Friday, May 09, 2014

wholly holey holy moods and epiphanies

Spirituality was once the first unified theory of everything. But in current U.S. society, it's increasingly rare to refer to objective phenomena as "spiritual". Eclipses, comets, and stellar and planetary motion aren't spiritual any more. Illness isn't spiritual any more. Atmospheric changes aren't spiritual any more. Although many may still aver that their spirituality can affect these objective phenomena, they don't generally claim that it's completely responsible. They don't claim that it's an alternative theory with the same relevance as gravitation, microscopic organisms, and air masses.

By contrast, it's more customary to assign spiritual significance to subjective phenomena, i.e. direct experiences which originate primarily from the brain's own information processing. A "spiritual" subjective realm may compensate for a nonspiritual objective realm. So long as a faith-belief is embedded in evocative subjective events, its dubious objective effects can be an afterthought. Its followers may opt to disregard whether their faith-beliefs are able to predict or change the temporal world. Instead they may emphasize accounts of holy encounters between their souls and their preferred sacred realities. However, from an impartial viewpoint, the supposed evidence provided by these anecdotes has extensive holes.

They may list episodes when they felt waves of ecstatic emotion after prolonged singing and praying. Or when they felt strong empathy for perfect strangers after contemplating otherworldly love. Or when they felt total inner calm during a crisis after confessing the sovereignty of their benevolent god(s). Or when they felt their sense of identity merge with a larger group and its history. Or when they felt their self-doubt shut down. Could an inaccurate faith-belief play a role in vivid incidents as memorable as these? Are there holes in this argument?

Answer: yup. Though logic disqualifies all faith-beliefs from being true at once, competing followers have sincerely reported almost identical sentiments. So have participants in many idealistic nonreligious gatherings such as political rallies. So have audiences at performances of fictional narratives such as cinema or plays. And the creators of partially nonfictional narratives admit that they intentionally sacrifice accuracy in order to leave a deeper impression. Strong instinctive reactions aren't conclusive. To be provocative a stimulus only needs to conform to a potent archetype, not conform to a truth.

Another hole is inconsistency. The psychological impact on an individual can shift drastically. Over short timescales, they may "not be feeling it" whenever they're abnormally tired or distracted or depressed. Over long timescales, they may have been "powerfully moved" semi-regularly for a couple years, but a decade later they complain about "just going through the motions". Of course, these shifts are ordinary...for experiences with predominantly internal causes. Experiences with predominantly external causes, such as collision with a brick, don't vary nearly as much according to the subject's state.

But it might not be adequate to suggest reasonable doubts about the inferred meaningfulness of a follower's profound feelings. They might change the topic to profound epiphanies. Quoting Merriam-Webster, an epiphany is a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. In this case, the proposed source of the epiphanies is supernatural. At first, a follower pleaded for an answer and/or scrutinized teachings and texts. Then a metaphysical insight abruptly upended their thoughts...striking them like a thunderbolt from Zeus. It was unconventional, yet it was well-suited to the question. It didn't arrive at the end of a chain of logical reasoning, yet it was convincing. It wasn't a careful summary, yet it provided a tidy frame for the known facts. Finally, its content was an exact match with the subject's particular faith-belief. Is a natural explanation plausible? Are there holes in this argument?

Answer: yup. The retorts to supernatural epiphanies fit the same template as the retorts to supernatural moods. Though admittedly rare from day to day, creative epiphanies happen in too many diverse contexts. Discrimination on the basis of faith-belief is nonexistent. Indeed, the topics aren't necessarily connected to faith-beliefs, and the subjects aren't necessarily serious followers of faith-beliefs. For some, the most momentous example was their dismissal of their previous faith-belief! Once again the upshot is that this universal occurrence can't be a clue which favors a specific supernatural source.

Moreover, perhaps the experience of epiphanies is a difference of degree, not of kind. Sustained introspection confirms that human thoughts in general often are unforeseen, untraceable, and disruptive. Like trivial distracting thoughts, grand thoughts could sometimes be the final product of extended unconscious information processing. For instance, a prominent theory about the REM sleep phase is that it reinforces recently added long-term memories.

In addition, since the operation of the brain's various functions is so interconnected, perceptual priming is a potential counterpart to flashes of creativity. Someone didn't "instantly" recognize a novel idea until: 1) their intellectual perception was primed sufficiently, 2) the interfering noise of the rest of their brain activity dropped to a low level, thereby allowing the idea to build to an attention-gathering size. In fact, this conjecture closely corresponds to a well-known two-step technique for knowledge work. Step one is absorbing a puzzle's data with intense depth, breadth, and repetition. Step two is being still, relaxed, and open-minded. With luck, the undisturbed brain might improvise an innovative synthesis by "playing" with the dense raw pieces which were fed into it earlier. It's certainly a mystifying information process that hasn't yet been recreated artificially, but nobody should hastily presume that it's unnatural.

Consequently, its personalized expressions are unremarkable too. The straightforward source of its style and content is none other than the subject's own expectations. Each subject's brain is already trained with the patterns of their faith-beliefs. Those patterns proceed to shape both intuitions and interpretations. The resemblance to their studies and imagination is hardly accidental. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Doubly so whenever the nails are subjective phenomena...

Worse, the overzealous attempt to treat an epiphany like a proof might present an utterly undeniable hole. The novice mistake is trusting a hunch that permits transparent pragmatism. If anyone can possibly link the supernatural message to a limited set of doable checks, then inaccuracy could be measured and demonstrated. That's precisely why it shouldn't be in a detailed, risky form such as, "Judgment day is August 29, 1997." It should rather be in a more abstract, cautious form such as, "Unrestrained selfishness isn't an effective strategy for long-term self-actualization." 

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