Life is not a class of physical processes as defined by science. Sure, it’s useful to define life in such terms for the purposes of biology, or even necrology, but the term and concept of “life” came about way before science was invented. Given a variety of possible ways to physically define life, how would we know which one or ones are valid? We’d select based on what’s obviously, intuitively alive or not, which is essentially what we’ve done. So, life as something intangible and not strictly defined takes precedence over life as something physically defined. Yet for some people the scientific definition of life is somehow taken to supersede the natural one.
Yes, the physical makeup of something is a function of, or correlates with, whether it’s alive or not. If a rock could transmogrify into a cellular organism, it might become alive; if a person turned into a rock, he would apparently have passed on. This merely shows that physical-life patterns/processes correlate with the presence of life qua life. Or more specifically, that the recognition of the presence of life correlates with specific material patterns/processes. It makes sense that we would recognize life only in its expression through certain kinds of material mechanisms, given that the senses we are using to recognize it are our sensate organs—senses of the material. Furthermore, it so happens that those material mechanisms we are willing to call “life” are those that significantly parallel ours—things with DNA, cells, an energy cycle, etc. Plants are alive, we say, but not asalive as organisms that have brains. So, apparently, the further away from being what weare something is, the less alive it is considered to be.
But who knows, maybe a rock is actually a very passive, peaceful type of being? At the very least, though, it could be assumed that, in order for life to have a physical experience, it must express itself through a suitably complex, dynamical and self-sustaining physical mechanism. In other words, bodies and plants could merely be vessels for actual life—hence the aforementioned correlations. In my view, life is a fundamentally magical, non-mechanistic, ineffable, cosmic, and ubiquitous phenomenon—if we could even classify it as a phenomenon.
What the fundamental characteristics are of the physical processes needed to constitute/catalyze life (or, in my view, merely make it apparent) is an interesting subject. A book called The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, by Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, has some sophisticated and interesting things to say about that.
Prima facie, the term ‘naturalism’ seems to suggest a worldview / way of thinking about nature that’s ‘organic’ in a sense—not organic as in carbon-based or biology-related, but in the sense of adhering, in a way, to the patterns and flow that nature appears to generally conform to.
For example, the theory of evolution is naturalistic, but creationism isn’t, because we never see things appear out of nowhere as if created directly by God, while biological evolution explains how biological beings in all their splendor and variety could have come into being by way of principles of material interaction that we observe in everyday life. ‘Naturalist’ would seem to be to worldviews what ‘ergonomic’ is to chairs and keyboards.
However, it’s a shame that the worldview denoted by the term ‘naturalism’ entails unnecessary restrictions on what’s considered ‘natural.’ The term ‘naturalism’ is used because it’s in contrast to the notion that anything that exists is ‘supernatural,’ and in this view everything non-physical is considered supernatural.
The problem with the term ‘supernatural’ is that it acts as a razor that starkly divides reality into two sets of phenomena, while in actuality, in the case that there are ‘supernatural’ events or aspects to reality, it’s all one reality or nature. There may be echelons to the principles of nature, so that on some levels things are rather characteristically different from other levels, but there is no absolute divide between the echelons (thinking organically, one would think they likely all integrate or bleed together), and there aren’t necessarily only two different echelons (the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’) anyway.
The term ‘supernatural’ is a misnomer because everything is natural even if some things exist that would be categorized as ‘supernatural,’ and it leads people to categorically dismiss one-half of reality itself: the heart of it.
I think the main impetus for being a naturalist is the desire to feel as though one fundamentally understands everything, combined with the naivety of thinking that a few simple concepts (principles of physics) could assimilate all of reality. It gives people a false sense of accomplishment (that of conquering all the mysteries of nature) and superiority, and it also abolishes the cognitive dissonance of mystery and the uncanny. Naturalists must also lack the imagination to see how things could possibly work in ways that transcend the normal.
Another element to its impetus is the overreaction to irrational superstition and charlatans and such; they retract their minds in reaction to such an onslaught in the way that a hermit crab retracts into its shell when touched. They lack the fortitude, insight or nuanced thinking to separate the wheat from the chaff.
The funny thing about psychic charlatans is that they’re more evidence for psychism, life after death, etc., than they are against it. Whether or not psychism, life after death, etc. are legitimate, given human nature you know there will be plenty of charlatans abusing the concepts, the only difference would be that if they’re legitimate then some legitimate practitioners will be strewn in there. So that rules out the existence of charlatans disproving psychism, life after death, etc. So what do we have on the side of the existence of charlatans suggesting the legitimacy of these concepts? We have the fact that charlatans would be more likely to arise by piggy-backing legitimate, actually-existing phenomena / principles of reality / abilities / whatever (kind of like parasites) than by inventing something totally unnatural all on their own.
One funny thing about naturalists is that they intuitively understand many things in verbal communication, music and other art, or even concerning living and utilizing fundamental principles of life, but they deny that they mean the things they understand them to mean, or at least they do when pressed, because admitting the meanings of those things would be admitting mystical or spiritual elements to life. Naturalists are ‘schizophrenic’ (as in ‘split-minded’) about many things in this sense; if they were truly integrated, insightful and introspective, they would realize all these contradictions, but they lack such capacity so they’re free to think, speak, and act in a sense contrary to their formal or outward ideology.
There is more to be said about the naturalists’ mentality, but, as naturalism is tightly integrated with both scientism and with what I call ‘rationalism’ which I talk about in their own sections later on in this article, some of that more-to-be-said is not covered here.
Physicalism and mechanicism are the current worldview of the scientific community and acadamia, and it’s taken as unquestioned truth in those arenas, but it’s not proven and can’t be proven. There can be no scientific evidence against physicalism because evidence as scientifically defined and accepted is necessarily physical. Thus physicalism is an unfalsifiable theory, and in science unfalsifiable theories are considered bad theories.
“How gibbering man becomes, when he is really clever, and thinks he is giving the ultimate and final description of the universe! Can’t he see that he is merely describing himself, and that the self he is describing is merely one of the more dead and dreary states that man can exist in?” -D.H. Lawrence
I wrote a lot more on the motivations behind physicalism and the aversion to spirituality here.
Brights, Freethinkers, Woo, and Pseudoscience
To go on a slight tangent here, ‘naturalism’ isn’t the only word that materialists / ‘skeptics’ / scientistic types have appropriated seemingly for purposes of controlling public thought. There seems to be a pattern along this vein. For example, there’s a group of people who call themselves ‘Brights‘ who are essentially naturalists. I mean, how much more shamelessly self-aggrandizing can you get than to put yourself into a group named after a very general term we normally use to refer to a person’s intelligence, so that you can officially call yourself a ‘bright’?
‘Freethinkers‘ is another such group. Wikipedia says, ‘Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma.’
So ‘freethinkers’ are not free to believe for any reason but logic, reason and empiricism. Their school of thought implicitly denies that there is any other valid way of attaining knowledge. Because of this, they naturally reject not only any religious concepts but any notions of spirituality, souls, God, etc. Thus, the movement is defined basically by a restriction in how we’re able to know things, and yet they have the audacity to name themselves a very general term which normally means simply that one thinks freely. Like the ‘brights’, they appropriated or co-opted the term. ‘Freethinkers’ and ‘Brights’ have hijacked their respective terms to officiate general positive traits of mind as referring to their own particular blockheaded ideologies.
‘Woo’ is another term that’s been appropriated by this sort of thinker. To ‘woo’ someone is to try to impress them to get a desired reaction, such as to get them to marry you or to buy your product. Yet the naturalists/’skeptics’ call anything having to do with the parapsychological, spiritual, mystical, etc. ‘woo’ as if by definition, thus implying that we only speak of such things in order to mesmerize and that they have no inherent legitimacy.
Regarding ‘pseudoscience’, there is such a thing as pseudoscience, but scientistic types over-apply the term to disparage any claim or reasoning that isn’t specifically and fully scientific as being illegitimate, as if there is no other valid way of knowing, observing, or reasoning about observations. It’s basically analogous to a Christian calling something scientifically inferred ‘pseudoreligion’ (not that I’m implying that religion is a valid way of knowing anything). Going by the meanings of the root components of the word, ‘pseudo’ and ‘science,’ ‘pseudoscience’ should be limited to referring to studies / research / claims that purport to be scientific but aren’t, but that’s not how it’s used in practice. I’ve even had one (otherwise?) pretty intelligent guy flatly tell me that ‘pseudoscience’ means any claim of knowledge whatsoever that’s not scientific.
By ‘rationalism’ I don’t mean the specialized use of the term referring to the philosophical school of thought that everything can be figured out by reason alone as opposed to it requiring evidence or observation. I use the term to refer to a nuance of the way most analytical types tend to think; it’s a little bit hard to put a finger on. In my view, ‘rationalism’ is to rationality as scientism is to science, or what ‘simplistic’ is to ‘simple’, or what ‘complicated’ is to ‘complex.’ Rationalism, as I mean it, is a tendency to think in a fuckwitty way that creates overly simplistic models of situations, often oversimplified for the sake of fitting into a convenient formalism, and to make supposed logical deductions that carry hidden assumptions and fail to take into account every imaginable possibility.
Here is an example of a rationalistic statement: “The meaning of a word is its definition.”
The meaning of word is not its definition; the actual meaning involves depths and dynamics of mind that aren’t easily amenable to inspection. It involves subtle nuances that aren’t easy to put into (other) words. That’s why defining a word is not a straightforward process, it’s actually an art, and sometimes due to lack of proper sophistication / self-understanding within the relevant context on the part of the definer, the definition is badly lacking. And there’s usually, if not always, no such thing as being talented enough to define a word perfectly. There’s always at least a slight component of its meaning that can’t be fully expressed in a definition.
If the meaning of a word were its definition, then no word could have any ultimate meaning because if you were to look up the words in a definition and the words in those words’ definitions, etc., recursively, you’d eventually end up going in circles and/or arriving at dead ends.
A rationalist would be attracted to the notion that the meaning of a word is its definition due to the facile certainty and logical formalism that it provides.
Yes, some jargon words actually do mean their definitions, especially in fields of science and math, where the purpose of the making the word is precisely to mean that definition, solely so that one can refer to complex concepts with more brevity, but such words are the exception, not the norm.
I wrote more about the subject of the meanings of words versus their definitions here.
Some more examples of rationalistic thinking are the following:
The idea that a proposition can only be true or false; that is, there is no “more true” or “less true”
The idea that an individual’s personality is wholly unrelated to their physical appearance (that is, their facial structure, not aspects of their physical appearance that they have control over), that their physical appearance is merely incidental and a fluke of the random recombining of genes
The idea that astrology can’t possibly be valid. More on this subject later on.
Another particular facet of rationalism (and skepticism, scientism and physicalism) is that, for any given proposed entity, phenomenon or causal relationship, if there isn’t a known mechanism to explain that entity, phenomenon or relationship and the subject lacks the capacity to imagine one, then it’s assumed to be impossible or fantasy by default. Yet when you get down to it, all of contemporary physics is counterintuitive and simply posits relationships between causes and effects, based on observation, for no fundamentally understood reason.
If gravity weren’t something readily demonstrably valid, rationalists / skeptics would have dismissed it as impossible a long time ago because there’s “no reason” two things should be able to affect each other without touching. And nowadays we know that all particles essentially affect each other without touching, as there is no such thing as solidity on the nanoscopic scale. Add the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics into the mix, and metaphysics (as in the branch of philosophy, not the mystical / new-age term) is made even more spooky. Richard Feynman’s discussion on the nature of magnetism here does a good job of portraying the kind of anti-foundationalism or anti-classical reasoning about the universe that I’m getting at here.
A good example of a kind of causal relationship that would be dismissed due to lack of a the subject’s ability to imagine a mechanism for it would be the relationships posed by astrology, e.g. between the positions of celestial objects at one’s birth and one’s personality or life factors, or between those and the daily events of our lives. (Of course this issue is complicated by the fact that daily horoscopes tend to be gimmicky and way overly specific about exactly what should happen just in order to appeal to a mass audience, which ends up being another huge turn-off for skeptics.) I wrote more about astrology further on in this essay.
It may not seem by my descriptions that rationalism is directly related to naturalism / physicalism, but it so happens that rationalists tend to be naturalists / physicalists. As an over-simplistic, partial explanation of this relationship, consider that a rationalist would prefer an an overly simplified model of the world / cosmos because it’s convenient and because it gives the feeling of certainty regarding one’s overall understanding of the world / cosmos, that is, to think that everything that happens happens purely in accordance to known physical laws—not only because they’re known, but because physics is a straightforward and clear, being a hard science and being mostly based on math. (I know many would immediately contest my notion that physics and math are straightforward and clear, but consider how straightforward and clear it is compared to, say, mysticism, magic, emotions or psychology.)
It would also appeal to the rationalist to believe only in things that can be seen (loosely speaking—of course the rationalist also believes in things that can be deduced using reason like subatomic particles, and things that can be detected indirectly but irrefutably through scientific instruments). The irrefutability of such things also appeals to the rationalist’s desire for certainty, that is, in addition to the (related) desire for the illusion of fundamentally understanding the world.
“The man who listens to reason alone is lost; reason enslaves all whose minds are not strong enough to master her.” -George Bernard Shaw
Ideally, or supposedly, skepticism is an aspect, mode, or outcome of critical thinking by which one is selective regarding what they accept/believe, rather than just believing something because it sounds good, because they want to, because an authority figure said it, just because it’s something they happened to hear, etc. Common mantras or staples of skeptics are “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”; “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence” (Hitchen’s razor); the concept of the “burden of proof,” which holds that only the person making the positive claim has the burden to prove his/her position and the person denying the claim has no such burden; and a plethora of (so-called) logical fallacies.
In reality, though, those who self-identify as “skeptics” are typically denialists of anything that hints at there existing magic or mystery in the world or anything paranormal, extraordinary, mysterious, amazing, or potentially paradigm-changing. Calling themselves skeptics is basically just an excuse/supposed license to be staunchly materialistic and hard-headedly closed-minded to anything but the most mundane, dreary possible interpretation of reality. This subtle mislabeling of their mentality makes an unfortunate contribution to both the public appeal of their point of view and to their own self-assurance of their positions.
One of the reasons people tend to be skeptics is that they’re afraid of being seen as wrong, and it’s easier to win an argument when you’re not making claims you can’t prove or that aren’t backed up by the establishment/academia. Indeed, it’s easier to appear right by denying things that are unproven than by affirming them, even when those things happen to be true.
Btw, I realize that, to many, my use of the term “so-called” to characterize logical fallacies may make me seem anti-intellectual, but I use the term because I have specific, reasoned issues with many of them, which I may or may not elaborate on in another article. Some of the fallacies deny a particular type of argument has power when it really does, and some of them categorically discredit certain types of arguments that sometimes are legitimate and sometimes aren’t. Perhaps some of the logical fallacies aren’t meant to be taken categorically but commonly are because of the (ostensible) argumentative advantage of labeling something a logical fallacy. I think so-called logical fallacies are, to a large degree, no more than labels slung by eggheads to unfairly “win” debates or arguments.
I will now address the issues with the claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” with Hitchen’s razor, and with the burden of proof.
This is actually the most reasonable of the three tenets mentioned above, but it is not perfect and can sometimes be used unfairly in an argument. One reason it’s not perfect is that what’s an extraordinary claim to one isn’t necessarily an extraordinary claim to another; whether a claim is extraordinary depends on one’s worldview. For example, the claim that one’s house is haunted isn’t as as extraordinary to someone who holds an open-ended worldview that isn’t tied down by the constraints of physicalism as it is to a so-called skeptic. So what claims are “extraordinary” is a highly subjective matter. For the “skeptic” to claim that a statement is extraordinary (when the claimant doesn’t think of it as extraordinary), and that it therefore requires extraordinary evidence, makes the “skeptic’s” uninspired worldview self-perpetuating.
Another reason it’s not perfect is that it presupposes that evidence is the only legitimate way of acquiring knowledge. Evidence is merely the most base and incontrovertible means of knowledge acquisition. I wrote more about that here.
To reiterate, Hitchen’s razor is the principle that “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” As you can see, it’s a close analogue to the principle discussed above. However, this variation is a little more sinister. Instead of posing the amount of evidence that’s necessary as being commensurate with the impact of the claim, it advocates just flat-out dismissing certain types of claims or general statements about reality, thus shutting off discourse and facilitating keeping people’s minds closed to certain viewpoints that certain kinds of people may profess.
You can dismiss anything you want to, you’re completely free to do that. Whether it’s wise to dismiss a particular thing is a different matter. And there are many assertions that are wise (or just true) but that come with no evidence, for some reason or another.
It’s not like there’s anybody who requires evidence for literally everything they hear; plenty of mundane facts pass through unscrutinized. And it’s not like the fundamental worldview of so-called ‘skeptics’ (naturalism, anti-magic, anti-spiritual, anti-paranormal) has any specific evidence for its legitimacy. So adhering to Hitchen’s razor is basically just dismissing any kind of claim about reality that one disagrees with. This isn’t really critical thinking; it’s the same old situation of living in the echo chamber of one’s own mind. It’s painting life in the most drab possible colors to gain some illusion of all-encompassing understanding, masquerading as critical thinking.
As evidence for the naturalistic worldview, I’m sure some would point to an alleged lack of evidence for anything paranormal / parapsychological, spiritual, mystical, magical or whatever. But the fact is that people experience these types of phenomona all the time. Using devices like Hitchen’s razor, it’s easy to dismiss these experiences one by one while disregarding the power of the sheer numbers of reports of such experiences. It becomes a self-supporting cycle: dismiss, one by one, any individual claim of e.g. the paranormal as invalid because it defies a naturalistic worldview, which is itself considered valid because of the assumed lack of any valid claims of the paranormal.
Of course this is just one factor in the Magic Dismissing Machine, and a (so-called) ‘skeptic’ would say that the core issue is that these claims of (e.g.) the paranormal are ‘anecdotal’ and that if they came with strong enough evidence, then it wouldn’t matter whether the claims were taken one or appreciated for their sheer numbers, because one claim would be enough. This is idealistic, however.
Just because a paranormal event happens and there is proof of it doesn’t actually mean that the scientific community would be in uproar and the information would trickle down to you. It’s more a case of ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Scientists are humans after all, and they’re generally not willing to entertain ideas that go against their entire fundamental worldview. Also, they have their careers to protect: scientists who entertain experiments in the paranormal / parapsychological fields are shunned by the community to the degree that their careers are basically over.
There have been countless experiments in the field of parapsychology with positive results (i.e., indicating mental capabilities that ‘shouldn’t’ exist), but if you’re not actually looking for those studies you’re not going to find them. There are two camps regarding the field of psychic research: those who believe or want to believe, and those who staunchly disbelieve. Those who disbelieve aren’t going to read the research of the other camp, while authors in their own camp aren’t going to mention such research with positive results either. So the only way the ‘skeptics’ are going to find the positive results in parapsychology is if they venture outside of their echo chamber and look for it.
Also, based on my own explorations of the field, ‘skeptics’ who critique such successful experiments are too demanding of the conditions of the experiments, requiring absolute perfection: if there’s any remote, unlikely chance that the experiment could have been compromised in some convoluted way, then they just assume that must be what happened and it’s an easy write-off for them.
Burden/Onus of Proof
Another mantra of the so-called ‘skeptic’ pertains to a presumed ‘burden of proof.’ It is the precept that, in an argument, the person making the positive claim, that is, the claim of the existence of something as opposed to the non-existence of something, or the person making the more extraordinary claim, is the person who holds the burden of proof, i.e., the burden of supporting his/her position.
The problem with this notion is that, in an argument, typically both parties are making claims. One is making a a claim of X, and the other is saying or implying that X is wrong. Both of these things are claims, and therefore both parties should have the burden of supporting their positions. The idea of ‘onus of proof,’ at least as it’s normally used, is poisonous, as it’s just used as excuse for one participant in the argument to dismiss the other’s with apparent impunity, despite the fact that each person in the argument is attempting to put forth a position and change the other person’s mind, and/or the minds of the viewers.
There are also fundamental problems with the idea that the onus, or burden, of proof lies with the maker of the ‘positive’ claim that make it essentially meaningless: A) sometimes the positive claim is the more outlandish / extraordinary, and sometimes the negative one is; B) a ‘positive’ claim can often be reworded to be a ‘negative’ claim and vice versa; and C) often, an argument isn’t even over a positive versus a negative claim as such anyway. And why should we get to facilely dismiss one side of an argument and not the other (i.e. by invoking the burden of proof) in some cases and not in others for these incidental reasons?
And, of course, even when the positive claim is the more extraordinary of the two, if the other participant claims it’s false then he or she should have his/her own burden of proof as well; otherwise we’re giving bias toward nothing true ever being extraordinary. That’s exactly what the central motivation behind invoking ‘burdon of proof’ is.
I won’t get into all of my issues with alleged logical fallacies and their misinvocations, but while we’re on the subject of logical fallacies I’ll explain two of my misgivings. One concerns the idea of ‘confirmation bias.’
‘Confirmation bias’ in general refers to the bias of cherry-picking your evidence to support one’s already-held beliefs, or paying attention only to those things that support it and ignoring those that don’t. But the specific variation of it that I’m going to pick on here is the bias where one thinks they see a certain type of coincidence, or perhaps coincidences in general, more often than you’d think should happen without some kind of mystical connection, but it’s really just that that person puts undo mental emphasis on all the coincidental events in contrast to the vast number of the uninteresting events that go uncontemplated but would actually drown out the coincidental, statistically speaking. (It’s not actually ‘statistically,’ because these probabilities can’t be measured in numbers, but it’s something like statistics that’s reasoned about intuitively.)
An example of such a series of coincidences would be someone seeing (or believing they see) the sequence 444, all around in various places, with an extremely inordinate frequency of occurrence.
Don’t get me wrong: confirmation bias is obviously real (how could it not be, knowing humans?), and it likely happens often, or often enough, but the problem is that, whenever someone makes any claim of noticing too many coincidences to reasonably deny a mystical principle in effect, the ‘skeptic’s’ automatic, go-to response is to claim confirmation bias. It’s like a knee-jerk reaction whose only purpose is to support and maintain the naturalistic belief system of the ‘skeptic.’ The point is that, while confirmation bias may be the answer, it’s not necessarily the answer, but assuming it is is enough for the ‘skeptic’ to write off any threat of there being some kind of magic or mystery to the world.
This writing off could either happen when somebody else tells them about their own experiences, or it could be in order to dismiss one’s own noticings of the uncanny. In the former case, the skeptic has no good way of evaluating the unlikelihood (given a certain kind of worldview) of what was observed because he or she hasn’t experienced what the claimant has experienced in all its fine detail. (Detail is required because one must effectively take into account all the times in which something coincidental happened and all the times coincidental things didn’t happen to weigh them against each other.) In the latter case, the skeptic may do himself or herself a grave disservice by denying what’s overwhelmingly obvious to a sound mind, by denying his/her own ability to perceive soundly, on account of the idea of a possible bias taken in abstract and categorically, in a sense that’s dissociated in a way from a more base and direct level of thought and sanity.
In either case, there is no way of mathematically computing the unlikelihoods of real-life events, which are open-ended, containing countless unique characteristics, and that therefore can’t be quantified and put into a formal model. Therefore the only way to make a sound judgement on the matter is intuitively.
Of course, there is also the question of how (supposedly) unlikely something has to be before its happening is considered revolutionary. That depends on how steadfastly one believes in their current worldview, and what the odds are of alternative worldviews being true that might explain the extraordinary event. (That’s why I say “given a certain kind of worldview” above.) Obviously, there is no mathematical / formal / objective way to gauge the likelihoods of competing metaphysical paradigms and compare them to each other or to the likelihood of something(s) extraordinary happening.
Selection bias is one of the most popular arguments by ‘skeptics’ because it applies to coincidences and coincidences are the main venue of the parapsychological. Actually, it also applies to associating certain causes with certain effects, and cause and effect is a main aspect of reality, so if there are subtler planes of reality we apparently notice (such as those under the umbrella of ‘the metaphysical’), we would want to argue for cause-and-effect relationships applying to them, and therefore a skeptic would want to use selection bias to debunk those cause-effect relationships. (By ‘the metaphysical’ here I don’t mean the branch of philosophy, I mean it in the way that mystics, new-agers, etc. use the term.)
Number two of my misgivings concerning so-called logical fallacies has to do with the automatic dismissal of anything that can be labeled “anecdocal evidence.” A truly “critical” or discerning mind wouldn’t facilely dismiss any story just because it’s told by an individual with no external corroboration; such a mind would take into consideration a plethora of clues and details within the story, about the person, etc. (including clues as to whether the person is likely a liar, delusional, or misremembering, level of detail in the story, etc.) and come to a sound conclusion on the likelihood of the story being legit or at least on how compelling it is. Then they would add up all of the adjudged likelihoods of all the stories they’ve heard and come to a conclusion on whether they imply something extraordinary about reality.
Of course, the label “anecdotal evidence” is only used when the story indicates something paranormal / mystical; generally, any story about something mundane and unexciting is taken on face value. And when it comes to the stories of the paranormal and mystical, a truly discerning mind would weigh the overall strength of the story against the unlikeliness of whatever metaphysical views or implications the story would imply if it’s true. Of course, as I’ve said earlier, there is no formal or objective way of doing this: it can only be done intuitively.
“Skeptics” want everything to be decidable by some sort of categorical prescription for thought, as if truth-seeking can be done algorithmically (i.e., by only believing in things scientifically proven or otherwise undeniably evinced), and proper truth-seeking is actually much more nuanced; therefore the “skeptic” is often wrong, erring wholly on the side of disbelief.
So-called ‘skeptics’ will go so far to write off any event seeming to imply the extraordinary that they’ll even rationalize that an event witnessed by hundreds or thousands of people and documented at the site by reputable individuals must have been a ‘mass hallucination,’ as if the idea that somehow hundreds of people could somehow happen to have a hallucination at the same time and of the same general thing by chance, as opposed to requiring some kind of massive psychic connection which would entail the very kind of magic that they aim to dismiss. It’s simply a matter of whatever defense of their ideology from their grab bag of defenses works, regardless of how facile it may be. Ironically, they’re similar to Christians in this respect.
From Wikipedia: “Occam’s razor (also Ockham’s razor or Ocham’s razor; Latin: lex parsimoniae “law of parsimony”) is the problem-solving principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.”
One might want to use the concept of Occam’s razor or “parsimony” to discount the possibility of spirits, souls, minds independent of bodies, ghosts, the paranormal, parapsychology (as it implies minds made of something other than brains), etc. The problem with doing that lies in what constitutes the “problem” in the above formulation of Occam’s razor. If you leave out all evidence of the paranormal or “metaphysical,” then the “problem” is easily solved (i.e., reality is explained) without appeal to spirits, minds independent of bodies, UFOs, God, etc. One could argue that there is no evidence of anything that implies any of these things, but they’d be wrong (more on that in the section entitled “Empiricism” later on).
Even if they were right that there’s no proof of any of those things, there is another problem: when your “problem” to be answered is the nature of reality, a proper consideration of reality is not just a set of things that are proven to be there, but rather all known information from everywhere. Even “anecdocal evidence” should have some amount of weight to it (depending on factors pertaining to the individual case, as explained in the section entitled “Anecdotal Evidence”), and a formulation of Occam’s razor more germane to smart epistemological thinking would be that each assumption within a hypothesis must be divided by its outlandishness, then multiplied by the demand for the assumption within the problem, then all those hypotheses’ values must be multiplied by each other to get a value that can be compared to other hypotheses. That’s because some assumptions are more improbable than others, which should be taken into account as the whole point of Occam’s razor is to arrive at the more probably-correct hypothesis, and some assumptions are more called for by the problem at hand, which should also be taken into account as it determines the strength of the hypothesis.
Of course, there is no mathematical way to do this, because outlandishness and demand / suggestive evidence aren’t numbers you can measure, so it can only be done intuitively. Also, the adjudged outlandishness of an assumption depends on one’s worldview, and as said earlier, there is no mathematical / formal way to gauge the likelihood of a metaphysical paradigm.
Another way of saying it is that Occam’s razor should only be applied to imaginal/possible entities that are inspired solely by the evidence being explained. Imaginal entities that are considered for reasons external to the evidence at hand, for reasons such as, for example, a particular worldview, are not rightly culled by Occam’s razor.
Atheism / Secular Humanism
Technically, atheism means lack of theism or a lack of belief in God. Less technically, atheism means a belief that there is no god, while agnosticism means having no opinion. Even more in the real world, though, atheism typically seems to mean a belief not only that there is no God or gods, but that there are no supernatural things or phenomena, such as souls, ghosts, telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, premonition, the law of attraction, the ability to influence reality directly through thought or mindstate, karma, an afterlife, etc. In this way it’s highly similar to and, practically speaking, almost synonymous with secular humanism.
Atheism / secular humanism is essentially naturalism or skepticism but with an emphasis on its being a reaction to religion and hence on its being non-religious.
At least in regard to the limited consideration of atheism as being the lack of belief in God or other religious concepts, religion actually encourages atheism because of the absurdity and destructiveness of its doctrine. This is one reason why atheists often know more about the Bible than Christians!
It’s possible to believe in God without believing in the negative, humanistic traits ascribed to him/her and without believing in all the of the other junk that’s attached to God via being part of a given religion. Why should religion have a monopoly on defining God? But most people, when they think of God, reflexively think of religious notions of God instead of using their imagination and intuition in order to come to a conception of God that is more pure, more sane, or makes more sense to them personally as a basis on which to contemplate whether he/she might possibly exist. In this sense atheism is largely reactionary to religion.
Merriam-Webster defines scientism (in the second sense) as “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” My interpretation of scientism is perhaps a bit more general than that and regards it essentially as an attitude, at least pertaining to one’s approach to knowledge.
Either way, scientism goes hand-in-hand with what I call ‘rationalism.’ A rationalist loves the idea that science answers all meaningful questions or is the only valid means of obtaining knowledge. The reasons for this are probably obvious given the explanation of rationalism I gave earlier.
There are other things underlying scientism than just rationalism, of course. Because of the amazing efficacy of physics, or of science in general including chemistry, etc., in manipulating and predicting the world as we physical-sensorially know it (within certain limited domains), scientists and scientistics are misled into assuming that the basic principles of physics, chemistry, et al and the elements they apply to are the end-all and be-all of the universe. In this way scientism also goes hand-in-hand with physicalism.
Scientific findings, such as, for example, those of genetics, should be used to add to and expand our worldview and understanding, not to limit it; when we assume that everything that doesn’t fall under the purview or current understandings of science is illegitimate and baseless, we’re letting it do precisely the latter thing: we’re letting science make our world smaller and more banal, more soullessly analytical and intellectual. I liken the way people in our our culture currently think about the world and their own nature to be insect-like in its mode of assimilation.
Here are a few examples of scientistic thinking:
The idea that all psychiatric disorders reduce to chemical imbalances in the brain
The tendency to over-ascribe genetic reasons to personality traits
The idea that empathy, compassion or altruism is rooted purely in evolutionary-psychological bases, seeking first to answer all questions of psychology on biological-evolutionary bases
The idea that love, or emotions in general, are just chemical or neurochemical reactions
The idea that consciousness is emergent from brainstate
The idea that dreams are the result of nothing more than random neuron firings in the brain
The idea that our purpose in life must be to procreate
(Some of these things could also be attributed to physicalism per se.)
Scientistics have a certain rationalistic way of looking at the world. One of the components of this is that everything is modularized or compartmentalized as opposed to seen as holistic. Everything exists in separate ‘black boxes’ that interact with each other in limited ways that lend themselves easily to understanding, analysis and assimilation. There are many, many examples, even within science, where reality fails this intuition.
Just as one example, a study shows that people who see two colors at once when they see one color with one eye and another color with the other eye, as opposed to one of the two colors dominating over the other at any given time, tend to have more ‘open’ personalities. It makes a certain kind of sense on an abstract level, but it might defy some people’s intuitions because the visual cortex is seen as purely functional and ‘should’ have nothing to do with the personality. Another example is the placebo effect, which shows that belief can have a drastic effect on health. It’s such a prevalent effect that it must be controlled for in all medical studies and can skew results by as much as 30%.
Another example was already mentioned earlier, the one regarding the assumption that there is no strong relationship between one’s (genetically-determined) physical appearance and their personality. Another example is the presumed impossibility of astrology as discussed further down (i.e., the idea that celestial bodies and their positions are functionally separate from and thus irrelevant to our emotions and daily lives).
All of these kinds of effects, out of the ones that are known to science, are ‘bracketed off’ or supposedly assimilated in a way by scientistics—that is, they just assume that they make sense within their rationalistic view of the universe in some way even if they don’t ‘yet’ understand that way, and the scientistic is thus free of the cognitive dissonance that should result from the fundamental fact that their rationalism is incompatible with nature.
The really sad thing about scientistics is that they must seriously lack heart, or any intellectual allegiance to their heart, or a good heart-mind integration, to believe things like, for example, “this vital electricity I feel in the air is all in my imagination, or based on tactile cues or sensory cues or neurotransmitter levels, or whatever” or “love is all chemical and hormonal effects.”
I’d say that rationalism and skepticism tend to lead directly to scientism and naturalism. Both to both, but more rationalism to scientism and skepticism to naturalism. Also, to some degree scientism itself leads directly to naturalism.
It seems intuitive to try to understand reality by breaking it into its smaller, constituent parts and observing how they interact with each other to create macroscopic phenomena, but it’s ultimately a trap, at least when the goal is to satisfy one’s curiosity about nature rather than engineering purposes.
Stuff is made of matter, which reduces to molecules composed of atoms, which are reduced to subatomic particles, some of which are reduced to further subatomic particles (quarks), which in turn are reduced (tentatively or controversially) to superstrings, which seem to be made of nothing more than math. The irreducible subatomic particles are unsatisfying because we don’t know why their nature is specifically what it is, the reducible subatomic particles are unsatisfying because they simply lead to further subatomic particles which may or may not be composed of further subatomic particles, and superstrings are unsatisfying because mathematics is all quantity—it has no place for quality in order to give rise to substance or qualia.
I suppose all of physics is just applied math, but the difference is that math pertaining to subatomic particles is not purported to be the source of all of reality, so there is still room for the math merely to be the mathematics relating experiences / instrument readings / observations to other experiences / instrument readings / observations, whereas superstrings’ intendment of being an explanation for all of reality is untenable because only equations and quantities leave no room for quality in order to give rise to substance, qualia or, in turn, experience.
You can break reality into smaller and smaller parts, and you’ll never get a satisfying answer, because it’s all just (relatively) meaningless information, and because there’s always the recurring question of “what are these even smaller parts made of?” Even more generally, asking “why is the universe the way it is” will never yield a satisfying answer from science because, no matter how deeply you explore the mechanics of the universe and discover why it is the way it is, there is always the question of why the universe is such that that answer is the case..
Reductionists will never be truly satisfied with a reductionistic answer, because it lacks any kind of true meaning or substance; it’s just information. The only kind of discovered monad that would be satisfying to such an individual would be something found inside—some kind of feeling or emotional object? A past decision buried deep in one’s ever-existing soul? But the very methodology of scientific reduction (or scientific anything) precludes a discovery even remotely of that nature.
Consciousness as an Emergent Property
People who desire to find explanations for all things under a physicalists paradigm often turn to the concept of “emergent properties” to explain how consciousness “arises from” inanimate material processes. Per emergent properties, macroscopic phenomena seem to arise out of nowhere as a result of the interaction of their microscopic parts, and consciousness seems to arise out of nowhere—at least in that it’s unaccountable for—so therefore consciousness must be an emergent property.
But emergent properties should be mechanically understood and derivable (such as by arriving at a snowflake by simulating water molecules or by reasoning about them with sophisticated math), or at least derivable in principle with enough knowledge of the workings of the system. That’s not the case with consciousness as an emergent property, because consciousness isn’t even a physical concept (like, say, snowflakes and their constituent atoms are). So emergent property as something truly understandable is thus abstracted and objectified as a concept, and then overextended to apply where it doesn’t belong. Thus accounting for consciousness via “emergent properties” seems to me like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Consciousness is not a physical concept. By that I don’t mean that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, which would be begging the question, but that epistemically the concept itself is not in the category of “physical things.” The things that consciousness is supposed to reduce to are physical, and therefore that’s a category error. It’s not of the same type of rational reduction as, for example, a car being the sum of its parts.
There’s also a certain irony in concluding that the mind and its ideas are made up of material processes: we know of our own inner experience first and foremost, and then as we develop we gain concepts of things we think of as external to us, those things that are physical. But the external remains a secondary consideration both chronologically and epistemically. Then some try to account for the inner experience, including all of its ideas of both the internal and external, as subordinate to or secondary to the external (which is ultimately never more than an internal concept, insofar as we can know of it). It seems absurdly contortionistic.
Also, consciousness / experience as we know it (not as we theorize about it after objectifying it as a concept) is, in my personal experience, a fundamentally singular thing, and in that case it cannot possibly be made up of / arise from many smaller things. Complex collections of things do not make up fundamentally simpler things (except insofar as we see / abstract them as simpler things); to think otherwise would be irrational, because a thing is at least as complex as the sum of its parts. So it seems to me that consciousness / experience / self-awareness simply cannot be made up of non-living elements.
One strong reason that scientists and scientistics tend to think that consciousness is emergent from (or is otherwise produced somehow by) the brain is the extent to which damage to specific brain tissues affects, impairs or seems to completely annihilate consciousness and its faculties. This is far from proof that consciousness reduces to neurochemistry though.
Take the TV analogy for example. Imagine you have no idea what a TV is how it works and you discover one in operation. You perform various tests on it, discovering that if you manipulate its physical insides, its electrical flow, or even the magnetic field around it, the picture on the screen changes in particular ways, and those ways depend on exactly where and how you messed with the TV’s insides. If you screw with it enough you’ll even find that the video and sound cease completely.
The natural, naive conclusion would be that the TV somehow generates the TV show it’s playing on the screen and speakers and all its conceptual content, but we just happen to know better in this case. But we didn’t create the brain, and it’s too complex for us to fully understand from the ground up, so we can’t really know whether it generates consciousness or merely transceives it.. and in light of other arguments made herein, it seems more likely that it doesn’t actually generate consciousness/mind.
Tanasije Gjorgoski makes a good argument (in the form of reductio ad absurdum) as to why consciousness can’t be a property of a neural network here and here. I’ll reproduce the page at the first link here:
Playback argument (why a neural network can’t be conscious)
Here is simple refutation of neural-network producing consciousness idea. It can be used as attack to much more general set of systems, and hopefully I will be posting a short paper on this issue in next few weeks I hope.
Here is the simple argument:
Let’s say that the system is composed of “digital” neurons, where each of them would be determined by: input from other neurons, internal state, the calculation it is doing, and output it gives to other neurons. And because we assume it is not important how was the calculation made every neuron pk can be changed by any system which does set of output functions yi=f(x1..xj). Let’s suppose additionaly this system is conscious, so we will do reductio ad absurdum later.
Now, let’s say we are measuring each neuron activity and internal states for a 2 (10, 20) minutes, in which the system is conscious (maybe we ask it if it is conscious, it does some introspection, and answers that it is). We store their inputs and outputs as functions of time. After we got that all, we can replay what was happening by:
Resetting each neuron internal state to the starting state, and replaying the inputs which come from outside of the neural net, and first inputs which come from inside of neural net (starting state). As the function is deterministic, everything will come out again as it was the first time. Would this system be conscious?
Reset each neuron internal state to starting state, then disconnect!! all the neurons between each other, and replay the saved inputs to each of them. Each of the neurons would calculate the outputs it did, but as nobody would “read them”, they would serve no function in the functioning of the system, actually they wouldn’t matter! Would this system be conscious too?
Shut down the calculations in each neuron (as they are not important as seen is second scenario – because the outputs of each neuron are also not important for functioning of the system while the replay). We would give the inputs to each of the “dead” neurons (and probably we would wonder what we are doing). Would this system be conscious?
As the input we would be giving to each of the neurons actually doesn’t matter, we would just shut down the whole neural net, and read the numbers aloud. Would this system be conscious? Which system?
I have my own reductio ad absurdum against physical reductionism here. I have more or less the same arguments as here with different wording here.
Physicalism defies all heart-based perspectives and kills magic. It also defies tons of evidence for the parapsychological and billions of individuals’ inexplicable experiences. The only reason people subscribe to it (in general, at least) is that it satisfyingly explains (away) all mysteries instead of naturally living with and appreciating the mystery. It’s rooted in scientism and the left-brain-dominant thinking which is endemic to modern cultures. And it makes everything under the sun out to be dead and mundane. I wrote some insights into the fundamental biases behind the physicalist worldview in this essay. I wrote a more elaborate difference between the physical and mental realms and why they’re reductively incompatible with each other in this essay.
Consciousness as an Illusion
Another easy tactic that physicalists use to eliminate the scary idea of life itself (i.e. consciousness and everything that goes with it) is to posit that consciousness must be an illusion.
Consciousness cannot be any less real than it appears to be, because its existence does not intrinsically imply anything that would be verified by any empirical or external means, so there is nothing to disprove or nothing further to discover that it “really” is, in the way that, say, water on the road can be shown to be really a mirage caused by a heated layer of air. There are no implications other than the direct self-experience, or awareness of consciousness by consciousness itself. And that is a universal experience, and attempting to deny it (as functionalists actually do) would be akin to putting one’s hand in front of one’s face in broad daylight and denying that it appears.
Furthermore, mind can’t be an illusion because it’s in the mind that an illusion exists. So if the mind didn’t exist illusion would have no meaning. Or if it’s supposed to be in the brain that the illusion exists then it’s only insofar as mind, in which the illusion must exist because illusion is a mental phenomenon by definition, is assumed to be an abstraction or emergent property of brain processes, and abstractions or emergent properties aren’t illusions. And even if they were, the mind Xm of Brain Xb wouldn’t be an abstraction or observation made by Individual X anyway; it would simply be its behavior, or perhaps an abstraction or observation only to outside observers. Or if, on the other hand, mind is a process of abstraction that the brain makes which creates awareness of thoughts, then that’s merely the nature of mind, not a refutation of it. In other words, what else would mind be assumed to be, and why? If mind were something other than our experience of it, we’d never know of it or have a reason to come up with the concept. And the meaning of a word is in how it’s used anyway, so either way the mind can’t be an illusion.
In other words, if consciousness is an illusion, what it is it an illusion of? What is it that we erroneously think it is? If consciousness didn’t exist, how would we have the clear idea of what it’s like to be conscious? In order for us to even know of consciousness, we must have witnessed it at some time. Even if by some unlikely chance we knew of something we called consciousness that’s not really consciousness, it still must be consciousness because consciousness is whatever we’re referring to when we use the word. It can’t be anything else because the concept doesn’t exist in the realm of empirically known things / we know of it directly and not sensorially, so there’s no way to show that what we think it is actually boils down to another thing.
On a slight tangent, I wrote some notes on why free will is not an illusion here.
A religion is an obviously farcical and socially/psychically destructive meme complex that’s largely propagated through inheritance/indoctrination of children, and sometimes, or at least historically, through war/conquering.
It’s an appallingly black-and-white way of thinking about the world and the universe, and it projects archaic and barbaric human notions of morality, ethics and values onto God, elevating them to absolutely righteous and immutable status. Or at least Abrahamic religions do.
It stunts people’s emotional growth and makes them suffer through the idea that God judges us and through guilt, which is never helpful. (I wrote more about guilt here and here.)
Religion is metaphysics, mysticism or spirituality filtered through the eyes of the masses and psychosocial interaction on a societal scale. It’s a lowered and degraded distortion of truth, where that distortion ranges from moderate to severe depending on the religion.
I think one reason religion is so alluring and prevalent is that it contains concepts and symbolism that hint at the spiritual and depths of mind that are all but completely covered up in today’s world, at least in western society. It’s from an earlier time when people had access to lower strata of mind and nature. My friend Darin talks a little bit about such strata here and in other videos on that channel. More related content can be found here.
Contrary to popular belief (at least among atheists), however, not all religions are equally nonsense. Some religions are definitely better and truer than others. Buddhism and Jainism, for example, are a lot better than Christianity and Islam.
Mysticism is related to spiritualism but is more than just a set of beliefs or ideas: it’s a way of thinking that eschews rationalism (my version of ‘rationalism’) and absolutism. One reason is that the truth of whatever exists is so hard to comprehend by human beings that there are many ways of looking at it and none of them are absolutely correct; they’re all metaphors. Therefore some truths that may seem contradictory to other truths may not be in actuality. Another reason is that the absolute truth is very holistic and interconnected, therefore any extraction of conceptual truths from it as discrete ideas is rather arbitrary. A lot is lost in translation between truth and ideology or even ideation.
Mystical or cosmic truths are just too holistic, nuanced, complex, subtle, interconnected, multifaceted, multidimensional and open-ended to be readily amenable to rational analysis and assimilation. So it’s kind of that what’s true (or what semantical statements should be considered ‘true’) depends on what aspect of the cosmos you’re focusing on or ‘highlighting,’ what your outlook is, how you regard the terms of the question, etc. Niels Bohr (famous physicist, one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics) even said, “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”
This is why mysticism seems so hard to grasp and maybe even seem anti-intellectual or just illogical, and why many mystical teachers, all of whom may be very wise individually, seem to say so many things in contradiction to other teachers or perhaps even to their own teachings (another reason being, of course, that humans are often wrong and fallible—even the genius and enlightened ones).
Kant had a good idea when he said that metaphysical inquiry is an attempt to know things-in-themselves in terms of categories proper only to the world as we experience it.
Speaking of Niels Bohr, many respectable quantum physicists have had tendencies toward mysticism or at least have noted similarities between mystical and quantum worldviews, including David Bohm, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein*. It’s ironic that pedestrian scientistic types decry all mystical concepts while some of the greatest minds in the actual field of science embrace(d) them.
“A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.” -Rabindranath Tagore
*Einstein said he didn’t care to be called a mystic, but I think it’s fair to categorize him as one for the purposes of this essay. Here’s the full quote: “I am not a mystic. Trying to find out the laws of nature has nothing to do with mysticism, though in the face of creation I feel very humble. It is as if a spirit is manifest infinitely superior to man’s spirit. Through my pursuit in science, I have known cosmic religious feelings. But I don’t care to be called a mystic.” He also said, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.”
Spirituality is a lot like mysticism but less oriented toward the understanding of esoteric truths and more toward personal development. Like mysticism, it entails belief in things non-physical and unknown to science, such as the soul or spirit, a mind independent of body, life after death, etc.
To some degree it’s probably the case that spiritualism is the opposite of naturalism, in that it focuses on all those parts of reality that naturalism categorically denies.
For those wanting a more solid definition of “spirituality,” I attempted to provide one here.
‘The paranormal’ seems to encompass a wide range of phenomena—basically anything one might be skeptical about. For example, as far as I know, it covers UFO activity even though it has nothing to do with what we call ‘metaphysics’ (in the mystical / new-age sense) and of course it also covers the parapsychological which does have to do with ‘metaphysics.’ The paranormal can tie into the spiritual or mystical with its implications or can be implied by the spiritual or mystical, but the difference between the paranormal and the spiritual or mystical is that it’s merely about the observation of out-of-the-ordinary phenomena, not so muca obout its interpretation per se.
‘Skeptics’ dismiss the paranormal in general because they dismiss anything amazing, paradigm-shifting, etc., or anything that defies the scientific / scientistic conception of how the universe operates, including the illusion that our current view is in any way comprehensive.
Magic is real in every sense of the word, though in some senses it’s more commonly experienced than in others. ‘Magic’ is somewhat of a vague word, so it’s probably a good idea to expound on some of its attributes and senses. Incidentally I’ve already done that in this article which I’ll reproduce here:
The Meaning of “Magic”
Magic exists, life is open-ended and not restricted according to our rule-based view of it. I mean yeah, life appears to be rule-based by and large (speaking of the laws of physics and such) and that’s why we have an absolutist rule-based view of it, but that’s just a prominent pattern within the physical realm, it’s not all-encompassing or absolute. There is “room” for magic.
You could say there’s “room” for a lot of things, and why should there be something as good and wishful as magic, but the truth is that the universe is by and large an awesome and wonderful place, notwithstanding conditions in this cubby-hole we call human civilization on planet Earth.
“Magic” means a few different things though. One of those meanings thought to be restricted to being what we call the emotional. This kind of magic is mentioned, for example, in the lyrics to Duran Duran’s “Come Undone”: “Words, playing me deja vu / Like a radio tune I swear I’ve heard before / Chill, is it something real? / All the magic I’m feeding off your fingers.” This kind of magic is common, and people overlook it as a form of real magic because the truly magical part of it is not something that’s empirically observable.
Then there is the more acute form of magic (which isn’t so much a different sense of the term “magic” but rather carries the same spirit of the word but to a more pronounced level): actual “exceptions” to the “laws of physics.” (The “laws” of physics are ultimately just patterns of nature, and nothing, of course—not even magic—is not a part of nature.) I think this kind of magic is possible, and has probably actually happened in the course of human history, but it’s very rare.. at least right now. This could perhaps, and hopefully will, change in the future.
Some assorted attributes of real magic:
Magic is connective—even “impossibly” so.
Magic is mysterious, though not necessarily everything mysterious is magic.
Magic is non-mechanistic, and therefore transcends our normal models of causality and confounds our typical rationalism.
Magic is related to the unexpected.
Magic is wild and unpredictable.
Magic is realer than real, it is the substance that we all thirst for in life but are conditioned by cultural left-brained thinking to overlook and discard.
Magic is irreducible.
Magic is inexplicable.
Magic is amazing, surprising, stupendous, wonderful, often miraculous.
Magic is not just “any sufficiently advanced technology.” A sufficiently advanced technology may appear magical, but not all magic is necessarily technological. More accurately, probably none of it is, and the appearance of sufficiently-advanced technology as being magical is just that: appearance. The phrase “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is just meme-tier wisdom that physicalists use to flatten the entire playing field to the mundane.
Magic is not necessarily what’s simulated by illusionists. If something an illusionist’s trick were to actually happened for real, that would qualify as magic, but magic does not have to defy the laws of physics, or at least it doesn’t have to do it so overtly.
The principal trait of magic may be that it links mind to the outside world. It is when (a) the outside world behaves in ways that are more reminiscent of our internal world than what we think of the outside world or how it normally operates, or (b) when we notice an aspect of the outside world that actually has always behaved this way, or (c) when there is a connection between the inner realm—the modality of one’s mind and consciousness—and the outside world that seems to defy nature (that is, what we know of how nature works). The reason this reflection of the inner within in the outer world, or in other words the connection between the inner and the outer worlds, would result in what we call “magic” is that the mind itself—the inner world—operates magically all the time. It’s just that we don’t call it “magic” because in the inner realm it’s taken for granted; it’s too familiar; and it’s not something we perceive with our physical senses.
To some people, magic is a situation where fantasy—things that are too good to be true—become reality. While not all fantasy worlds and concepts are realistic (even in the magical universe), real magic as characterized above meets this very general characterization (perhaps the most general and fundamental of all characterizations of “magic”) because a lot of those elements named above are vital to life, joy, exhilaration, fulfillment, truly being alive, etc., and yet are scarce in this world, partially due to our scientistic, analytical, skeptical, left-brain-dominant cultural mindset.
Some people see magic as being able to influence reality with one’s mind (say, Harry Potter style). More generally, I could say it’s about uncanny connections between external reality and mind/thoughts. Even more generally it’s simply “connective,” as mentioned above.
Magic is easier when two or more people believe excitedly together, propping each other up.
I do not know if magic requires more than one element of the above simultaneously, or which elements or combinations of elements are necessary or which are sufficient.
Assorted examples of magic and magical things:
The feeling of timelessness
Anything you literally feel in your heart. Not the physical heart, the spiritual heart, probably actually the heart chakra. Mine is located directly below my sternum.
Ki energy or kundalini
The electric feeling you feel when you’re excited or it’s a cold night where it’s warm most of the year.
“Words, playing me deja vu / Like a radio tune I swear I’ve heard before / Chill, is it something real / Or the magic I’m feeding off your fingers?” —Duran Duran, “Come Undone”
“The kisses of the sun / Were sweet / I didn’t blink / I let it in my eyes / Like an exotic dream / The radio playing songs / That I have never heard / I don’t know what to say / Oh, not another word / Just, la la la la la / It goes around the world / Just, la la la la la / It’s all around the world / Just, la la la la la / And everybody’s singing / La la la la la / And now the bells are ringing / La la la la la la la la” —ATC, “Around the World”
“All through the night / This precious time when time is new / Oh, all through the night today / Knowing that we feel the same without saying / We have no past, we won’t reach back / Keep with me forward all through the night / And once we start the meter clicks / And it goes running all through the night / Until it ends, there is no end” —Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
“Wrapped in the warmth of you / Loving every breath of you / Still in my heart this moment / Or it might burst / Could we stay right here / Until the end of time until the earth stops turning / Gonna love you until the seas run dry / I’ve found the one I’ve waited for / All this time I’ve loved you / And never known your face” —Lamb, ‘Gorecki’
“The mother, and the matador, / the mystic, all were here before / like me, to stare You down. / You appear without a face, / disappear, but leave your trace, / I feel your unseen frown. / […] / I look for you in heathered moor, / the desert, and the ocean floor / how low does one heart go. / looking for your fingerprints / I find them in coincidence, / and make my faith to grow.” —Suzanne Vega, “Penitent”
“Your static-bound emotion is breaking me down / I’m riding on your sound wave right over the town / Your frequency can never be tracked / Your electric feeling is makin’ me crack / Your mind phone / Is calling me up / Your mind phone / Is dialing me out / Your mind phone / Is beamin’ me into your dream” / […] / Yeah you’re aloof, but the blood is the proof / Your single dream is splittin’ in two / You hear me clearer when you fly from the roof” —April March, “Mind Phone”
“Somewhere I have never travelled,gladly beyond / any experience,your eyes have their silence: / in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, / or which i cannot touch because they are too near” —E. E. Cummings
“I never felt magic crazy as this / I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea / I never held emotion in the palm of my hand / Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree / But now you’re here / Brighten my northern sky.” —Nick Drake, “Northern Sky”
One thing I’ll mention here, though (because it’s not mentioned in that article), is that the issue of whether magic is real or not may be confounded by naive conceptions of magic as looking a lot like illusionism, except being real. I believe magic exists (but rarely in this world) in the sense in which it defies the ‘laws of physics’ (as we know them), but it still doesn’t quite look like when an illusionist pulls a rabbit out of a hat.
Magic may be even closer to the core of what’s rejected by so-called skeptics than ‘the supernatural’, but perhaps not as close as ‘the paranormal.’ Either way, though, naturalists / physicalists, scientistics, rationalists, academics and so-called ‘skeptics’ aim to destroy magic in all forms by denying its existence and/or explaining it away.
I realize skeptics write such things off as ‘anecdotal,’ but I’ll mention anyway an account I’ve read of two people experiencing real magic. In summary, they were walking along next to a building or something and having a conversation about magic, with a belief that maybe it’s possible, and they started to get excited about its possibility, and then an umbrella that was leaning against the wall beside them suddenly started to pop and fizzle and turn into something of a light show before disappearing.
There are probably many stories online of people experiencing magic, some of them real and some of them not, but this one struck me as being especially realistic because the magical event didn’t happen until their minds were in a state where it was almost expected (by hyping each other up through excited conversation). This principle is fundamental to many aspects of life, parapsychological phenomena, magickal practices, spiritual principles and practices such as ‘law of attraction’ and vision boards, etc.
I’ve also had two personal encounters with magic of some kind (or more, depending on which ones you count). Once I was playing on a swinging chair with my little sister, while concentrating on manifesting some sort of magic (but I didn’t tell her I was doing this), then out of nowhere my sister told me, somewhat emphatically, that she saw a spark on the ground. (And no, magic wasn’t a topic that I frequently brought up with her—or even ever.)
The other time I was lying on the couch and decided to send a wish out into the universe to bring magic into this world, straight from the place right at the base of my sternum where I used to feel strong emotion-like feelings (I call it my heart.. it’s probably my heart chakra), and at the same instant, the box fan that was running in the room stopped. I went and checked it out and the switch was still on, it just wasn’t running. I turned the switch off and on again and it started running again. A few minutes before I did that I was wishing that the fan was off, but I was too lazy to get up and turn it off so I just let it be. Wishing for something and then just letting it be is characteristic of many other times where I wanted something but didn’t expected it to happen and then it happened somehow.
There are other stories I have that are less directly under the umbrella of what we call ‘magic’, but it’s all interconnected.
Here’s one of those other stories:
One time was I was swimming in the pool with my little sister, and she had me stay still while she dumped a pale of water on my head and I closed my eyes. You’d think there’s nothing scary about having some water dumped on your head, but for some reason that simple act entailed that I had to trust her, a kind of surrender. I think that was the key to what happened next.. I suddenly felt divine happiness in my heart (i.e. in the area of my heart chakra). It was so subtle yet so real and something that was so far from my normal miserable, empty experience.
Anyway while in this state I was watching the trees blowing in the wind, and I could actually see the happiness of the trees or their leaves being tickled by the wind and the sun, because it was the same happiness in my heart. So now I know that trees actually are spiritually alive and sensitive and enjoy life.
Sometime not too much later I overheard my mom saying that my sister had told her that a pain she’d had in her hand for years was magically gone. I think it probably had something to do with the divine presence touching my heart while we were in the pool.
The joyous feeling in my heart I had at that time felt like a living energy, like there was a kind of inner motion to it.
Another relevant story is that I noticed when I was a kid that every time I played outside in the hose, it would rain that day. I suppose this is an example of ‘sympathetic magic.’
Science Vs. Spirituality, Magic, Etc.
It’s a shame that common mentality has it that science and spirituality/the parapsychological/etc. are essentially incompatible. Nothing in science proves naturalism or disproves spirituality. There is a viewpoint or weltanschauung among the scientific community that definitively excludes spirituality, the soul, magic, the oneness of all beings, etc., but that viewpoint is not supported by evidence and the scientific method per se; it’s merely the preferred outlook of most scientists.
The underpinnings of the scientific view of the world are what we think of as the laws of physics or the laws of nature. Physical laws, inferred from physical observation and experimentation and modeling, carve out specific relationships between cause and effect within the physical universe, but they don’t show or imply that those relationships are all that exist. They’re limited to what’s observable by scientific instruments and is within the realm of testability and practical theorization. They’re also planned and executed by humans.
This means they’re limited in a few ways, such as (a) to very simple relationships between cause and effect, (b) to proximity in time and space (usually) between causes and effects (with some exceptions for exceedingly simple and obvious relationships, such as the effects of gravity), (c) to predictability based on physical control rather than less-quantifiable psychological principles, (d) to causes and effects that can be definitively, quantitatively measured, (e) to strictly repeatable phenomena/observations, (f) to phenomena that are mathematically modelable for the purposes of predicting and manipulating said phenomena, (f) to those kinds of measurements that we’d even be aware of the possibility of making based on our very arbitrary and limited biological makeup/senses, and (g) to those measurements we’d even think of making given our underlying preconceptions about the world and what kinds of meaningful patterns and connections can be found.
I think that even when kinds of measurements of patterns and connections that violate typical (b) are made and have mystifying results, they tend to be totally overlooked by the scientific community. For example, I’ve read that people have EM fields of a certain frequency around them that, within a certain range, actually get stronger the farther away you get from them. This totally violates everything we know about the emission of EM, or of any other force, yet I’ve only heard of it once or twice, and probably from fringe sources.
Because of the immense efficacy of science in predicting and controlling the world, people eventually assumed that nature must be wholly mechanistic. But without being able to predict or control absolutely everything that happens, there’s no reason to assume this.
You could say that the laws of physics leave no room for any other type of influence on events, but I’d say this is false. As I’ve shown, the domains and contexts in which we surmise and verify physical theories are limited.
Also, the universality of physical laws is merely assumed; just because something happens one way 20 times doesn’t mean it won’t happen another way another time. There is no absolute underlying foundation grounding our understanding of cause and effect, as explained somewhere in here and more briefly in here, so we have no way of being sure that the consistency of the measurements we make in a few labs will hold up everywhere always.
Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that the macroscopic fully reduces to the microscopic as we tend to assume, so all the models we make based on the measurements and predictions of microscopic things don’t necessarily fully account for macroscopic events.
Quantum Mechanics and Spiritualism
Then there’s quantum mechanics to think about with its inherent unpredictability, which is where the mechanistic worldview of science bumps up against the open-endedness inherent in reality. If spirituality really means much, then spiritual entities/spiritual reality should have some kind of influence in some way on our physical lives, and quantum “randomness” is probably an avenue for that influence.
It may sound like attributing spiritual influence on physical reality to the unpredictability inherent in quantum mechanics is a “god of the gaps” theory, but you have to remember that the idea that the world is made entirely of mechanical, non-living stuff was gratuitous in the first place. There never was a time when science predicted everything; it just assumed everything was inherently predictable and hence mechanistic and essentially lifeless as an extrapolation from the limited scope of phenomena it was able to predict and control. When quantum physics came around, this inertia scientific thinking had gained lingered, and hence people assumed that the inherently unpredictable randomness of it either (a) just arises from mechanisms-as-such that we don’t understand yet, or (b) is “absolutely random” and therefore meaningless. But instead it should have caused us to retract a little the entirely mechanistic and essentially lifeless view of reality we’d developed in the first place.
I’ve written a lot more about how quantum randomness could be the avenue for spiritual influence and about whether we should assume it’s not by default here.
Merriam-Webster defines empiricism as “the practice of relying on observation and experiment especially in the natural sciences.”
It’s great to observe and test reality using empirical methods, but it’s not so great when people assume that empiricism is the only legitimate means of learning anything, especially about how reality works. It leads to physicalism, because empiricism is limited to observation of the physical. Yes, there is a hidden assumption there that there is anything other than the physical that could be studied, but on the other hand, when your means of study by definition excludes all but one possible mode of existence, it definitely raises the important question of whether other modes are going unseen.
One might raise the point that observation of the physical is the only kind of observation that can be done objectively (i.e., can be observed to behave in the same way consistently and can be corroborated by other parties), but that doesn’t disprove other ways of knowing. There seems to be a deficit of self-trust in modern society, in that many people will disregard their own instincts about important things in favor of scientistic reasoning. You might as well cut your own heart out; the effect is self-destructive. It has a tendency to kill or at least to stifle the magic inside.
An example of this would be someone believing that eyes are merely a biological organism with limited, physical-only means of expression, rather than ‘windows to the soul’ or something equally poetic and mystical. If this view prevents him from feeling / connecting with someone by looking into their eyes, then it’s stifling the magic. If the person believes this about eyes and connects to others through their eyes anyway, then this is an example of the kind of ‘schizophrenia’ that I referred to earlier under ‘Naturalism / Physicalism / Materialism.’ Another major area in which this schizophrenia tends to be found is in the understanding and appreciation of song lyrics.
One might raise the point that when it comes to beliefs about non-physical things, everybody’s belief differs, so the chance of one being right about something non-physical is less than likely. To this I would say, A) there are truths that aren’t physical that most people agree on; B) believing the right things that are unseen comes down to keenness, and some people are keener than others; and C) having doubt about specific beliefs about the non-physical doesn’t itself warrant categorical dismissal of everything non-physical.
Another point I want to make is that empirical observations can ‘point to’ the existence of non-physical things. Perhaps the observation of the physical cannot prove the existence of the non-physical, but it can suggest models that include non-physical entities, where those models are the best fit for the data at hand. An example would be if telepathy were proven (and it has been): this would suggest that consciousness, or perhaps thoughts, have a reality independent of neurochemical functioning. Of course, this gets into what I mentioned earlier re “there is no mathematical/formal/absolute way to gauge the likelihoods of competing metaphysical paradigms and compare them to each other or to the likelihood of something(s) extraordinary happening.”
I say “it has been” because examples are readily findable as long as you look outside of the skeptics’ circle. People falsely assume that if such a thing were proven, it would turn science on its head. This is naive, as scientists are people too with their own biases, and any scientist who even looks into such things is regarded as a kook by the scientific community and automatically loses all credibility. (See “Science and the taboo of psi” with Dean Radin)
On a different note, there are also issues with the idea that empirical observation actually gives rise to absolute or objective truths.
The idea of evidence becomes less solid when you take a few things into consideration. First, it’s subject to interpretation because we must interpret our senses to deduce that they imply a physical object in Place X with Properties Y. Even if we use instruments to measure objects and their properties, we must rely on our interpretation of our senses of those instruments.
Second, to even understand that ‘this object’ that was revealed is ‘evidence’ as opposed to every other object in the world that isn’t, requires an interpretation of its meaning. For example, if it were a forensic case then the parcel of evidence must be interpreted as being related to the crime in question. But such a determination requires understanding the parcel on the level of meaning, which is purely synthetic. So you don’t even know it’s evidence unless you judge it to be relevant to the crime, and at that point you’re already half way to what you’re trying to prove based on the ‘evidence.’ And I think the same principle can be applied to evidence in areas other than forensics; that’s just meant as an example.
Also, can you really separate the fact of delineation of evidence (from non-evidence) and the interpretation of its meaning (particularly in its relationship to the idea or event being evinced) that this delineation depends on, from the overall mental object / representation of the piece of evidence itself? I think not: it’s the mental representation of the evidence that we must work with when doing any kind of interpretation of or making any kind of deduction from the evidence itself. And of course, the mental representation of the object in question is a highly subjective thing.
Following is a related thing I wrote in response to the question, “How can people believe truths without evidence?”
[Note: it repeats a lot of things that are said elsewhere in this article because it wasn’t written as part of this article and I was too lazy to meld it into it rather than just paste it separately, because there are a lot of points in this paste that i’d have to find places for in the article and also because some of it talks about empiricism and skepticism at the same time, which are two separate subjects in this article.]
There are many ways of knowing; evidence is just the most base way, perhaps the crudest—or at least it’s crude to staunchly rely exclusively on evidence—although it’s of course the most effective and incontrovertible (except to the degree that evidence can be misinterpreted, of course). This is why so many people feel that they should base their beliefs solely on evidence and nothing more; it’s based in fear, it’s a retraction. There are various causes for this fear and retraction, depending on the individual.
Some are deathly afraid of the possibility of being wrong about something, on a social level. Believing in something without stark evidence could make them vulnerable, because they can’t support their belief in the face of someone who believes something else, probably strictly on the basis of evidence.
Some have seen the way others are often misled and wrong in their beliefs, such as those influenced by religion, popular misconceptions, sources of intentional deception, wishful thinking and other cognitive biases, etc. etc. They conclude that we just can’t know anything for sure except on the basis of evidence.
Some have recognized being wrong in their own thinking, for some of the reasons listed above, and hence fall back to (retract to) believing only what can be proven.
In actuality we believe many many things in daily life that aren’t and can’t be proven, but people don’t really reflect on in much in their moment-to-moment activities and believe that they believe things only on the base of evidence. And they do, when it comes to the big truths, just not to the more trivial truths. And the characteristic that it takes on when it comes to the big truths is one of denial / rejection by default of anything mysterious, amazing, or potentially paradigm-changing, or that could get them ridiculed for believing in. It’s not simply a state of non-belief or open-mindedness about a given subject prior to the evidence; it’s still biased, just in favor of the status quo and the mundane.
And of course they’re not actually considering all the evidence available. Just like regular people are afraid of getting laughed at, scientists aren’t free to report positive results in parapsychology and the like because those who do get promptly ostracized from the community and thought of as nut-jobs, regardless of the solidity of their data. So those people who believe they’re basing their beliefs on evidence are actually basing their beliefs on the biases of the scientific community, in some areas of belief. The belief that the practice of science is infallible, vis a vis the fact that scientists are merely human in practice, serves only to reinforce some of the prejudices that already exist in society.
But back to the main point..
Some believe that evidence is the only way of knowing things because anything other way of knowing must be psychic, and psychism is axiomatically impossible because it defies the laws of physics. Of course it doesn’t—it just defies some precepts that the type of people who like science (and the scientific community at large) are typically enveloped in. You can’t actually get from the known laws of physics to a proof that something psychic/parapsychological/paranormal can’t happen or that there can’t be some kind of synchronistic, mystical or spiritual correspondance between two things, etc.
Granted, it is hard to know what’s really true that isn’t proven by evidence. People are notoriously bad at surmising such truths, which is why so many people believe so many crazy things and nobody really agrees with each other on anything. But it’s not fair to leap from the inability of most people to correctly surmise truth to a condemnation or just a dismissal of anybody, categorically, who says they know something that isn’t necessarily or wholly based on evidence. Some people are just keener than others.
We are not isolated collections of neurons exchanging impulses around in our heads, with our only links to the outside world and truth being via our physical senses. On a spiritual and mental level, we are simply connected, like everything is somewhat ’embedded’ in everything else. And you don’t have to be a bona fide psychic to employ this facet of the universe, everyone does through inspiration/imagination/”random” thoughts and intuition to some degree, and on a regular basis.
But I make it sound as if the only way of knowing other than via evidence is via psychism. This isn’t strictly the case. You can surmise things, perhaps intuively, based on experience and patterns, connecting the dots in the tapestry, in a way that you could say is ultimately based on evidence (being that it’s based on experience), but that isn’t directly based on evidence in the sense that the conclusion is provable from experience or in the sense that there’s a more-or-less one-to-one correspondance between a piece of evidence, or a formally identified collection of pieces of evidence, and a given fact interpreted from it. It’s modeling, it’s heuristics, it’s induction, it’s varying degrees of liberty in what one might call ‘jumping to conclusions’, all of which imply degrees of freedom in what’s concluded.
Of course, in reality an intuitive impression is neither all pattern matching nor all psychic, it’s an interplay of the two.
An article which may or may not be relevant to the question, or at least to some of my answer, is ‘Doubting Doubt’, which was written by a person with an IQ in the top 99.9999 percentile, and can be found in this PDF.
Merriam-Webster defines the scientific method as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”
I think it’s amazing that there are actually people who believe that the only valid way of attaining any knowledge is through science. One reason it’s amazing is that we gather information about the world through non-scientific means on a constant basis. I’m wearing a tie-dye shirt right now that says “Comins MICHIGAN” on it. Do you believe me? Probably. I have no reason to lie about that. Do you know in which city the Eiffel tower resides? Did you learn this through the scientific method? No, of course not.
If a UFO lands in my backyard and aliens step out and I have a conversation with them and then they step back into their UFO and leave, and I don’t have any video to prove it, then this is a non-scientific event. There’s no way to test it and it’s not repeatable. Does that mean we should totally dismiss the possibility that it happened? Well, in this hypothetical scenario, it happened, so dismissing it would entail a loss. And if it happened to you, then dismissing it would be insanity.
The very nature or definition of the scientific method differentiates it from other things that it is not; and its being one thing and not other things also puts limitations on the types of principles or phenomena that are rightfully within its purview. In other words, the very nature of the scientific method entails its own limitations.
In this vein, a ‘looser’ corollary to the scientific method could possibly lend insight into things that the scientific method fails to. An example would be the methodology that gives rise to astrology. It’s not scientific, per se, but it is a method of acquiring knowledge. It refines itself over generations, and it reacts to observation although the subject of its observations is not ’empirical.’ Indeed, Merriam-Webster defines science as “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” According to this definition (notwithstanding the ‘especially’ clause), astrology could even count as a science!
There is a sense in which science is just a vacuous attempt at understanding—not all science, but some science. Scientists seek to understand the world as a system by breaking it into smaller and smaller parts and observing and identifying objects and behavioral patterns on those levels. We understand ‘a chair’ by way of understanding how atoms and molecules behave on a mass scale. We understand molecules as the behavior of atoms stuck together. We understand atoms as the behavior of subatomic particles interacting with each other. We understand subatomic particles as being made of even smaller subatomic particles. We (theoretically) understand the smallest known particles as knots in superstrings. But no matter how small we get, we’ll never find a monad that’s satisfying. We’ll always wonder what it’s made of, or at least why it works the way it works. (Maybe we don’t ask what smaller things superstrings are made of, but we may ask why they exist and why they behave as they do..)
This reductionistic approach is an infinite regression into further and further ‘why’s. Even if we attained the long-sought-after ToE (Theory Of Everything), we’d wonder why the ToE is as it is instead of being some other ToE. And if we knew that, we’d wonder why the underlying metaphysics that makes the ToE what it is is what it is, etc. This kind of regress is wholly unsatisfying. A meaningful explanation of anything involves elements that appeal to the emotions, or things we house inside of us. If we ever came to a satisfying underlying monad or theory in physics, it would appeal directly to elements of our own consciousness.
[Note: I realize I’ve been redundant here, since I covered a lot of this part already under ‘Science.’ I accidentally wrote those ideas twice, and I didn’t want to just throw one away and I was too lazy to meld the two into one.]
I would like to get into the subject of astrology because a demonstration of why it’s not impossible in principle, and may very likely be legitimate, can shed light on some of the systemic errors that scientistic types make in their assessment of “claims” (which I put in quotes because the reducing of or formalizing of ways of thinking, such as astrology, to sets of claims is rationalistic).
First of all, one prominent error people make regarding astrology and other inquiries is to assume something is impossible if they don’t know and can’t imagine a mechanism by which it could operate. One’s lack of imagination isn’t a restriction on what’s possible, and “mechanism” doesn’t have to take the form one is familiar with reasoning about.
Of course, the very bases of astrology seem irrational to some people, but that’s only because those people make certain scientistic presuppositions about how stuff works. We don’t really understand reality as well as we like to think we do. The universe is too profoundly/profanely real and metaphysically deep to necessarily conform to our puny, rationalistic models of it.
If gravity and magnetism weren’t readily demonstrable phenomena, people would reject them as impossible because the idea that two things could affect each other without touching each other is too counterintuitive. It’s “illogical” even. It makes no sense. Yet here we are. Physics and the world are full of things that we must simply accept without necessarily understanding them. See Feynman’s excellent answer to “what is magnetism?” on the nature of asking “why” and ultimately having just to take some things for granted, as simply elements of the world, as a basis for understanding. I would say it illustrates a kind of anti-foundationalism inherent in science, and in our view of the world in general, that’s crucial to seeing why it’s not necessarily impossible that the planets could have some kind of inexplicable influence over our daily lives.
In the same way that we accept gravity as a correspondence between remote objects, we could accept astrology as a correspondence between the planets and our consciousness and our daily influences. One might raise the objection that the comparison between gravity or magnetism and astrological influence is spurious because the effects of gravity and magnetism are physically measurable, while the supposed effects of the planets are emotional, or karmic, and abstract. To this I would say that the elements in operation here may not be physical, but they’re not necessarily merely abstractions over physical systems and processes either.
This goes back to the question of physicalism. If not only the physical is real, then what other elements may there in the same order of existence as, say, atoms? Could emotions be things-in-themselves? What about elements of information pertaining to daily events and interactions between people? And information pertaining to the celestial bodies’ relative positions to each other? Maybe life isn’t strictly an interaction between atoms, but a direct interaction between elements on many scales of “abstraction”? This seems to break the supervenience of the macroscopic upon the microscopic, though, and it seems that the only way that’s possible is if idealism (the philosophy that all is mind; reality is conceptual in nature) is true, which is very possible, in that there’s no way to disprove it (any possible parcel of evidence you could observe to support your proof could theoretically be a construct of mind). It could be that all that exists fundamentally are life and minds and that what we experience as physical reality arises from our interaction with (an)other mind(s). Berkeley, for one, makes this argument. So do I: https://philosophy.inhahe.com/2020/02/07/why-im-an-idealist/
Actually, though, because I’m not necessarily claiming that the forces at work in astrology are abstractions (except maybe in the sense that they’re abstruse and invisible), it doesn’t necessarily require the solution of idealism. Come to think of it, even if life were interactions and confluences on various levels of abstraction directly, idealism may be only one possible framework for this. Anyway, in the case of astrology the elements interacting with us—with our minds or spirits, or maybe even with the world at large—could be the “energies” or emotions of the various celestial bodies (why can’t emotions be first-class objects? The idea that they’re merely neurochemical patterns is a scientistic/physicalist assumption (for all we know everything could be imbued with or even fundamentally made of life (see my post on idealism), or at least biological life forms could have nonphysical superstrata of living energies), and the physical-reductionist conception of emotions defies our natural lived experience (we experience emotions as present throughout our bodies and even surrounding them)). And for some reason these celestial bodies’ energies might operate with respect to their positions in space relative to us, and for some reason they might have a particularly profound effect at the times of our births.
Maybe the energetic or emotional effect on our minds or souls cause us to tend to make decisions and to creatively express ourselves in such a way that we to result in us experiencing particular kinds of experiences. Or maybe it simply affects our emotions which, per the law of attraction, draw forth particular experiences into our lives. Or maybe the celestial bodies affect us in some other way, for example via a direct manifestation of particular karmic/life patterns. Probably the truth behind astrology is something even I’m unable to reason about very accurately. (I realize that physicalists/atheists/so-called skeptics reading this will have serious qualms regarding the suggestion of a soul or the law of attraction, etc., but that’s a discussion for another essay.)
As I mention in this essay, n physics, what exactly constitutes a “measurement” or observation that can collapse the probability wavefunction is ill-defined, and there’s debatably an infinite regress problem where, whatever interference happens within a system to collapse the wavefunction, the entire system from the outside could still be an uncollapsed wavefunction, and if something from the outside collapses it by interfering with it, then the entire system including that interference from outside could still be uncollapsed from an even more-outside view, etc., so it makes sense that the buck could ultimately stop at consciousness observing it, perhaps one universal consciousness. Perhaps the whole universe is in a superposition of all possible states until we “collapse the wavefunction” with our observations. This definitely leaves a lot of room for counterintuitive, non-reductionistic modes of causality.
If nothing else, the random nanoscopic effects of quantum events, which can and do have macroscopic effects by way of quantum amplification and chaos theory, leave room for types of causal relationships we don’t understand, especially non-physical ones. Just because we can’t predict quantum-random events doesn’t mean they’re “absolutely random” or meaninglessly random. In fact, their probability distributions follow the bell curve, which is exactly the kind of distribution you’d expect when a large number of causal factors are at play. The meanings behind quantum-random events may not even be mechanistic (see paragraphs 3-6 of this essay for more clarification), which is something hard to wrap our heads around this day and age, and which would explain why we’re at such a loss to scientifically model them.
Horoscopes don’t help the matter of the public perception of astrology. I understand that it seems preposterous that astrologers would know exactly what’s going to happen to you on any given day just based on when you were born. And it is. Since the daily horoscopes are probably the most exposure to astrology that most people have, it kind of acts as the face of astrology, and that definitely gives it a bad rap. Astrology is, among other things, about how the “energies” of celestial bodies affect us based on their relative angles, but horoscope writers take this too far and translate these energies into supposed future events that are way too specific and concrete, probably because that’s what sells.
Horoscopes also tend to fuel the misconception that astrology determines or predicts the future in a strong, or total, sense. The truth is that astrology, if it’s legitimate, is merely an influence or set of influences, just like literally a million other things that influence events that transpire. So it’s not really problematic that astrology supposedly purports to predict or determine the future.
Skeptics tend to say that astrology only works because the descriptions are vague enough to apply to anyone, so people read them and go, “oh, yeah, that’s me!”, but that vagueness alone accounts for the apparent legitimacy of astrology is only a convenient assumption—just like the assumption that a belief in synchronicity, say, as a result of or observing “too many” coincidences in general, is merely due to confirmation bias. Skeptics assume that because it’s conceivably possible that those principles could account for the observations in question, they necessarily do.
Another issue skeptics might have with astrology is that, due to axial precession, the dates of the star signs should be way off by now, so the zodiac should be invalid. However, astrological principles were developed/inferred over generations and generations of observation (and/or maybe even some divination or intuition), which drew connections between people’s lives and the times of year. Astrology’s association of that with particular patterns of stars could have been completely spurious; maybe the only thing that matters is the time of year (perhaps because that determines the weather at the time of birth, statistically speaking? Though admittedly if it’s actually the weather it seems that would make the star signs 180 degrees out of phase in either the northern or the southern hemisphere. But there are probably other environmental factors, either physical or non-physical, that change with the time of year). After all, the constellations associated with the signs were clearly invented by humans, as the pictures inferred from the arrangements of stars are exceedingly vague, and therefore have no metaphysical significance. Edit: I just came across some else’s similar but way more elaborate argument regarding precession in this thread.
Don’t get me wrong, even if astrology has legitimacy to it, it seems unlikely that it’s 100% true and valid in every aspect. Astrological truths would be a very hard thing to infer, and mythology is a ubiquitous part of culture. So there could be a lot of “baseless” mythology to astrology. (I put “baseless” in quotes because even mythology that’s not based in fact tends to be based in something real, in a more indirect sense.)
The only way really to know whether astrology is legitimate is to get into the field, study it, immerse yourself in it with a genuinely open mind, and see whether it seems to make sense or not. The effects of astrology cannot be scientifically measured, but that doesn’t make it invalid. Not everything can be scientifically measured; not everything falls under the purview of science’s methodology. Yes, this entails a subjective assessment. We don’t always have the luxury of being able to determine truths objectively, and dismissing something because it can’t be objectively proven constitutes a bias. Human intelligence is much more broadly applicable than simply following lists of rules (such as for the purpose of determining truth), and we should trust ourselves to use it in situations where things are less than certain.
When I said that astrology can’t be scientifically tested, I fibbed a little. There are conceivable ways of testing astrology. You could have astrologers describe daily influences for different days given the sets of astrological information for the respective days, mix up the dates randomly, and have people choose which one seems to match the current day the best, and then calculate a probability value for the correlation. Or have astrologers describe people’s personalities or lives based on their birth charts, in a room full of people, and then mix up all the results and see if the people choose the results that match their data. Of course the people doing the choosing should have no knowledge of astrology (you’d just have to take their word for it on that—it’s not perfect, but it’s good enough for someone who’s not an extreme “skeptic”), and meritable astrologers would have to be chosen to do the interpretations, using some kind of efficacious criteria for merit.
Another view regarding astrology I’d like to challenge is the common perception that astrology is anti-scientific and/or pseudoscientific. Astrology is not a science—not in the strict/modern sense anyway—but to suppose that astrology is anti-scientific because it’s not science seems to require supposing that anything that’s not science is anti-science, which is of course ridiculous. Unless, of course, science were to disprove astrology, but it hasn’t done that. People just seem to have the misfounded sense that science defies astrology because the scientistic outlook commonly held by lovers of science and academia, composed of mechanicalism, physicalism, and maybe some other isms, defies or seems to defy astrology.
A similar argument applies with regard to astrology supposedly being pseudoscientific. As I mentioned earlier in this multi-part essay, the term “pseudoscience” only rightly applies to things that purport to be scientific but really aren’t. Science is “stealing territory” when the term “pseudoscience” is assumed to apply to anything that’s vaguely parallel to science, but isn’t strictly science, or that is merely thought to make claims of fact. It’s scientistic to assume that science is the only possible source of true statements.
The making of astrology was probably scientific in its essence, albeit not strictly scientific. Astrology could have been honed toward better and better accuracy over many, many generations making observations regarding how well its models predict or correspond to the subject matter it’s supposed to predict or correspond to. These observations necessarily have a subjective basis because they can’t be measured instrumentationally, but that doesn’t make them invalid or wholly meaningless. So that’s how astrology is parallel to science, making use of the basic principle of observation, modeling, predicting, and refining the models over time, without being strictly scientific. There’s no reason that can’t work with regard to ascertaining truth or at least roughly ascertaining truth.
Formally, logic is something like the set of Aristotelian syllogisms (ex. If A, then B / Not B / Therefore not A) and their application, the axioms of math and their applications, etc., but people often think of logic in a much more broad way, as if it means essentially the same thing as reason. Any kind of logic beyond the strict sense of syllogisms, however, is fallible, and yet any type of thought that’s called ‘logical’ (including those that are beyond syllogisms) is treated as if it’s absolute.
Even regarding formal logic, the term ‘garbage in, garbage out’ aptly applies. For example, take the statements “All swans are white. That bird is a swan. Therefore, that bird is white.” The conclusion only holds true if it’s true that all swans are indeed white and that that bird is, in fact, a swan. The only way to know for sure that all swans are white includes knowing that that individual swan is white, so logic alone tells me nothing about that bird. Thus, purely logical derivations cannot be the source of any knowledge of ontological reality; they merely semantically rearrange what you already know. All logical derivations are ultimately indirect reflections of the basic logical axioms; deriving various logical truths about a thing is like looking into a kaleidoscope. As Wittgenstein said, “The propositions of logic are tautologies.” Einstein said, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” The same goes for logic, and math is indeed reducible to logic.
When logic is used in its broader sense as a synonym for reason (but taken to be absolute), it is fallible because the way in which the elements in consideration are formalized in order to logically reason about them reduces or over-simplifies them, and possibilities are often lost in the translation and erroneously ruled out.
There is a weltanschauung of reasoning about the world that is often passed as ‘logic’, but it actually contains a few hidden, fundamental assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. One is that the world functions strictly according to mechanism and has no direct relationship to mind, so that if a coincidence happens that has no ‘logical’ explanation (in other words, two things or events seem to relate but the relationship is incompatible with the physicalist model of causality) then it must have happened strictly by chance.
Another one, pretty much a corollary to the first one, is that the mind and its activity are independent of one’s environment and its activity; that the only causal relationship between the two is via sensory perception of one’s environment, motor control, emission of brainwaves, etc. If taken too closely to heart, this kind of ‘logic’ rules out any use of ‘signs’ and some forms of serendipity. It can also diminish communion with other people (and animals) because the effects of any connection beyond the physical-sensory could be discarded as meaningless because they’re supposedly illogical.
You could also end up masking the visceral recognition of emotion and intelligence in an animal by way of filtering your perception through a rationalistic misunderstanding of the nature of instinct and/or the extent of the role it plays in animals’ behavior. Most people don’t really apply or question their limiting beliefs about reality that deeply though, otherwise they’d either notice seeming contradictions all the time, or they’d cut themselves off from even the ability to do things like enjoy music, understand a lot of lyrics and poetry, and a lot of other things, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this essay. It’s almost like hypocrisy, but it’s due to blindness.
As for ‘signs,’ though, it may be just as well that they get ruled out, because often they’re nothing more than reflections of what’s already on your mind, so taking them in an oracular sense can be misleading.
The reason it can nullify the efficacy of serendipity is that sometimes events impel you to do a certain thing (or not to do a thing), which would be for your best good. If you reason that the event happened purely by chance, however, you may reason that you should not allow it to change your behavior to something other than what you would normally do given all other factors considered.
Here’s an example: I had salt on my floor to get rid of fleas, and at one point I tasted some in my mouth. This means that floor dirt somehow made its way to my mouth, so naturally I was compelled to spit it out. But then I figured that if it happened after only having salt on my floor for a couple of days, then there must have been many other occasions where floor dirt made its way into my mouth and I just didn’t notice because it didn’t taste like salt, and I didn’t get sick those times, so why should I bother spitting it out this time? And I swallowed it. Afterward I realized that having the salt on my floor could have been serendipity, and maybe I hadn’t swallowed floor dirt often before and maybe I’d get sick from swallowing it then. I didn’t get sick, as it turns out, but that’s an example of how serendipity can be countervailed by so-called ‘logic’.
Here’s another example of ‘logic’ working against us: My cat kept crying outside my room because she wanted in because I was in there, but I didn’t feel like getting up to open the door. If my dad had come by and said something to the cat about not being allowed into my room without my permission, I would have yelled that she has permission. But what if he couldn’t hear me because he has bad hearing? I might have been compelled to get up to go open the door and tell him that she has permission, but then think that that would be ‘illogical’ because it would have taken the same amount of energy as opening the door for the cat initially, with presumably the same benefits, which I had already chosen not to do. So if I were overly ‘logical’ I would have just yelled and if he didn’t hear me then he didn’t hear me, refusing to get up because it’s ‘illogical,’ but that would have been stifling my true desire, which was to get up and tell him, probably for subtle, interpersonal reasons that aren’t made conscious and analyzed.
For similar reason I also often leave out words when expressing myself that seem superfluous, only to realize later that it looks stilted that way or that the words I left out actually had some legitimate purpose in the sentence that I just didn’t realize at the time because it’s peripheral to formalistic / analytical thinking.
The kind of reasoning illustrated above (in the cat example and in the articulation example) is fine for, e.g., engineering purposes, but it can be over-applied.