January 31, 2012

Just Saying

I have a sad story to tell.  Not the kind where you need twelve boxes of tissues and an IV drip so you don't die of dehydration.  Just the kind that makes me depressed.  I had intended for there to be a full story last week up on this very site, but the Gods of the Internet had other plans for me.  You see, as I was ready to post my Pulitzer-worthy piece, my connection suffered a massive coronary stroke and my draft DID NOT save on Blogger's server...crap.  It was meant to deal with the notion of "fault" as perceived by our culture and was poised to host a good discussion, but with a weeks worth of content now lost to oblivion, I'm in the process of piecing it back together. As such, I have something new to talk about while I reassemble over the coming days ("days"...how quaint).  Just something to tide you over; except...

It's not "Just" anything!

I've been having a few pseudo-spiritual, quasi-intellectual, and other hyphenated-concept-based discussions with friends and colleagues lately and I've noticed a trend in our discussions that has started to bother me.  In discussing spiritual matters, it's impossible not to end up "taking a side" in the everlasting and ridiculous debate that is religion/science and their respective roles in human society.  Regardless of your particular stance on the matter, there's always a wall you simply can't break that stands between your understanding of something and your "opponent's" understanding of that same thing.  For the longest time, I thought it was stubborness or refusal to allow other perspectives preventing a more mutual comprehension, but now that I've had these discussions more frequently, I think I've found the more likely culprit: dismisal.

To provide context for this, let me give you an example of the kind of discussion I'm talking about.  This example is pulled from a real conversation I had, but I've removed any means of identification of the parties involved so as not to embarasss or hurt.  Please note: I don't think anything said left anyone feeling hurt or embarassed at any point in the conversation, but it seems like the right thing to do anyway.

John Q: Do you believe in ghosts?
Me: No, not really.
John Q: Well, how do you explain them, then?
Me: Do they require explanation?  I've never really given them much thought.
John Q: Well, I think so, since I saw one once.
Me: Did you?
John Q: I think so.  I saw one in a dream. It was a relative of mine who died recently.  It was their[sic(k)...of this grammatical issue] image; I'm sure of it!
Me: Hmmm...well, I don't think it was a ghost, but I believe you saw something.
John Q: Well, what was it then?
Me: I'd say that it was your subconscious putting bits of memory together to create the image of your relative.  See, your brain puts things together for you, even when you're not actively thinking about them so you can just move on.  I bet that's why you saw your relative in your dream.
John Q: So you're saying it was just stuff in my brain?  [Author's Note: emphasis added for...well...emphasis]

I won't continue the conversation since it doesn't matter what was said from this point forward.  We'd both made our cases, and we both reached our blocking point at that moment.  Whether your agree with my evaluation, or my friend's, the problem lies in the dismisal of one side's explanation; the use of the word "just" to trivialize one side's perspective.

I'm not suggesting that John Q was trying to say that my argument had no validity nor am I saying that John Q was wrong to disagree with me. What I noticed in that conversation, though, was that the desire to belive in one explanation over the other, led to a point where one of us had to either concede, or make the other side irrelevant.  So they went with the latter. 

I've encountered this multiple times in multiple conversations and it's always bothered me, but I'd not been able to really see why until recently.  All the hundreds of conversations and arguments about religion and science (and there inherent COMPATABILITY...another post, I promise) always left me feeling defeated no matter how well I argued.  I've walked away from all of them secure in the knowledge that I fought well, but couldn't really accomplish anything.  "Well, you never will!" I hear some of you say.  Mayhap.  On the other hand, since the problem has no solution inherent to either side, perhaps the solution lies in their union.

By saying that what John Q saw was a collection of subconscious images and emotions that are brought together in the unconscious mind to form a person's visage, I had somehow devalued their understanding of their experience [Quick Tangent: Attention Sash...er...grammar police! I know full well I should use "His/Her" and not "Their", but it's too anoying, and no other language I can name has to put up with this nonsense, so I'm protecting their identity with "they/their" from now on...sorry.]. They chose to explain their vision through a spiritual "miracle" rather than the scientific terms I'd chosen. "Ghost" explains it better and in a more comfortable way; I get that.  It makes sense to me, but what I feel is missing from both that and the statement "just stuff in my brain" is the acknowledgement of how miraculous that "stuff" is.

I said earlier that the real problem with debating science and religion is that each side tries to win the debate on it's own terms.  It's NOT possible. Science can't work in terms that don't have empirical data and scientific methodology, and religion can't explain in terms that aren't born out of tradition, ritual, and a sense of the supernatural.  These two forms of thinking are not capable of conceding to one another's viewpoint without sacrificing the footing that makes them what they are.  But what is lost in that crossfire, is the fact that both religious wonder and scientific phenomena are truly spectacular in their manifestations; particularly when they explain one another. 

Isn't it "miraculous" how the neurons that compose the pathways of the brain use simple electrical pulses to create the thoughts that we need to compose a symphony, solve an equation, paint a portrait, or synthesize a new compound?  Is it not "wonderous" how the entirety of our universe can be broken down into a mere handful of simple, invisible (to our eyes, anyway) particles called elements? Obviously, when I have these discussions, I end up coming down on the side of science, but I feel like something is lost if we don't allow ourselves the sense of awe that comes from "spritual" experience.  It was missing out on something spectacular for John Q to dismiss my explanation as "just stuff in my brain", but it would be equally wrong of me to do the same from my end.  I may not believe in ghosts (and I still don't), but that doesn't mean I can't be amazed at the occurence of natural phenomena. 

Science is not irreconcilable with religion (just ask St. Augustine!).  Even the ever-tiring argument about creation vs. evolution is evidence of this.  The book of Genesis is a beautiful metephor for explaining our origins in simple terms, but evolution is not denying this.  It simply provides a more complex "miracle" of existence.  Yes, I believe evolution provides the "correct" answer to the question of our origins; but not because it is "just science".  It is not "just anything". It's a marvelously deep and complex explanation to something truly awe-inspring. 

So next time you feel like the other guy "just doesn't get it", maybe you can help him/her [you're welcome] see the miracle in your understanding.  I think you'll find you have more in common than you thought.

Next week (Ha ha! As if.), why it's not your fault; or at least why it doesn't matter.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.


  1. Maybe ghosts are made up of subconscious bits of memory, so you're both "right"...

    Science attempts to explain phenomena in a particular way—using logic, rationality, orderly process, analysis, etc.—and it’s very useful for understanding certain types of things, like questions involving the material world that our human senses can observe. The mystical traditions take for themselves a different task—that of constructing a way to understand the universe and our place in it without being bound by logic, rationality, orderly process, analysis, etc. Each approach responds to different needs that are present probably in all, but at least in nearly all, humans, though certainly the relative degrees of these needs differ widely from individual to individual—some have virtually no use for scientific proof, others have virtually no tolerance for mystical constructs, and yet others happily go through life relying on science for some things and mysticism for others without worrying about consistency or reconciliation of the two.

    So to me, an interesting question is why are science and mysticism always pitted against one another? Why is it either/or instead of both/and, recognizing that each has its place and the existence of one does not preclude the existence of the other? I think that’s what Trevor is saying. To be sure, if the question is “how was the universe created?” or “do ghosts exist?” and the context of the question demands a single answer, conflict is inevitable (like in the evolution vs. creationism debate in schools). But what if we relax our demand for a single answer and allow multiple answers from multiple perspectives? Then we come away with fuller, richer knowledge, and we can choose to use that knowledge in whatever ways suit us.

    In Jungian terms, science is like “sensing” and mysticism is like “intuiting”—two different ways of coming to understand the same thing. As Jung teaches, even those with a strong preference for one approach regularly use the other approach when it serves them; preferences do not dictate abilities. In the same way, science uses imagination and intuition in the formation of hypotheses, the design of experiments, etc., and mysticism relies on (its own internal) logic and rationality for its power. If one is a scientist, why not allow for the possibility that something “supernatural” like ghosts exist, even though we haven’t developed scientific methods for detecting or explaining them? Goodness knows there are many things that everyone agrees exist but that science cannot yet adequately explain. And if one is a mystic, why not allow for the possibility that ghosts are entities that are created or conjured up out of something material, like a human brain? So, do ghosts exist? Yes, if at least some people see them. What are they? Well, that depends on the perspective from which you are looking for the answer.

    Quantum physics does not seem to have a problem with this issue. It demonstrates that light (and actually all energy/matter) is both a particle and a wave, depending on the presence of an observer. In other words, consciousness affects the nature of matter. This does not make “rational” sense, yet it is true and universally accepted as scientific fact. So what are ghosts?

  2. Actually, science as typically practiced uses imagination and intuition even more than Paul says. If we look at physics, it explains the universe (or at least observable phenomena involving matter and energy) to an incredibly high degree of precision, in terms of a model that starts with things like quarks, gluons, electrons, etc. These primitives of physics are things that nobody has observed. They are inferred as latent phenomena that underlie the observable phenomena. And on its own terms, quantum chromodynamics asserts that a quark in isolation cannot, in principle, be observed. It requires a great deal of "faith" to buy into models like this--a faith that is repaid by the incredible subtlety and accuracy with which the model predicts a broad range of both obvious and seemingly paradoxical observable phenomena.

    I am aware of only one branch of science (actually a sub-branch of a branch) that eschews reference to models with unobservable constructs: behaviorism, a sub-branch of psychology. Skinner at one time actually did assert that science is about describing the relationships between measurements and nothing more. He denied the existence of consciousness, or even of mind. While, in the context of his era, that was a big advance over conventional psychology practice which pretty much never touched ground with data, behaviorism has not, as far as I know, achieved satisfactory explanations and predictions of complex phenomena. It works very well to predict some types of stimulus-response patterns, but it doesn't get you very far in describing the real world behavior of even animals, let alone humans. Chomsky, I think, delivered a devastating critique of this approach, specifically with regard to linguistic behavior.

    So, for the most part, I'm agreeing with Paul, even urging that perhaps it goes farther than he says. This from somebody who has pretty much no room in his own life and psyche for the mystical, other than to say that science itself must resort to the "mystical" if it is to go beyond the trivial, even in the domain of physics.

    I do want to take issue with one of Paul's statements, though. "It demonstrates that light (and actually all energy/matter) is both a particle and a wave, depending on the presence of an observer. In other words, consciousness affects the nature of matter." This is a common misunderstanding. The term "observer" in that first sentence, as quantum mechanics understands it, has nothing to do with consciousness. An observer, in quantum mechanics, is simply any apparatus that is large enough in scale ("mesoscopic") that Newtonian physics is a good approximation to its behavior, and interacts with the light wave/photon (or other "wavicle.") When such an interaction occurs, the response of the system will be unequivocally either as if it interacted with a particle, or as if it interacted with a wave. Nothing more than that is implied.