I’m just about out of clay, I’ve been making so many of these silly little fridge magnet sculptures. Today I made a sculpture of Pastafarianism’s “deity” the Flying Spaghetti Monster…
I am an atheist because I value intellect and trust that the universe makes sense and can be understood, but I think what many people don’t realize is that being an atheist in no way precludes spiritual experiences (and I don’t mean the complete bullshit claim that “atheism is just another religion”, which makes no more sense than saying the ol’ “being bald is just another hair style”… or “being a moron is just another way of being intelligent”). It just means that those “spiritual” (pardon the troublesome word) experiences are tempered by the intellect, and that they’re seen as the products of an understandable universe bound by physical laws, rather than superstition that can only function if we suspend the intellect and replace it with literally and willfully blind faith.
Both from psychedelic shamanism — DMT — and body rituals — flesh hooks — (to say nothing of the sort of epiphany one has standing on a glacier in the Rocky Mountains looking out over the firmament, looking up at the Northern Lights, or looking into the eyes of an animal and sensing their consciousness) I’ve had a number of transcendent experiences that gave me a sense of “being part of something greater” as well as a sense of “the true nature of reality”. I’m more than willing to accept that these sensations are simply a byproduct of the way humans are wired from millions of years of evolution, a way we malfunction when we throw ourselves into extreme situations. Nonetheless, these are profound experiences and I find the idea of just discounting them in poor taste. Many friends that have gone through similar experiences have attached a variety of traditional religious and new age codes to them, but these come with all sorts of garbage that is knowably false. And if these codes can be shown to be false, it’s clear that they’re an inappropriate explanation — and I find that even more distasteful.
Of course “it’s an emergent illusion” is the most reasonable explanation but since it’s also the most boring one, I like to think that the sense of oneness comes in part from an understanding of the legitimate interconnectedness of all things. The cells and systems in our body come together to form us as individuals, we interconnect with the other individuals to form human society, all life on the planet connects to form the Gaian totality, and I have no doubt that as we evolve, the life of this planet will have an influence beyond our solar system — and I’m sure the same can be said of life forms on other solar systems as well, eventually interconnecting. And I think that sometimes when we knock ourselves into a new perspective we’re able to sense that. More importantly I think that this interconnectedness and oneness is a physical reality, not a piece of mythology, and I think that makes it all the more wonderful. Similarly, feelings of sensing the “real reality”, are probably just an illusion, but I think ones that are inspired by both the way the mind works — a complex web of neurons juggling a complex dance of electrochemical fire — and the building blocks of the physical world.
I can’t deny that all of this musing is terribly pretentious and self-indulgent. That said, emergent properties are interesting, because they are both very real and at the same time don’t exist physically — our physical universe creating something real but non-corporeal! I doubt that consciousness or the sense of sentience is physically real — it’s just a ghost that emerges from inside complex self-aware neural nets that other sentient beings can extrapolate the existence of, but can’t truly sense or confirm. I’ve often wondered what is capable of this emergent property. Clearly the human mind has this emergent property — or at least I feel I can confirm that mine is, and my observations seem to confirm that other people feel the same way. I suspect that within two decades we’ll confirm that artificial minds — highly complex computer systems — are also able to experience it (see my previous entry). But I wonder to what extent a physical substrate is needed — for example, is a story aware of itself while it’s being told? Even though it’s very easy to say the obvious — “that’s ridiculous” — I can’t come up with a good reason for why it wouldn’t be true. Clearly a story isn’t alive in the traditional sense (although you could argue that stories do share some properties of life — they grow, they reproduce, they adapt and respond to stimuli, and so on), but I’m not sure that’s even required. And I wonder as well, whether the stories and memories that people continue to share about a person after they die have some level of emergence — I certainly think that if anything can be called a spirit or soul that continues after the death of the physical body, it’s these stories and memories.
In any case, all this rambling really shows is the deep desire for a spiritual life even among the most “devoutly atheist”. But even if it’s all over-extrapolating silly self-indulgence — and really that is the reasonable explanation — I think a purely physical universe, devoid of the supernatural, is far, far more beautiful than a universe that reduces the profound to a farcically simple “because… god!” or “because… magic!”. I love the idea of an almost infinitely complex existence way more than one that ignores all the wonder before us and just writes it off as some incomprehensible miracle — to say nothing of finding it comforting that the universe is built around truths, rather than the whims of some “supreme being” that’s riddled with the prejudices and shortcomings of the authors that wrote about him (and appear to exist primarily to allow those authors to manipulate others and to create a power-structure that primarily benefits them). I just don’t feel any need to reduce the bits of the world I don’t understand to a myth (and find it even more frustrating when others do so to bits that I do understand!) — these incomprehensible bits fill me with profound sense of wonder and a deep desire to continue learning.