The Vast Unseen and the Vast Unseeable: Reconciling Belief and Nonbelief

ImageThose who are not philosophically inclined can be divided, roughly, into two groups:

There are the Naïve Realists who think that what is available to the senses or potentially available to the senses is all that there is.

And then there are those who think that alongside or in addition to all that empirically available stuff, there is another world (or other worlds) of the unseen.

Let’s call the first group the nonbelievers and the second the believers.

Centaur_skeletonThe believers come in immense variety. From the time of the origins of the first archaeological remains of human civilizations down to the present day, there have been, literally, many hundreds of thousands of belief systems regarding the ordinarily unseen—belief systems involving spirits that live within things in the natural world, disembodied spirits of ancestors existing alongside us, and a rich phantasmagoria of gods and demigods and demons and other magical beings–Tiamat and Marduk, Isis and Hecate and Bastet, YHWH and the Nephilim, the Aeons and the Rex Mundi, Ananzi and White Buffalo Woman, Cernunnos and Brigid, ogres and trolls and fairies in the garden, the machine elves of Terrence McKenna’s psychonautic excursions on dimethyltriptamine.

John_Atkinson_Grimshaw_-_Spirit_of_the_NightFrom the beginning, people seem to have imagined (?) unseen spirits that inhabited physical things—rivers, mountains, oceans, plants, people, and nonhuman animals, for example. But also, from time immemorial, they imagined (?) unseen worlds that were separate parts of this one world (universe) that we live in. The Anglo-Saxons talked of the middengeard (the “middle Earth”) between heaven above and hell below. Ancient Chinese, and some of the Greek Gnostics, imagined vast numbers of heavens “up there.” Many peoples placed their realms of the gods atop high mountains or in the clouds or across the sea on some island. Many cultures had their chthonian deities, ones who inhabited realms under the ground—the world of the Hindu Nagas, for example, or the realm of Hades, or the cave beneath the bog of Grendel’s mother, who may have been the ancient British goddess Nerthus made demonic in a Christian retelling. These abodes of the gods were unseen but potentially seeable, if only you got there, to that place.

800px-Gustave_Doré-_Dante_et_Vergil_dans_le_neuvième_cercle_de_l'enferIncreasingly, as we have plumbed the whole of the Earth, from the summits to the depths, and have come to understand, better, what is in the heavens above us and under the ground beneath our feet, those who believe in the unseen have retreated to the less physical instantiations of their other worlds. These modern believers are of the “spirit within” camp. Their unseen worlds are invisible universes, spirit worlds, that exist—somewhere else—in parallel to our own or in some other dimension or within things, somehow. The entities who live in that spirit world, they say, might be all around us right now. You might, for example, hold a séance or take a drug or pray and talk to them.

Now, the nonbelievers like to point out that despite the certainties that believers tend to have about their unseen worlds, their views are innumerable and mutually inconsistent and can’t all be right, and it’s not exactly easy to produce EVIDENCE about any of these unseen worlds, and so no compelling reason to believe in any one of them, at least no reason that an impartial observer would have to accept. And the nonbelievers are frankly astonished, by and large, that at this late date in human history, there are still large numbers of people who believe in unseen worlds and unseen entities, who talk to them regularly, for example, and take guidance from them. In short, the nonbelievers think it really peculiar that so many people continue, in a scientific age, to hold fantastic ideas involving the unseen. And they are horrified that folks whom they consider so gullible and superstitious, people who sometimes talk to invisible friends, are nonetheless trusted with positions of power and authority.

I do understand that point of view. I even sympathize with it, for in doing so, I am sympathizing with the view held by my own younger self. But here’s a problem for it, a really big problem, it seems to me:

While it seems reasonable not to accept as true propositions for which there is little or no evidence, it is also entirely unreasonable to imagine that what we have access to via our senses is the whole of the universe. We have a particular set of senses and a particular cognitive apparatus, a particular operating system, if you like. Our sensory and cognitive equipment, our operating system, differs enormously from that of other creatures on the planet. Consider the “lowly” bugs known as ticks. We know that there are vast parts of the universe that we perceive that simply are not available to ticks. Stars do not exist to a tick. Neither do temperatures above or below a narrow range around 37 degrees Centigrade. There is no smell of roses in the universe that the tick perceives; there is no sound of laughter. The tick does not have any perceptual or cognitive access to these things. They are UNSEEN by the tick, but WE know that they exist.

In other words, the tick teaches us that it is inevitable that, given the particular sensory apparatus and cognitive makeup that a creature has, given a particular creature’s operating system, some of what is, of what actually exists, will be available to that creature, and SOME WILL NOT. That bit of the universe that is available to a given creature is the creature’s Umwelt (to use the term popularized by Jakob von Uexküll, whose ideas about ticks I have shared here).

447px-Alicesadventuresinwonderland1898So, how are we any different from ticks in this regard? We’re not some sort of special case. What is true of ticks is doubtless true of us—that we have access to only a small part of what is really going on. This is an inductive conclusion strongly warranted by our knowledge of comparative neural and perceptual physiology, so strongly warranted, in fact, that I think that we are compelled to accept it on purely inductive, empirical, scientific grounds. And it’s a truly mind-blowing conclusion, I think.

It therefore seems highly likely that Hamlet was right when he said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, the believers are almost certainly right about this much, that there is a VAST UNSEEN. A vast unseeable, in fact. And nonbelievers have to accept that much. I do.

Before I proceed, let me deal with a predictable objection to this line of reasoning: Evolution designs creatures to exploit whatever realities there are, and over time, they exploit them more fully, and so we reach this pinnacle in humans at which we have cognitive and perceptual access to the way things are. Now, here’s where I think that that argument is wrong (Anthropocentric arguments tend to be downright silly; they are kin to the old ideas that the Earth and humans are at the center of the universe): Evolution is nothing if not parsimonious. It reaches for what works in a niche, and it ignores everything else. Exhibit 1 for my rebuttal: cyanobacteria, unchanged for nearly four billion years. Exhibit 2: Beetles that attempt to mate with female-looking beer bottles so persistently that they allow ants to eat them alive. Exhibit 3: humans and their well-documented cognitive limitations more suited to life on the savannah than to life in, say, New York City . Phenotypes tend to be local maxima on the larger fitness landscape.

Where do we go from this conclusion, for conclusions are beginnings, aren’t they? Clearly, there will be situations in which what can be experienced by a given creature is affected causally by that which the creature cannot experience, and this may be the situation that obtains with regard to many conundrums, great and small–the mind/body question, the question of free will, the irreducibility of simple arithmetic to logic, the incompatibility of relativity and quantum mechanics, the elusive proofs of the Goldbach or Polignac conjectures, the seeming violation by plankton of the competitive exclusion principle, experimental proof of the existence of more than four dimensions, the explanation of nonlocal consequences of entanglement in physics, the appearance and disappearance of virtual particles, the solution to the paradox of disappearance of the present, the violation by certain quantum-mechanical phenomena of the law of the excluded middle, the development of an optimally nonviolent social structure given the conflict between minimal liberalism and Pareto optimality, and, of course, the question of questions, the nature or even the existence of an ultimate reality, or noumenon. Years ago, AI pioneer and Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon argued that many of the problems faced in everyday life admit, as a practical matter, of no optimal solution because of limitations of time and resources, forcing us to rely, instead, upon satisfactory solutions, or heuristics. Similarly, the philosopher Alan Watts argued that while the universe might, at bottom, be deterministic, as a practical matter, we haven’t the resources to do the Laplacian calculations, and so we are stuck with acting as if from free will. (Whether the universe is deterministic is an open question, but most physicists, today, do not believe this to be the case.) And in the same vein, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued that combinatorial explosion makes the project of simulating a virtual reality indistinguishable from the universe impossible, for doing so would require computational resources greater than those provided by the universe. (This last claim is highly debatable; a self-computing universe is not impossible under various scenarios.) The point I am making goes further, however, for the claim is that we have every reason to believe that there are aspects of reality that are not only not accessible as a practical matter but that are not accessible AT ALL at present. There’s no reason to think that we apes currently have the cognitive and perceptual apparatus to arrive at complete solutions to such problems because the mechanisms involved may well be beyond our ken.

oxherding picturesBut this realization is in itself a boon. It should give us pause. It should make us humble. As a result of it, we should recognize that our many of our most cherished, most fundamental assumptions might well be misconceptions based on our limitations. We must face squarely the fact that we are like savages, familiar with fire and with chariots, claiming that the nature of the sun is quite obvious: it is a fiery chariot being driven across the sky. Or we are like the square in Abbott’s Flatland who thinks of a cone passing through its world in three dimensional space as an expanding or contracting circle.

Let’s consider one such a cherished assumption, one of the latest in a long, sad series of scientific predictions that proved to be false because unknown unknowns were not taken into account. Richard Dawkins famously argued in The Blind Watchmaker that we can be certain that wherever we might go in the universe, the laws of evolution apply. But certain is a big word. Scientific laws are not tautologies. And it seems not only possible but probable that, in fact, evolution itself is ultimately a self-defeating mechanism, not in the sense that life inevitably consumes all resources until it dies out but in the sense that at some point, sufficiently evolved creatures begin to control their own evolution, at which time there is a decisive break, a disjunction, a stochastic leap, for evolution becomes no longer blind but teleological, at which point, all bets are off. We might well choose the ultimate in self-preservation, substituting the preservation and growth of the phenotype, to which we are each of us committed, for the reproduction of the genotype, for there is a fundamental non-concurrence of interest between selfish genes and selfish phenotype, especially in creatures that reproduce sexually. We are already at a point where, very soon, evolution will be definitively divorced from mate selection and sexual reproduction, its being highly doubtful that future reproduction strategies will depend upon these. And it is altogether possible that resources are not a limiting factor, for many cosmologists now believe that the universe itself is “the ultimate free lunch,” that it arose ex nihilo from the quantum foam, which is, in theory, harvestable. So, is evolution by natural selection a universal law? It’s highly doubtful that this is so. In fact, it is more likely that this is yet another example of a spatio-temporal local maximum. The Earth is a relatively young planet circling a relatively young star. We now know that there are many, many billions of other such planets in the universe, most of them far older, and it is altogether reasonable, given the similarity of conditions elsewhere, to assume that life has evolved on these and long since passed through our present infancy, for we know that recursive systems like minds are positive feedback mechanisms leading to exponential change, and we speculate with much warrant that such a process will lead to a singularity. And what happens then? By definition, we do not know. But it is highly probable, to a point approaching certainty, that this has, in fact, happened in the universe already, and we are not the entities to which it has happened. Philosopher and transhumanist Nick Bostrom believes that what we think of as reality is not reality at all but, rather, a simulation being run by such entities.

Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis is an example of warranted speculation, and that such speculation can be highly warranted—one of many possibilities unlike those that we typically entertain—suggests, at the very least, that we should check our hubris. Things may not be at all as they appear to be.

Which brings me back to the question of belief versus nonbelief. It certainly makes sense to suppose that the notions about ultimate realities entertained by stone-age savages bear little relation to actual ultimate realities. However, what is in fact the case is probably equally bizarre and, given our current limitations, beyond imagining. It is quite possible, probable even, given what we currently know, that there are entities in the universe with attributes traditionally ascribed to the gods, including the power to bring universes into being (a potential technology for doing just that and a series of steps toward development of such a technology are outlined in cosmologist Alan Guth’s The Inflationary Universe). And, of course, it is entirely possible, for the reasons described here, that our universe was the creation of a single such entity. We should admit, however, I think, that when we speculate about these matters, we are in the position of the Neolithic farmer venturing opinions on the causes of epileptic seizures and that we should do so in a spirit of play, of speculation, of creation, of frumsceaft.

Strange_compositionThe phrase current limitations, above, was chosen with care. Creatures with technologies, however rudimentary, have already crossed a Rubicon, for technologies are prostheses that give access to further aspects of reality. The long-standing question of whether there is a noumenal reality separable from perceptual reality has long been answered (though, oddly, some professional philosophers seem not to have gotten the memo), for as we have built new technologies to extend our access—mathematics, thought experiments, Galileo’s telescope, spectrometers, superconducting supercolliders, FMRI machines, and so on—more and more of the universe has been revealed, as surely as the contents of a gift-wrapped package are revealed when we remove the packaging, but with a couple of important caveats: 1. the packaging of reality appears to be so many Matryoshka dolls, how many, we do not know. Perhaps it is turtles all the way down. And 2. those prostheses simply become part of a new, extended, but also limited perceptual and conceptual repertoire. As we continue, at an exponential rate, to develop prostheses for extending our access to the universe, we shall doubtless encounter many surprises, many of which will be as disjunctive as was, say, the atomic hypothesis. We have already learned, or think we have learned, that the macroscopic world of solid objects with which we are familiar on a quotidian basis is illusory, that it is, on a deeper plane, a whir of elementary particles and, on a deeper plane yet, interacting fields. Such conceptions would have seemed utterly preposterous to most of our ancestors. (The atomic hypothesis was still highly controversial at the turn of the twentieth century.) Given this history, assuming that we have reached the bottom of the rabbit hole (or that it is even a hole to begin with) is ludicrous, and there is nothing in our current knowledge that precludes quite fantastic possibilities, including the possibility that the current physical reductionists have it exactly backward and that

  1. perception is an interface that bears relations to but does not show reality, as the icons on your computer screen bear relations to but do not show the underlying reality of the mechanism within your computer.
  2. the functional structures of the mind are, in part, an operating system enabling the creation of that interface based upon incoming data; are, in part, processors of data; and are, in part, storage systems for temporal states of that data. (NB: These are probably not so easily separable, for brains are not constructed like computers.)
  3. the perceived world is simply a collection of icons that constitute an interface to a reality that lies behind it.
  4. consciousness might well be fundamental and matter derivative, not vice versa.

Numbers 1 and 2 and 3 are, I think, as incontrovertible as the best of our scientific inferences. Number 4 is another matter. It’s a highly speculative proposition but one that is not inconsistent with anything that we think we know via scientific inference and is weakly warranted by speculations such as Bostrom’s involving highly developed nonhuman intelligence or intelligences in the universe. Together, these propositions, advanced by cognitive psychologist and expert on perception Donald Hoffman, show a marked similarity to what Aldous Huxley refers to as “the perennial philosophy,” arrived at via convergent cultural evolution in various religious traditions worldwide—in the thought of persons as diverse as the authors of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Chandogya Upanishad, the Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, Chuang Tzu, Meister Eckhart, Black Elk, and Terence McKenna. (Note: I had independently arrived at conclusions 1, 2, and 3 before having encountered Hoffman. I am intrigued by his reasons for embracing conclusion 4.)

creation-web-versionAncient accounts of ultimate realities are suspect, but so are our limited current perceptions and scientific models of reality. One cannot make the leap from speculation to knowledge, for knowledge is by definition dependent upon the prosthesis that discloses. The mystics claim to have developed such prostheses, though many certainly simply encountered the currently inexplicable and thenrushed to explanation in the inadequate terms available to them. However, even if this were true, that fact should give physical reductionists no comfort, for theirs is a metaphysics as incoherent and unsupportable as any witch doctor’s tale of his own understanding and control of all that is in the heavens and the earth, as I hope I have made abundantly clear above. And on the basis of an argument such as that which I have proposed here, I think that those with scientific and with spiritual orientations can find common ground and engage in fruitful dialogue. But to get there, both sides must recognize that they don’t at present know as much as they think that they do. In other words, what is required of us is that rare thing, informed humility.

Copyright 2012. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. This note may be distributed freely as long as this copyright notice is retained and the text is unchanged.

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About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Religion, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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