions and aesthetics are an integral and constant part of human perception, judging and thinking. Humans innately and automatically make emotional judgments and perceptions. How new scenes are perceived, how to judge a stranger, how a foreign object is perceived, whether a new fact is true or false, are in part done on the intuitive, emotional, aesthetic level. Our descriptions of non-human things are steeped in human emotional and aesthetic terms and imagery: universal love, the angry sea, cruel fate, happy sun.

As people imagine the universe and unknowable in emotional terms, it is natural for people to see the transcendent reality not only in human terms but as human-like. All humans perceive and define the universe and ideas using their emotions and in human emotional terms. And a universe and reality that is believed to made up of human emotions is a step away from seeing it as a living being.

To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.

 

HUMANS AUTOMATICALLY APPLY NARRATIVES AND STORIES TO THINGS

Just as humans interpret meaning, motive and identifications in ambiguous information, humans automatically interpret things– an object, a painting scene, a snapshot of a person– as part of an ongoing story and narrative. This is an expression of cause and effect, and human perception of time, meaning and purpose. Humans even apply narratives and stories to abstract information. 

Humans apply such narrative and stories to the universe and the unknown, which means they interpret it in human ways. Religious scriptures are in the forms of stories and narratives. The Christian Bible has been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

 

HUMAN THINKING, INCLUDING ABOUT THE EXISTENCE OF GOD, IS INFLUENCED BY EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION AND CULTURE

What and the way people think, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, is greatly influenced by their education, culture, family, when and where they grew up. Many people believe in God, and a particular condition of God, because they were raised in a theist family and culture. It is not coincidence that most Christians were born in Christian countries and families and Muslims in Muslim countries and families. Read the below two short pieces to see how much human geography and culture affect their perception at even the unconscious levels:

Piece #1:

The BaMbuti Pygmies of Congo traditionally live their entire lives in the dense rainforest, where the furthest away anyone can see is feet. They learned, loved, played and hunted in this environment.

British born Anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote how he took one of these Pygmies, named Kenge, for his first time to a wide open plain. As the two stood on a hill overlooking the land, a group of water buffalo was seen a few miles away. Having no experience of how things appear smaller over long distance, Kenge asked what kind of insects they were. Turnbull told him they were water buffalo and Kenge laughed loudly at the “stupid story.” Turnbull drove Kenge towards the water buffalo. Watching the animals growing visually larger, Kenge became scared and said it was witchcraft.

Human beings develop an idiosyncratic logic and sensibility distinct to the environment where they were brought up. The environment one grows up in is seemingly the world. A kid born and raised in the inner city versus the country, rich versus poor, in Cairo versus Chicago, conservative family versus liberal, woods versus desert. The person who has lived her whole life in Portland or Cairo may get a chuckle at that story about the Pygmy then dismiss the idea that a similar incongruity could exist with her native logic.

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For example, in this picture, which yellow line looks longer?

The yellow lines are the same length. Measure them yourself. It is your lifelong experience with diminishing scales in open spaces that caused you to perceive the upper line as larger.

Kenge would not have been fooled by this illusion and would have correctly said the lines are the same length.

Piece #2

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Give an objective identification of what is in the three pictures. Answer one picture at a time, by saying the answer aloud or to yourself. 

The images are not digital tricks or manipulations. They were picked because of their straightforward, familiar subjects. I am just looking for quick objective identifications.

One or more of your answers likely was (at least if you are an American) on the order of ‘George Washington crossing the Delaware,’ ‘a bald eagle’ and/or ‘a watch.’ 

These answers are not objective, being formed in part by value judgments, aesthetic views and other personal biases.

In the lower left picture there is much more than a bald eagle. There is sky, trees. The ‘eagle’ answer subjectively singles out one thing. Part of this is due to a personal and cultural value judgment that a bald eagle is more important than the other objects. Another reason is because the eagle is pictured large, clear and centered. If the picture showed a tree close up and in focus and a small out of focus eagle flying in the distant background, your answer likely would have differed. Change in arrangement, size and focus affect the viewer’s labeling, even when the identical objects are pictured.

Similarly, if your answer to the lower right picture was ‘a watch,’ you made an aesthetic and value judgment about what is and is not important. Placement and focus affected your judgment, along with your feeling that a potentially expensive watch is the center of attention.

In the top image there are quite a few people pictured. If you answered “George Washington crossing the Delaware” you singled out one as being the identity. This is in part due to a higher value placed on George Washington, a famous figure in United States history. This is also due to your knowledge, as Washington is likely the only person you know by name. Again, it is common to focus on the known and ignore the unknown.

If you said “This pictures a bunch of people, one whose name is George Washington” you would have given a broader answer, while acknowledging the extent of your knowledge.

Also, notice that your answer was not ‘sky, water and ice,’ even though sky, water and ice takes up more space than the men, boat and flag. This was due to your bias that the human is the natural center of attention.

The initial request of this chapter was to give objective identifications, but your answers were subjective. I didn’t ask for your moral judgment of George Washington versus other men, whether a bald eagle is more significant than out of focus background trees or the relative financial value of a watch.

These and other types of subjective judgments are both natural and essential to humans. Quick interpretations of scenes, including judging what is and is not important, is essential to getting through our day to day lives. You wouldn’t have lasted long on this earth if you placed equal visual significance on a twig on the pavement and a car speeding in your path. If someone unexpectedly tosses you a ball, you catch the ball by focusing on it. If you focus on the thrower’s shoes or what’s on TV, it is probable you will drop the ball.

The problem is that, while essential, this type of subjective identification helps make it impossible to make objective identification. One’s identification is always shaped by one’s knowledge level, past experience, aesthetic view, pattern biases and value judgments. As shown with the identification of the three pictures, the human is often not aware of this influence. To many people, biases are what others have.

 

RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS AND TEXTS ARE FIGURATIVE AND TRANSLATIONS

Depictions of gods and transcendent reality, religious stories and ceremonies are human translations of abstract ideas for understanding, teaching and communication. The learned religious know that they are just translations of ideas that are beyond human understanding. 

Teaching must be done in languages the students understand. Jesus taught in parables, Buddha in en riddles. The Christian ‘Kingdom of God,’ doesn’t mean a physical building, but a state of enlightenment. Hindus use deities to represent transcendent reality, because a literal depiction would be beyond normal human comprehension and understanding. As the Hindu student becomes more and more learned the depictions of transcendent reality becomes more and more intricate and complex. Jesus himself, or at least as he is portrayed and symbolized, is a metaphor.

Some anti-theists and atheists make straw man arguments against theism, mocking their beliefs in deities and myths. However, they do not realize that the deities and stories are not taken literally by the learned religious. Learned Christians do not literally believe God is an old man with a white beard and robe sitting on a throne in heaven, and learned Hindus do not believe in thousands of Gods. 

 

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The Ancient Egyptian depictions of the gods were not intended as literal representations, as the Egyptians believed the gods’ true forms and natures were mysterious and beyond human comprehension. The depictions were in forms or symbols recognizable to humans and represented each god’s role in nature.

 

ONE’S STYLE OF THINKING INFLUENCES ONE’S BELIEFS

Those who come to conclusions emotionally and intuitively, or ‘from the gut,’ are more likely to believe in God or religious higher power. Those who have had their gut reactions proven correct, are more likely to trust the natural cognitive tendencies described in this chapter, and believe in magic, the paranormal and God. 

Those who think logically and in the past had their intuition proven wrong are less likely to believe in God or a religious higher power. They have learned to question, or double check, their normal cognitive biases and innate tendencies. They think of other possibilities. 

“It is the standard skeptical narrative that people are biased in numerous ways. The “default mode” of human behavior is to drift along with the currents of our cognitive biases, unless we have critical thinking skills as a rudder or paddle (choose your nautical metaphor). Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is the only way for our higher cognitive function (evidence, analysis, logic) to take control of our beliefs from our baser instincts”– Steve Novella MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University (reference )

Link: What Kind of Thinker Believes in God?

 

MORE CONSCIOUS REASONS 

Humans often choose to believe in a god and higher powers for conscious and calculated reasons. These include if they so greatly dislike chaos that they choose an artificial answer, they want purpose in their life, they fear death, like the idea of universal justice, want a way to deal with loss or suffering. Some do it because it makes them feel better.

Many are theists in order to fit in with a theistic culture or community. Many religious beliefs are an integral part of culture. Major reasons people belong to a church for the social aspects and community. Believing in a religion and following its practices is as natural as being a part of the community and culture.

 

SOCIAL ORDER

Shared beliefs, purpose and meaning are important for any social group, and many societies and groups have used God or higher power to keep societies together and functioning. Games require rules, often arbitrary ones. This is a standard reason for the belief in God, even today. Of course many leaders have called themselves deities or gods or said they had a special connection to higher power. 

“Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty—the feeling that you “know,” that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong.”– Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor (Reference )

In the beginning and end, humans can only perceive, think about and conceptualize things in human ways– their biases, logic, biology, intuition senses and logic. Thus, the perception of the universe and abstract is seen and described in human ways and with human qualities and concepts. It should be of no surprise that many think of and describe the universe in human-like imagery and with human-like stories and motives. The non-religious do as well, if not invoking a deity. 

 

THESE PROCESSES NEITHER PROVE NOR DISPROVE THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

Some will say these innate psychological processes prove that God does not exist and is merely the product of the human mind. This is not true. They certainly are evidence that religious and other conceptions are in part human creations, but they are not proof against or for the existence of God or higher power. 

 

Further Reading

Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems

 

THE INVENTION, DEVELOPMENT AND IMPORTANCE OF THE NUMBER ZERO

The numeral zero, a symbol and concept, has been called one of the most important inventions of human history. 

While the early numeral systems were fine for rudimentary counting, they were cumbersome, messy and sometimes impossible for multiplication, division and more complex arithmetic. Modern math, such as calculus, could not be done or conceived of with them.  

It was the invention and development of zero that allowed for complex calculations, advanced algebra, calculus, exponential numbers and more. Computers, nuclear physics, modern statistics, space travel, modern science and the couples inventions and knowledge from complex mathematics require the numeral zero. 

The history of the numeral zero is long and winding, with different versions of it being invented in different places, and its provenance certain.  `

Our 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 Hindu-Arabic decimal system uses a symbol for zero and a placement system for counting. A numeral is defined by where a symbol is in the number, and zero is used as a place marker.: 10, 100, 203.   This zero and place marker helps us make big numbers without the need for more symbols.

The Hindu-Arabic system adds a zero to get 100.  Add another zero and you get 1000. This makes for division by ten, and exponential numbers, simple.  We take for granted this use of zero and placement to make big numerals, but this wasn’t always the case. 

 

Before Zero

Early numeral systems had no symbol or sometimes even idea for zero. Without a zero, some systems needed a different symbol 10, 20, 30, 40, 500 and so on. This not only made for messy numbers but made division and calculation difficult. 

Imagine division in, say, the Egyptians or Romans system that had no such decimal placement or zero.  1,504 – 103 is a simple calculation. The equivalent in Roman numerals (MDIV – CIII) is messy.

The earliest numeral system by the Summarians had no marker for zeroes numbers, which made for reading numbers sometimes impossible,

Say we have no zero in our numeration system and I give you the numeral ‘11’.  You can’t know if that means eleven, one hundred one, one thousand one, one million, ten million or other.  The use of a zero symbol allows us to say 11 (eleven) 101 (one hundred one), 1001 (one thousand one).

The Babylonians, who inherited and developed their system from the Sumerians, added a space as a marker between numbers to indicate the equivalent of a zero.

If we add a space instead of a zero  we can differentiate between those 11 numbers

11 = eleven

1 1 (one space between 1’s) = one hundred one

1   1 (two spaces between ones) = one thousand one.

The problem with the Babylonian system is you can’t always tell how many spaces are between symbols.

1       1 = how many spaces are between those 1’s? Even I don’t know, as I didn’t count.  

Duly note that Babylonian numerals were used in a context of what was being counted. It was applied to daily events not used abstractly.  If you know the context (sheep in a herd, plates at the dinner table) you could deduce the number. There might be 10 plates at an average Babylonian dinner table, but not 100 and certainly not 10000.  But this space system still caused ambiguity to the Babylonians. 

To counter this the Babylonians invented a placeholder symbol to clearly mark the spaces between numerals.  For reading a numeral, this worked as the equivalent of our zero.

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The top Mayan number 104 has a space for the tens ‘column’, while the bottom has little titted wedges.

A few other early systems independently invented their own placeholder symbols. The Mayans used a shell-like symbol, while the Khmer used a dot.  

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The number 605 in Khmer numerals, from AD 683). The earliest known material the use of zero as a decimal figure.`

 

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Mayan shell-shaped  zero

A problem with the Babylonian and other early systems is they didn’t use their separation marker or zero symbol after numerals.  Thus, you can’t tell if 11 means eleven, one hundred ten (110 if a zero were used), one thousand one hundred (11000) or other.

Early counting devices– the Inca Quipu, Asian rod counting board and abacus,  had spaces, or blank spots to denote nothing in a digit column.  

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The middle chord on the Inca Quipu has a space for -0 in the tens ‘column’

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The spaces in the Asian rod counting board indicate there is nothing in ones and thousands columns,

 

The invention of zero as a symbol and a numerical concept

While the zero or equivalent as a marker made for easier reading of numbers and doing simple addition and subtraction, zero had to be conceived of and used as an actual concept and numeral/number in and of itself before it could be used for advanced calculations

Though people have always understood the concept of nothing or having nothing. However, nothing as a “thing,” not only a symbol but a concept, took a long while to develop in math.  

“How can anything be something?” was often pondered.   Yet, space is full of nothing. The empty space in an empty box is nothing yet something.  The empty space on the Asian counting board, between the knots on an Inca Quipu, or between the ones and hundreds is something.  In mathematics, nothing is something and is called and symbolized as nothing.   

It was the Indians who began to understand zero both as a symbol and as an idea, and fully developed it in the 5 century AD.   It is believed that they were able to do this because emptiness is a major concept and goal in Buddhism and Hinduism. Thus, the concept of a numerical nothingness or emptiness was something they could more readily understand. The English word zero is derived from the Hindu word “sunyata” which means nothingness. 

Brahmagupta was an Indian mathematician and astronomer, who further developed zero and arithmetic.  He wrote standard rules for reaching zero through addition and subtraction as well as the results of operations with zero.   Brahmagupta was the first to give rules to compute with zero, and wrote the first book that had rules for arithmetic manipulations that apply to zero and negative numbers.  You need a zero before you can have negative numbers. His arithmetic rules were in alignment with today’s except for division by zero.  That would be corrected years later by Isaac Newton and G.W. Leibniz to solve.

It would be a few centuries for zero to reach Europe.

Arabian sailors brought Brahmagupta’s book back from India. Zero reached Baghdad by 773 AD where it was developed by Arabian mathematicians who would base their numbers on the Indian system. In the ninth century, Persian Mohammed Ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi was the first to work on equations that equal zero. By 879 AD, zero was written almost as a small oval. 

Zero reached Europe by the twelfth century. The Italian mathematician Fibonacci further develop algorithms with the abacus, which until that time had been the most common tool to do arithmetic.  His arithmetic using zero spread with German accountants and bankers. Merchants knew their books were balanced when the positive and negative amounts of their assets and liabilities equaled zero. 

Some Medieval European religious leaders were against the use of the symbol. They felt that if God was everything and in everything, then nothing must be the devil. They sometimes forbid the use of zeros,. However merchants often still used zero if on the sky 

French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes advanced the use and concept of zero.  He introduced the Cartesian coordinate system, which uses the origin of (0,0) to make graphs still commonly used in math and science.

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The cartesian coordinate system with (0,0) at the center

Adding, subtracting, and multiplying by zero are relatively simple operations. However, division by zero long confused even great minds. How many times does zero go into one? How many nothings exist in something? The answer is indeterminate, but using the concept of dividing by infinity and nearing zero is the key to calculus. 

In the 1600’s, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently studied and solved the issue of dividing by zero.  Working with numbers as they approach zero, they invented calculus. Fully called calculus of the infinitesimal, calculus works to find information about time, space, motion at infinitesimal points nearing zero. The calculus formulas are functions of time, and so one can think of calculus as studying functions of time. Among the physical concepts that use concepts of calculus include motion, electricity, heat, light, harmonics, acoustics, astronomy, and dynamics.  It has been essential for everything from physics to economics to statistics to computers.

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES: THE NEVERENDING DEBATE

Mysticism has long been an attempt to expand the mind and understanding beyond normal boundaries, and mystical experiences were the genesis of religion. Mystical experiences are neurological events where parts of the brain are suppressed in order to more fully utilize other parts. The metaphysical meaning of these experiences has long been debated by theologians, philosophers and scientists.

This is a chapter reprinted from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.  

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OVERVIEW

Mystical experiences are altered states of consciousness that seem to the person in the state to take him beyond the normal consciousness and give him a union or experience with a transcendent reality. Mysticism is the area of trying to reach mystical states. 

All religions have their mystical traditions or subdivisions. These include the Jewish Kabbalah, Muslim Sufis and Christian mystics. Some religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and some aboriginal religions, can be considered essentially, or largely, mystical. 

Though commonly associated with religion, mystical experiences involve genuine neurological events that are also experienced by non-religious believers, including agnostics and atheists. It is that the experiences are often interpreted by the experiencer as being transcendental reality that it is associated with religion. Mystical experiences are the genesis of religions.

Mystical experiences have been experienced throughout human history, and many people today have them, whether in religious or secular life. According to a 2009 Pew survey, 49% of respondents said that they had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” Those who said they experienced them included the young and old, religious and non-religious. (Reference: ‘Frequency of spiritual/religious experiences’ religiousnaturalism.orgr).

During mystical experiences, people feel connected to a transcendent reality and often describe gaining profound knowledge and insights. The experiences involve changes in perception or sense of time, space and reality. Time seems to slow or cease to exist, the sense of self and ego dissolves, and the person feel one with the universe. 

According to Andrew Newberg MD, professor of medicine and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the experiencers perceive the physical world in a much more vivid and intense way, as if their senses are heightened ( reference: medium.com). 

The following is famed primatologist Jane Goodall description of her mystical experience:

“Lost in the awe at the beauty around me, I must have slipped into a state of heightened awareness…It seemed to me, as I struggled afterward to recall the experience, that self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself…Never had I been so intensely aware of the shape, the color of the individual leaves, the varied patterns of the veins that made each one unique. It was almost overpowering.” (reference: medium.com)

In his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experiences, Harvard University philosopher and psychologist William James said that the experiences are beyond words. They cannot be fully explained or communicated to others, just experienced. James was only interested in these experiences, and not the human-made dogmas and structures religions used to explain them.

German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto similarly said that the mystical experience is a-rational, meaning it is a direct experience and not to be explained with reason. (Reference: Mystical Experience/ Rudolf Otto )

VIDEOS

The following is an audio discussion about the nature of the mystical experience from British philosopher Alan Watts : Alan Watts – The mystical experience

The following is an interview with people who have had mystical experiences: “Enlightened Beings Share Their Awakening, Mystical Experiences”

 

METHODS FOR OBTAINING MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES

Mystical experiences can happen spontaneously and without intention for both the religious and secular. However, there have also been intentional efforts to produce them, including via religious and secular practices. 

Religious mystical ceremonies often involve meditation, music, chants, shamanic drumming, dance or such to achieve a trance-like state. 

For believers, these ceremonies are typically coupled with a way of life, including good living, morality, discipline, freeing oneself from lust and greed and anger, having feelings and actions of kindness and charity. Meditations, reciting mantras, focusing the mind on the higher power are supposed to be a part of daily life. For Jews, the daily life, every event, is supposed to be treated as holy. For many aboriginal tribes, living in harmony and reverence with nature, which they consider holy, is a part of their life. Having a practiced, undistracted, meditative mindset is important to achieving mystical experiences, even for the non-religious. For example, serious non-religious people meditate daily, often multiple times daily, while also being mindful throughout their day.

The following are just a few examples of religious mystical practices and ceremonies.

The Mevlevi Sema ceremony is a Muslim Sufi ceremony with music, singing, dancing, poetry and other rituals. The participants try to purify the soul and connect with Allah. They can enter different physical and mental states, in particular during the dancing. 

A famous Mevlevi dance involves the Whirling Dervishes, who whirl to get into a mystical state.

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Whirling Dervishes

Video: Whirling Dervishes dancing

Video: Whirling Explanation by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani

Hindu Yoga involves mental, physical and spiritual practices. Coupled with a proper lifestyle, they are designed to get the person to the mystical state of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of the religion.

There are four methods of Yoga, each designed for different personalities and ways of learning. Hinduism is psychologically modern in that it appreciates that people learn and experience things differently.

Catholic mystical prayer is meditative prayer that Catholics say they use to expand the mind and commune with God:

“Contemplative prayer has the tendency to become ever simpler and more silent. As we gain experience in this form of prayer we need fewer and fewer thoughts, until finally one single thought may be sufficient to find the way to truth and God. Fewer thoughts demand fewer words. St. Francis used the phrase My God and my all’ as his theme of contemplation for a whole night. . . . In contemplation our mode of thinking changes. From its usual restlessness it becomes a quiet beholding and a comprehending, a watching and a witnessing. Our voice changes: it becomes softer and lower. Finally, speech dies down and its place is taken by a silent regarding and longing between the soul and God. If we should reach this stage in contemplation, we should not force ourselves back into the diversity of thought. When simplicity contains the essence, there is no need for diversity; when silence is eloquent, it is greater than words.” — ‘The Art of Contemplative & Mystical Prayer’ by Father Romano Guardini (catholicexchange.org )

The Jewish Kabbalah is a mystical sect of Judaism that does many things to try to personally/experientially get closer to God. Judaism teaches the contradiction that God is both beyond humans, yet humans can have a connection to Him via mystical experience.

Video: Sacred Practice: Kabbalah Practice with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

The Sun Dance is a ceremony of some American Indian tribes of the United States and Canada, primarily the Plains tribes. The ceremonies include ancient songs, prayers, drumming and dances, fasting and the ceremonial piercing of the skin during a trial of endurance.

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Lakota Sun Dance

Video: The Sundance Ceremony 

Taoism is a mystical religion that uses mystical practices, such as Tai Chi, to connect to the perceived flow of the universe. Taoists believe that physical movement, even in how one walks across the room, is important to becoming connected with ‘the way’ of the universe.

Interfaith religions, and many other religious leaders and theologians acknowledge that there are many different personal paths to achieve mystical experiences and enlightenment, based on the person’s personality, background, language and culture. Though one must focus in the specific method, whether it is secular meditation or Christian prayer. The human requires focus, and one cannot obtain enlightenment through proverbial multitasking.

“There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain telling everyone that their path is wrong”– Hindu proverb

MEDITATION

Meditation is commonly associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, but is used in all religions and also by the non-religious. Mediation works to calm the conscious mind, to remove the daily conscious chatter and idle thoughts that enter human minds. 

The meditator uses various possible methods to clear quiet. One is to focus on a single thing– a mantra, one’s breath. A common Hindu meditation is to not focus on anything but remove external thoughts as they enter. With the mind quieted, and the conscious thoughts removed, there can be a mental awakening. Buddha and Mohammed achieved enlightenment after lengthy periods of medication. 

“Emptiness meditation — to sit quietly and empty oneself of all mental images (thoughts, feelings, and so on), to ‘forget about everything’, in order to experience inner quiet and emptiness. In this state, vital force and “spirit” is collected and replenished.”– Taoist meditation (thewayofmeditation.com.au)

All religious mystical practices involve meditation in some form or other. It can involve the meditative practice of focusing on a mantra, focused scripture reading, drumming, ceremonies, music, art, dance, even walking or eating. The counting of the Catholic rosaries is a meditative task. Any singular repeated or focused task, even playing chess or knitting, can be meditiative if it involves singular focus and removal of other thoughts.

Nearly all sacred religious scripture alludes to meditation:

“Commune with your heart upon your bed, and be silent”– Hebrew Bible

“Verily, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes”– Buddhism, Dhammapada 282

“He is revealed only to those who keep their minds one-pointed on the Lord of Love and thus develop a superconscious manner of knowing. Meditation enables them to go deeper and deeper into consciousness, From the world of words to the world of thoughts, Then beyond thoughts to wisdom in the Self.” — The Upanishads (Hinduism)

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES THROUGH SECULAR PRACTICES

Mystical experiences happen not only in religious settings, but secular. Many atheists and agnostics have such experiences when meditating, focusing on work, study, when in nature, and experiencing art, athletics, fasting. Some say the runner’s high, or the athlete being in the zone is a form of mystical state.

“To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature . If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”–Nobel Physics Prize winner Richard Feynman on the spiritual experience of doing math

“A chess player (said) that when he plays the game, ‘I have a general sense of well-being, a feeling of complete control over my world.’ Similarly, a dancer told him that during her performances, ‘A strong relaxation and calmness comes over me. I have no worries of failure. What a powerful and warm feeling it is! I want to expand, to hug the world. I feel enormous power to affect something of grace and beauty.’”– Psychologist Steve Taylor, Spirituality: The Hidden Side of Sports (ru.org)

 

ART

“Bach is Bach, as God is God” — Hector Berlioz

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The Fox Hunt’ (1893) by Winslow Homer

Art is a common source and device to achieve mystical experiences. 

“It is inevitable that inspired art and illumined writing should arouse the beginning of mystical feelings in the hearts of those prepared and sensitive enough to appreciate mysticism. But even in hearts not so ready, the dim echoes of such feelings are often aroused. This is particularly true of music. If he can lay himself open to the power of beauty in art or nature, letting it get deep inside him, he may receive an intuition or attain an experience as mystical as the meditator’s.”– Paul Bruton, British theosophist and spiritualist, ‘Art Experience and Mysticism’, Notebooks of Paul Brunton (paul brunton.org)

The perception of art is dealt within chapters 23 and 28-34 of Understanding Human Minds in their Limits

By definition, art produces a sublime experience that is more than the sum of its parts. What is telling is that art produces the experience through fiction, artificial devices and the subjectivity of the audience. It expresses things that cannot be directly expressed in reality and literalness. This is a commentary on the human mind and understanding.

“Art is a lie that takes us closer to the truth”– Picasso

University College London neurobiology professor Semir Zeki said that, though they didn’t realize it, great artists were neuroscientists in that they used angles, symbols, colors and other qualities to influence the audience’s minds. 

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Composition VI (1913) by Wassily Kandinsky. One of the first non-representational abstract painters, Wassily Kandinsky was an academic who carefully studied and theorized how colors, shapes and other qualities resonated with the viewer. He was also a devout Russian Orthodox Christian who aspired to make his paintings a spiritual experience for both himself and the audience.

It is also telling that the artistic experience is subjective to the person. People may get similar sublime experiences, but through different artworks. As the old saying goes, art is in the eye of the beholder. This is a commentary on other religious practices that are psychologically interpreted by the individual.

DRUGS AND MENTAL CONDITIONS

Certain drugs have been shown to lead to mystical states. These include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote and marijuana. Peyote is used in some American Indian ceremonies, and marijuana is sometimes used by Hindus and Rastafarians. 

These drugs work by suppressing the parts of the brain that create geographic and time categories and labels, and allow the intuitive, emotional perception of sensory information that is the mystical experience.

Video: Harvard psychologist and Hindu spiritual teacher Ram Dass on drugs and mysticism

Video: University of Toronto Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson on Mystical Experiences through Psychedelics

Article: Harvard Psychiatrist and Minister Walter Pahke on drugs and mysticism

Some mental conditions have been associated with mystical experiences. These include some forms of epileptic seizures, schizophrenia and bipolarism. 

Video: Scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience after having a stroke

“Ecstatic epileptic seizures are a rare but compelling epileptic entity. During the first seconds of these seizures, ecstatic auras provoke feelings of well-being, intense serenity, bliss, and ‘enhanced self-awareness.’ They are associated with the impression of time dilation, and can be described as a mystic experience by some patients.” — Markus Gschwind and Fabienne Picard, Neurology Department at the University Hospital of Geneva (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4756129/)

Link to Article on psychiatric medicine and spiritual states by psychologist Lynn Vanderpot 

 Link to Paper on Schizophrenia and mysticism by Joseph Parmas and Gram Henrickson of the University of Copenhagen (Mysticism and schizophrenia: A phenomenological exploration of the structure of consciousness in the schizophrenia spectrum disorders)

Link to Article on epilepsy and mystical experiences by University of South Carolina-Aiken philosophy professor D. B. Dillard-Wright 

 

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE NATURE, MEANING AND AUTHENTICITY OF THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES

While there is no debate that they involve genuine neurological experiences, there is an ongoing and ultimately unanswerable debate over what are the musical experiences and what if any metaphysical/spiritual meaning they have: if they are authentic views of transcendent reality, merely delusory/hallucinatory states of the mind, or some combination.

 

RELIGIOUS TRUE BELIEVERS

Many religious believers believe that mystical states are authentic, direct looks into a transcendent reality and even God. They believe either that these states and knowledge are given to them by God, or the altered state involves a cleared mind that allows them to see truth.

“My most formative religious experiences were a series of mystical experiences. They began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced. These experiences also convinced me that mystical forms of Christianity are true, and that the mystical forms of all the enduring religions of the world are true.”– Oregon State University Professor of Religion Marcus Borg (marcusjborg.org/mystical-experiences-of-god/)

“The same dynamic takes place when God reveals Godself to women and men. At certain times in our lives, God’s gracious presence becomes manifest in our lives as God communicates God subjectivity through subjectivity. Through concrete events in our lives, or particular words– very ordinary things– God becomes present and palpable to us in God’s incomprehensible, inexpressible, mysterious reality. This is the pattern of divine revelations: the finite reveals the infinite, the objective reveals the subjective, what is ordinary reveals what is Mystery.”– Stephen B. Bevans. Jesuit Priest and Professor of Theology and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, in An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Orbis Books).

In non-theistic religions- such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and some traditional aboriginal religions– there is no god but an enlightenment or higher state of awareness. These can be considered constant mystical states. Jesus, Buddha, Moses and Muhammad were said to be enlightened individuals, or people living in mystical states. 

In the interview, ‘‘Can We Trust Religious Experiences?” (link ) Christian professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, William Lane Craig, said that, even using normal logic, the religious mystical experiences could be argued to be authentic. His argument is that there are many unprovable things that humans all accept as true, due to experience and innate thought. These include that the external world humans perceive is real, that the past was real, that humans aren’t computers run by a mad scientist, that they weren’t born five minutes ago with an implanted false memory of the past. He said human’s shared beliefs about these things are unprovable, yet humans accept them as self evidently true. He said people come to these conclusions using what is widely considered to be good reason and logic. He said that, along these rational lines, someone’s perceived personal experience connecting with God, coupled with that many people have these shared experiences, can just as reasonably be considered real. These mystical experiences with God probably being called real is as reasonable as the average person probably saying the external world he perceives as being real. 

Of course, it could be argued that neither perception was correct, and both involve delusion and biased answers to some degree. Both views could be delusory, and all human perception and judgment involves delusion and subjectivity.

 

SKEPTICS

Skeptics, including some scientists, say that mystical experiences are strictly in the mind and are on the order of delusions or hallucinations. That drugs and mental illnesses can lead to them have is seen to them as proof of this. Many of these people accept the humanistic, rational point of view of the world, and accept the normal human perception of the world as accurate. Many of these people use science as arbiter, and don’t buy anything that hasn’t been, or the can’t be, proven by science. 

Article: “Turns out near-death experiences are psychedelic, not religious” 

 

THE MIDDLE ROAD

These people say that the experiences are the result of changes to the brain, but that the experiences are not hallucinations or psychoses, but different than normal sensory experiences. 

Neuroscience studies of the brain support this contention that mystical experiences are different experiences of sensory information. 

During mystical experiences, the parts of the brain that are associated with filtering and translating sensory information, categorization, language, creating ideas of self, separation of self from other, perception and categorizing of time and space are reduced. The person receives the sensory information unfiltered and untranslated (or at least to a much lesser degree) by these parts of the brain. Thus, the sense of self seems to dissolve, normal categorizations and perceptions of time and space disappear, and there is a rush of sensory information. 

Additionally, there is often a rush of dopamine that makes the person feel bliss. Thus, people not only get a different rush of sensory information, but an associated sense of beauty, happiness and love. Aesthetics and emotions are an integral part of humans accepting facts and ideas. (“To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.”– Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epistemology).

“The frontal lobes are the most evolved areas of the human brain, and help control and make sense of the perceptual input we get from the world. When the frontal lobes’ inhibitory functions are suppressed, a door of perception can open, increasing the chances of mystical experiences.”– Jordan Grafman, Professor and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Cognitive Neurology & Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Northwestern University Medical School ( reference: livescience.com)

“When activity in the networks of the superior parietal cortex [a region in the upper part of the parietal lobe, which is a structure slightly above and behind our ears] or our prefrontal cortex [the section of the frontal cortex that lies at the very front of the brain] increases or decreases, our bodily boundaries change. These parts of the brain control our sense of self in relation to other objects in the world, as well as our bodily integrity; hence the ‘out of body’ and ‘extended self’ sensations and perceptions many people who have had mystical experiences confess to. . . . At the same time, midbrain dopaminergic pathways — key circuits in the brain that create and release the neurotransmitter dopamine — are activated to release dopamine in networks of the forebrain,” — James Giordano. Professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center 

“Andrew Newberg believes a cause of these feelings is the reduced activity he saw in their parietal lobes, the orientation area of the brain responsible for perceiving three-dimensional objects in space. A meditator may experience a sense of oneness with all living things or unity because the reduced activity blurs the perceived lines between the meditator and other objects . . . When the parietal lobes are damaged, patients have distorted beliefs about their own bodies and are sometimes confused about their spatial orientation to outside objects. In an example from Why We Believe What We Believe, patients think one of their own legs is not theirs, and have been found trying to throw this other leg out of their bed. In his new book, Newberg cites a study led by Dr. Brick Johnstone that found that damage to the right parietal lobe caused patients’ self-transcendent experiences to increase.” ( Reference: theatlantic.com )

“This suggests that these spots may be linked to inhibitory cognitive functions, and a suppression of these functions, which typically help us regulate and resolve our perceptual experiences, appears to open up a ‘door of perception’, exposing people to more mystical experiences.” Dr. Irene Cristofori from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and French National Centre for Scientific Research ( reference )

The psychedelic drugs can do this. American Indians practitioners say that the peyote is not the source of the vision or mystical knowledge, but used to cleanse the mind for them to have the experience.

“Sometimes we ask the peyote to help us cleanse the illnesses away and cleanse our mental being, our spiritual being, And we believe that’s what peyote does, too. That’s why we call it a sacrament, a sacred herb.” — Navajo High Priest Fred Harvey ( reference: npr.og )

“The Peyote Sacrament and Its Way is part of the Great Mystery. Its focused agenda is for the maturing of the soul. Peyote unique abilities can cut through any resistance, whispering to the inquisitive heart a fundamental question at the core of every soul’s experience, “What are we? . . . . Indigenous people of North and South America have a long, rich tradition of experiencing themselves as part of all that we see. There is no separation between our surroundings and us. Intelligence is experienced to be in and through all things…birds, bees, rocks, trees, plants and water…the list includes all of Creation.”– Kevin ‘He Who Has Know Name’ Towt, President of Oklevueha Native American Church of Orderville and Toquerville (references: nativeamericanchurches.org)

In his book Waking From Sleep (Penguin Random House, 2010) Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor writes that schizophrenics have unfiltered sensory information– heightened senses, more information–, but without the normal conscious cognitive functions that organize it. In the book, a woman with schizophrenia said that schizophrenia is great for painting and writing poetry, but she can’t drive a car because she notices all the details in and to the side of the road (the crack in the road, a leaf, etc).

 

MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES DEMONSTRATE THE ARTIFICIAL COGNITIVE CONSTRUCTS OF THE HUMAN MIND 

This all points to that the standard human perceptions of time, space, categories, labels, linguistic explanations, rationality are artificial constructs of their mind. The mystical experiences are unfiltered, or less filtered by these. There is no separation of things, language and categories and labels don’t apply. Mysticism is a method to try and free one of these artificial constructs of the normal mind.

The conscious structures, arbitrariness and labels are required for function and survival of the species, but should not be confused for reality or objective truth. In fact, function requires false beliefs, arbitrary rules and distorting information (See chapter 18). This is is only in part because the human mind needs attention to function and function requires rules and focus, even if delusory or arbitrary. So the conscious mind is in part designed to fool and lie and hide facts from the mind and make artificial rules and constructs. And mystical experiences remove or suppress these, and people who have had mystical experiences suddenly see the falseness of these traditional perceptions.

In Awakening from Sleep, Steve Taylor writes that mystical experiences contradict ordinary consciousness in three ways:

“As we see, the experiences tell us that our normal view is false. This strong ego structure has given us some massive benefits, such as greater powers of abstract thought (when we analyse, deliberate and plan) and greater conceptual knowledge (e.g., knowledge of the laws of nature, of the structure of matter and of the universe self. It has also given us more personal autonomy, leading to more control over our life. But in a sense the ego has become overdeveloped. Its boundaries have become too strong and its self-reflective ability has muted into the chaotic thought-chatter that runs through our mind whenever our attention isn’t occupied.“

Many ancient mystical religions, such as Sufism, Buddhism and Hinduism, discuss the cleansing of the mind, ridding oneself of normal mind chatter and categorization and labels in order to perceive reality. Buddhist meditation attempts to move beyond symbolic human language. This was before science learned what was going on in the mind. 

American religious philosopher Huston Smith said that humans are divine within, as there is divinity without, but that they can be like a dirty lantern with caked on soil that masks the light. He said it is an endless quest to keep the surface of the lantern clean. (Reference: Huston Smith: Psychology of Religious Experience )

University of Pennsylvania’s Andrew Newberg says that human epiphanies, the small ‘Aha!’ moments, are moments of mystical clarity. The person is suddenly seeing things from a different picture, seeing the big picture, and things fall into place in the mind.

 

THE MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE IS EXPLAINED THROUGH ONE’S CULTURE, LANGUAGE, BELIEFS, SENSORY ABILITIES, BIOLOGY

Even if the mystical experiences of people are very similar, the individual interpretations and explanations are influenced by the individual’s background, culture and beliefs. 

In his book Religious Experiences (University of California Press, 1985), Columbia University philosophy of religion professor Wayne Proudfoot writes that mystical experiences are explained in a religious framework, and that the framework is unconscious. A Christian may say she saw the Christian God, a Muslim Allah, and an atheist a secular vision.

In his book Mysticism and Philosophy, Princeton University philosopher Walter Terence Stace says that mysticism is perception not interpretation, and that only after the mystical experience is the interpretation made. 

Psychologist Carl Jung discussed how much of human’s cognitive ordering, how they feel and react to a situation is, is evolutionarily ingrained in us. He said that the mythical archetypal visions of hero, tree of life, mother, birth, death, wise old man, are ingrained in their minds, shared by most humans, and thus theoretically appear in mystical visions across many cultures. 

With his theory of Pluralism, influential religious philosopher and Presbyterian Minister John Hick believed that if different religions have genuine views into transcendent reality (and he believed that they have), these views are filtered through each religion’s/people’s culture, time and place in history, political happenings, language, sentiments and artistic traditions. 

“In the late 1960s, Hick had (a) set of experiences that dramatically affected his life and work. While working on civil rights issues in Birmingham, he found himself working and worshiping alongside people of other faiths. During this time he began to believe that sincere adherents of other faiths experience the Transcendent just as Christians do, though with variances due to cultural, historical, and doctrinal factors. These experiences led him to develop his pluralistic hypothesis, which, relying heavily on Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal distinction, states that adherents of the major religious faiths experience the ineffable Real through their varying culturally shaped lenses. ” — David Cramer, Religious Studies Dept., Baylor University (reference) 

Hick knew how human minds work, and that the broader reality and universe are beyond human conception and senses and had to be translated for humans to grasp. The translation is via language, culture, aesthetic norms, sentiments and social standards. The sacred texts are composed by people for people and their understanding and learning, written in human language and cultural sensibilities. Jesus and Buddha used instructional parables humans could understand and relate to. Hindu texts and art uses symbols and deities to represent higher reality. Organized religions and their scriptures are human products and artifacts, and are inherently human-centric with all the associate issues that come with human-centrism and human methods of sensing and thinking.

And, as is apt to happen, some will interpret the particular path they took to achieve the mystical state (ceremony, religion, artwork, other) to be the ‘correct’ if not ‘only true’ path to enlightenment. It is like people who try to ‘objectively’ identify the best art, when the artistic experience is personally subjective.

 

EVEN BEYOND THESE DIFFERENCES CAUSED BY THE BELIEFS, THE EXPERIENCES ARE STILL NOT PROVABLE OF TRUTH

Even though these experiences point to human’s normal views of realism being artificial and arbitrary constructs, that does not mean the mystical experiences are ‘truth’ or ‘reality’– though many claim they are. 

The experiences are experiences. They may be less formed by the normal artificial cognitive constructs of the mind, but they are still formed by the limits of human senses, their biology. They are still a limited sensory view. There is no way to know this heightened sensory experience is ‘truth’ or ‘reality.’ 

In the beginning and in the end, they are experiences. Trying to interpret them, assign meaning, translate them into language, communicate what they are to others, are at odds of what the are. It is fine to have an opinion about what is this experience– but realize that it is just that, an opinion. Humans want explanations for events, but not only cannot that be done here, the rational or intuitive translation itself is opposed to the experiential nature. 

It is interesting to note that theologians say that God or higher reality is both beyond human comprehension and not. An oxymoron. They discuss how God and transcendent reality is beyond human language, logic, conception and human constructs, but that one can have a personal relationship or experience with it (mysticism). They also talk how God or transcendental reality cannot be understood intellectually but can be through the personal mystical experience. They say the mystical experience is a matter of being viscerally/experientially aware of it. They see the mystical experiences as truth, which is debatable, but are sharply aware of the dual nature of the mind and thinking. Look at the competing quotes from the Koran:

“No vision can grasp Him. He is above all comprehension.”– Quran

“Allah as close to a man as the vein in his neck.”– Quran

Mystical experiences are good as they offer a different mental viewpoint that demonstrates that the normal human view is arbitrary and false, and that there are different ways to look at things. This itself is mind expanding. However, in the end they are just experiences and there is no proof or real reason to think of them as ‘true.’ 

 

WHETHER REAL OR NOT, MYSTICAL EXPERIENCES CAN BE LIFE CHANGING

Whether or not they are truthful looks at reality, the mystical events can change people’s lives and help their lives. Even if they are not insights into objective truth, they can give people new perspectives on things, new perspectives on their lives. They can make one reflect on the artifice of one’s life and society, put things into different perspective. 

“Mystical experiences are events that can shake up your world in a single moment. They can also help us ‘on the way out’; we exit them ‘transformed,”meaning that the insights into our personal life or our very sense of being are deeper and sharper after them.” — Andrew Newberg MD, University of Pennsylvania. 

One should also not merely try to expand one’s mind through the rare mystical experience, but through daily work. This includes meditation or helpful spiritual practices, and paying attention to the world. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ may not induce a mystical state, but it is a daily practice that opens the mind and keeps things in perspective. 

“There are two mistakes you can make. One is that you’re too afraid of them, so you don’t allow them at all in your life, you’re terrified of letting go of control. The other mistake is that you’re really attached to them, so you’re constantly searching for a high. It’s about finding a place for these experiences in your life.”– Jules Evans, research fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for the History of Human Emotions

 

SUMMARY: KEY POINTS
Mystical experiences are altered from normal states of consciousness where it seems to the experiencer that one has an expansive view or experience of the universe. The normal perception of time, categorization and space dissolve, and the senses seem more heightened. People often think they receive great insight and sublime knowledge.

Mystical experiences can happen unintentionally, and happen to both the religious and non-religious. There are many ceremonial and other methods to try to achieve them. These include religious art, music, meditation, drugs. Meditation, or meditative states, is a common strain.

Mystical experiences involve genuine neurological changes in the brain. During the experiences, the normal cognitive filters are lowered that allowed a heightened, relatively unfiltered experience of sensory information. This is often coupled with a dopamine rush that gives a good feeling and association.

There are debates about the authenticity and what the experiences mean. True believers believe them a genuine look into reality, transcends reality and even God. Skeptics say they are are just delusions on the order of hallucinations. Those in between say they are genuine sensory experiences when the filters are removed, but assign no special or ‘higher’ meaning to them.

These experiences show that the normal human concepts of labels, categories, self and time are artificial constructs of the mind. 

To the human, the mystical experiences are just sensory experiences. They cannot be explained or interpreted accurately– because that is at odds with the sensory experience. The ‘truth’ or ‘meaning’ cannot be known. Plus, the sensory information is still filtered and formed by human sensory capabilities and biological methods.

These experiences can expand the mind, by giving new experiences, by showing the shallowness of human normal thought and ways of thinking. However, they are still channeled by the mind and senses and are unverifiable.

 

FURTHER READING

Article: “How does neuroscience explain spiritual experiences”

Stephen Hawking’s Views on Mysticism and Science

Article: “Brain origins of mysticism found”

Article on runner’s high

Article: “Neurotheology: Where religion and science collide”

Article: Do Animals Have Spiritual Experiences?

 

6.11 QUESTIONS 

  • Have you had a mystical experience? If so, explain it. How did it/does it affect you?
  • What are your opinions about mystical experiences? What is your opinion about their authenticity? Are there any points in this chapter with which you disagree?
  • Do you think mystical experiences are important? Is honing them important for expanding the mind?
  • How do you think mystical experiences relate to the topic of this book? Do they serve to expand the mind? If so, how?
  • Do you believe in a transcendent reality beyond humans?

Attribution substitution, art perception, and why you can’t affirmatively or negatively say that you believe in god

bikes

God is such a big question, and I think a question far more complex and impossible to even approach than most people realize, that I tend to question both people who say they believe in God and those who say they don’t believe in God.

Einstein said the problem of God was the “most difficult in the world,” a problem that couldn’t be answered with a “yes or no,” and one ”too vast for our limited minds.”

Though a hardcore agnostic, I tend to find that when most atheists I encounter say they don’t believe in God they aren’t even talking about God. They think they’re talking about God, but they aren’t.

But. don’t worry, I’m equally skeptical of most theists.

* * * *

In the picture, which cyclist is going fastest? Most will say the cyclist on our left is going the fastest and the one on the right the slowest.

There are, however, unanswered and unanswerable questions that make it impossible to know. Did they start at the same place? Did they start at the same time? Are they moving forward or backward? Are they moving? I’ve seen sprint cyclists stand still during a race. Even if it’s a normal 1-2-3-Go! race, it’s possible the guy on the right is going the fastest and the guy on the left the slowest at the moment the image was shot. Catching up, slowing down and switching positions are normal parts of all races.

The initial guess was made on a made-up simplified explanation to a complex and unanswerable image.

* * * *

ATTRIBUTION SUBSTITION

In cognitive psychology, attribution substitution is an automatic subconscious process that the mind uses to make speedy decisions needed to function, but that contributes to many cognitive biases, misperceptions and visual illusions. It is a heuristic, or mental shortcut, used when someone has to make a judgment about a complex, ambiguous situation and substitutes a more easily solved situation.

The substitution is done at the automatic subconscious level and the person does not realize he or she is actually answering a related but different question. This helps explain why many individuals can be unaware of their own biases and even persist in the bias when they are made aware of them.

An example is when you judge the intelligence or beliefs of a stranger by his or her looks, fashion, age, race, sex, accent or nationality. Determining a person’s intelligence and beliefs is a complex question and must be done at the closely examined person-by-person level. However, even those who claim they don’t, make automatic judgments from their stereotypes (simplified generalizations) before they’ve talked to the person or even when shown a picture. As said, this is an innate automatic process.

* * * *

ART JUDGMENTS

People judge a work of art by deciding what they think it is– how the pieces fit together, what is its intended meaning, genre, etc– then judging that. When someone says a work of art is trite and silly, what he is saying is his interpretation of what is the art is trite and silly.

I didn’t say the work can’t also be trite and silly.

* * * *

“DO YOU BELIEVE IN GOD?”

Answering this question “Yes” or “No” is an example of attribution substitution.

God (and I’m not making a statement there about whether or not God exists or my personal sentiments) is impossible to define. Even theologians know and say that ‘God’ itself is just a human-made word, and God is beyond human definition, language and conception. Asking if someone ‘believes in God’ is, as my professor dad would phrase it, is a non-question. One hundred different people have 100 different incomplete and subjective definitions and conceptions. Thus, all the person is actually answering is if he believes in the existence of his personal definition or conception of God which isn’t and cannot be the true or accurate depiction of God. You can’t believe in what you don’t know. Two of those people may say Yes to the question, but, as their definitions and conceptions differ, they do not believe in the same thing.

An anti-theist, or someone who answers “No,” is using the same attribution substitution process. She is making up a personal definition and conception of God, or using someone else’s definition and conception of God, then saying that that does not exist.

In short, belief in God (as a real thing, rather than an artificial conception) or belief that God doe not exist is a question that is impossible for a human to answer. The question itself is nonsensical or a “non-question,” as it’s asking for an answer as to the existence of something that question doesn’t and cannot define.

Or as I respond when someone asks me if I believe in God, “I cannot answer that. However, if you give me your definition of God I’ll tell you if I believe in that.”