In sight of the supranatural – Part 3: Angels, demons, fairies and ghosts

Phenomenalist:  ‘You began by saying that you were responding to the claims made by others.  However, beliefs on all sides of the debate leave room for doubt.’

Realist:  ‘It doesn’t mean that fairies are real because someone believes in them.’

P:  Sir Isaac Newton believed passionately in alchemy, angels and demons – but it didn’t prevent him from being a great scientist.

R:  Are you saying it’s realistic to believe in fairies?

P:  I’m suggesting that there may be more than one form of understanding, and people retain an intuition that there is something more than the ‘hard facts’ of science, so they look to different forms of expression.

R:  It is one thing to entertain fiction and fantasy, but it’s quite another to think that it adds up to a deeper explanation of existence.

P:  And yet that deeper explanation eludes all.

R:  It doesn’t mean that science is wrong.

P:  It doesn’t mean that scientific truths say it all.

R:  Although science is nearer the truth.

P:  Even when a physicist states that ‘all pathways lead to physics’?

R:  What’s wrong with that?

P:  It’s true only so long as we are prepared to believe that everything is explicable at an elementary level.

R:  But you can’t deny the facts.

P:  Does it mean that there is only one way for the facts to be, that the true facts of science reveal the whole truth, that the atoms are more real than our humanity, or that any other pathway is an affront to science and logic because ‘the truth’ is above contradiction?

R:  Surely a logical approach to the facts is essential, otherwise explanation would descend into a muddle of meaningless gibberish.

P:  As any language sounds to one who is not versed in it.

R:  Then please tell me what language you are using.

P:  I am referring to the language of explanation in its various colourful and contrasting forms – whether it is couched in terms of scientific and mathematical logic, or the creeds and dogmas of religion, or even the divinations of mythology and magic. They all serve, in their own way, as frames of reference for comprehending reality.  And it’s not simply a matter of fact versus belief – for there is no understanding that is not referenced to ‘the facts’ via our beliefs.  My point is that explanation is more apparent than real and its conclusiveness is illusory – though we don’t see the shortfalls once we allow it to become the dictator of the known.  Indeed, any explanation boils down to a form of expression about what we think and believe on the assumption that the criteria we have adopted are showing us the way things really are.  But in reality, and despite all the evidence, explanation deals with the unknown by perching itself precariously on top of it.

R:  How does that make fairies real?

P:  Despite what we might think, facts cannot speak for themselves and ‘the evidence’ remains subject to judgement and interpretation.  Most people accept that nature is weird and wonderful; and the fact that the possibilities have not been exhausted keeps our imagination alive.  So you might not be able to debunk a belief in fairies until you can demonstrate their implausibility under all possible circumstances – even as aliens in disguise.

R:  So it’s OK for people to believe that they have seen fairies dancing in the woods?

P:  There are rational people who would swear to having seen a ghost.  Indeed there are many rational reasons for being wrong.  So we need to look at how far our ideas stretch the boundaries of possibility, bearing in mind that modern science has some novel ideas of its own in that respect – about multiple versions of each one of us co-existing in undetectable parallel universes.

R:  Except science draws the line at things supernatural.

P:  Based upon an assumption about what nature amounts to.

R:  Based upon a realistic assumption.

P:  That being the assumption that everything has to have a scientific explanation.

R:  Are you saying that science is unrealistic?

P:  I’m merely inviting you to shift your frame of reference from the idea of scientific truths as the only frontier of knowledge.  Imagine a frog that knows the world only in terms of its own froggy perspective – being all the more certain about the reality it perceives because it finds that there is nothing else to see.  That’s not to say that scientific knowledge cannot evolve; indeed, current ideas of reality and normality might prove to be as narrow as the frog’s compared with what scientists might be saying in a thousand years time.

R:  Are you saying that reality is what we make of it – depending on who’s doing the looking and what they are looking for?

P:  Everything we know suggests that there are boundaries of possibility in operation.  However, it is not the whole story because things can change – additional boundaries come into play, whilst retrospectively it just appears as one continuum.  Nevertheless, the outcome is extraordinary – ‘matter’ is now apparently perceiving itself.

R:  You’re inviting me to imagine boundaries within and beyond boundaries, so give me a chance – I’ll need a more down-to-earth example.

P:  There are many.  I have given examples already, so let’s try another tack.  A work of art is and is not made of its constituents.  That is to say, there is a component that cannot be seen in terms of its physical properties, yet there is nothing but its physical presence to go on.  To be precise, a Michelangelo statue straddles the boundaries between the explicable and the inexplicable, even for Michelangelo.  It is not explicable as a work of nature just because he can visualise the form in the stone before he starts – and, paradoxically, although the carving might faithfully replicate the natural contours of the human body, it is something that nature cannot replicate in the stone by natural processes.

R:  As you say, a work of art is nothing without its physical presence.  But you are also saying that things are impossible for nature even though they become possible only through nature.  So let me try another tack since, by your own argument, you need to show it would be impossible for a computer to generate the works of Shakespeare by pure chance, given infinite time?

P:  Now who’s toying with fiction and fantasy?

R:  It’s not so far fetched in the realms of the distant future that you had alluded to.

P:  Except, in the first place, there’s no example of nature creating by chance anything resembling a computer.  And contrary to popular belief, even radical evolutionists can’t prove that ‘natural computers’, namely brains, evolved by pure chance.

R:  So what’s your conclusion?

P:  Not so much a conclusion as a reflection on ‘the nature’ of ‘things’:  Reality is bigger than the limited explanations we can attach to ‘it’ in the name of being realistic or logical.  There is no safe harbour for explanation in fact or truth.  The nature of nature changes inexplicably.  Evolution and chance are not the causes we make them out to be.  Evidence is subject to what we are capable of knowing and proof is neither absolute nor ‘down to earth’ – because the elements are not concerned with matters of self-proof.  Furthermore, our presence in the universe is not definable from an atomistic perspective – this being a perspective introduced by the ghostlike presence of objective observers of an otherwise blind naturescape.  In fact, the evidence for the existence of ghosts, can be derived from the ‘atomistic viewpoint’ of science – since we exist as phenomenal beings who, by comparison, haunt the atomic reality with our ethereal purposes.

R:  Nonsense!

P:  Ghosts don’t have to be things that jump out of cupboards just because someone reports that ‘experience’.  On the other hand, science isn’t mature enough to dictate what nature must do.  The point is that the scientific criteria are not in control of the facts – and the shortfalls in explanation leave plenty of room for speculation; hence even accomplished scientists can find room to retain their supernatural beliefs.

R:  I’m not going to let you away with that answer.  Where is the evidence that ghosts have a scientific basis?

P:  Science supplies the evidence inadvertently – in terms of its explanatory criteria. It’s not unreasonable to consider that we already exist as ghostlike entities by comparison to an atomic reality said to form the scientific foundation of everything.  We move about within the atomic flux as superficial perturbations that don’t affect the way things are.  At this level we are less than ideas, because ideas don’t exist and there are no purposes in existence.  Compared to the state of atomic reality these perturbations are no more real than chance occurrences that do not change the nature of those atomic events.  This raises valid questions, such as which is ‘the more real’ and what is the actual difference between the so-called ‘animate and inanimate’?

R:  But those atomic principles cause and sustain our existence, so we are directly connected.

P:  We are directly connected but not explicable in terms of the causal links – which rather dilutes the cosmologists’ claims to be in pursuit of a theory of everything at that level.  Though it’s obvious why scientists maintain this claim, because they believe that their various theories can connect-up, to leave no gaps in explanation – belief being the operative word – all for the sake of imagining that nature, observable as a physical reality, must be more real, indeed the only reality.

R:  Well if everyone is a slave to belief, how can we get to know anything?

To be continued…

Mike Laidler

In sight of the supranatural – Part 2: A cosmic consciousness

Phenomenalist:  ‘The question is, either science is observing nature objectively, by looking at or upon it, or it is nature observing itself – because science acts in nature.  Either way something different is happening to the way things change in nature, since perception now has an active role.  So how are we to understand ‘the fact’ of nature?’

Realist:  ‘You seem to have overlooked the fact that perception is explained as an evolved capacity that assists survival, which is the same reason why thinking evolved with all its inherent meanings and purposes.’

P:  The utility of perception and intelligence for survival is without question, but it doesn’t prove that evolution is the explanation.  Evolution is observable as the result of change, but it amounts to a description, not an explanation – although the theory is generally regarded as if it is the cause of those changes.

R:  That’s because the theory proves what actually happens.

P:  There is no doubting the assiduous detective work that goes into piecing together the facts of evolution, but proving a fact is not the same as explaining it.

R:  You’re splitting hairs.  It’s the same thing.

P:  The distinction is not trivial.  The explanations are theoretical, hence it is properly called ‘the theory of evolution’.  Evolution appears to make things happen, but ‘it’ has no capabilities – it is no determinant of possibility – so we can’t explain the capacity for things to evolve by noting their evolution.  In other words, evolution doesn’t supply an answer to the question of how things are possible.  It is neither the beginning nor the end of possibility, nor does it give us an overview of what is possible.  In short, evolution is not the cause that we read into it, though it’s easy to see how the mistake arises, given the belief in underlying causes as the foundation of all explanation.  However, all the information in a picture doesn’t explain the change to its perception even though changes in one state of reality produce changes in the other.  Furthermore, in the bigger picture, we see that causes build upon causes in the constitution of different realities existing in parallel, but it doesn’t allow us to claim that one difference is the explanation of the other or that the unfolding direction of change is explained by the first cause.

R:  Nor does the idea of parallel realities help to explain anything.

P:  I’m not pretending that there is an explanation for everything.  It’s as basic as this: a book is filled with information but nothing is recollected until a reader comes along – so a book is and isn’t the source or explanation of knowledge, it just seems so when using it as a point of reference – but we don’t make the mistake of believing that the book knows anything.  The same applies to our observations of cause and effect as an explanation of change.   The explanation is in the mind, not in the cause.  Nor can we validate those explanations by claiming that they are direct effects of our observations – as if that explains what we see.  The same mistake arises when we believe that the brain does our thinking for us.

R:  It doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution is wrong.

P:  It does and doesn’t – it is wrong to believe that evolution provides a ‘missing link’ that explains change.  The theory is not self-explanatory, rather the explanation is an embellishment we attach to the observation that things change – which we presume to evolve that way because the changes are useful in the struggle for survival.

R:  So you accept that evolution has a place?

P:  However, it’s not the facts of change that owe their origin to the theory of evolution, rather it is the theory of evolution that owes its origin to the facts of change.

R:  Nevertheless, natural selection explains those changes as adaptations in life.

P:  Except the nature behind it all has no need to be selective.  That is, according to the laws of physics, there is no need for life to emerge, no necessity for there to be additional ‘evolved’ states of existence.

R:  But there it is – identifiable as a process of natural selection, which is also the explanation of how evolution works.

P:  I am not denying the fact of natural selection in evolution, but I am questioning its status as the definitive explanation of change in nature.

R:  There is no better explanation.  Also you are raising your objection in defiance of all the accumulated evidence.

P: The process of natural selection is but one unexplained change to the nature of nature, and it is not the end of the story.  The evidence indicates that things change, and the ensuing difference reveals properties that exist in addition to the observable cause – hence the laws of physics contrast with the relatively extraneous functions of biology, psychology and survival.  Nor can we explain away those differences as superficial versions of their underlying causes.  At the same time, we see the face of nature being transformed through the activities of a host of shaping influences, which we interpret variously and retrospectively as the marshalling of order, organisation, necessity, need, purpose and design.  Of course, science does not associate all of these factors with ‘things natural’.

R:  Because the explanation that things exist by design has been discredited scientifically.

P:  However, design exists in the real world – so where are you going to place it, or its agents, if it is not in the course of nature as defined and explained by science?

R:  But where’s your evidence that nature turns into something else?

P:  Remember, I am talking about a plurality of inexplicable natures, compared to a single version which is equally inexplicable.  In fact, things diverge in extraordinary ways from a reality seen to be unified by insensible natural causes; but you want to solve the problem by predicting that the facts will one day show us that it is all one and the same, so we might as well start believing it now.

R:  Then how would you approach the problem?

P:  Despite nature having been described as a ‘blind watchmaker’, implying a non-designer of ‘things natural’, we still have to explain the presence in nature of real watchmakers and their purpose-built designs.  To put it crudely, nature works as nature works, with the mind working as the mind works – bear with me on that for the moment – but the fact that thought fails or alters if the bio-chemical system fails or alters doesn’t prove that thought is just biochemistry, or that consciousness is explained by the cells of the brain becoming conscious.

R:  So is consciousness floating about in a world of its own?

P:  Yes and no.  Consciousness is different from other natural states – though we see it as growing out of those states.

R:  So how do you define consciousness?

P:  By the fact of what we know in being conscious.  But there is a reason why we cannot equate it to something else, thereby to explain it, because it means becoming conscious of it as something in addition to itself – the cause of the becoming – which nudges our awareness of the original fact out of the frame for the sake of a non-conscious fact that we claim to be more original.  Alternatively, if consciousness is a property of nature, albeit incomprehensible and inexplicable at present, then nature is both conscious and unconscious – something that we wrestle with in ourselves.   Either way, it is the definition of nature that gives way, not the fact of consciousness.

R:  You still haven’t defined consciousness.

P:  You’re missing the point – which is, the moment we try to relate consciousness or thought to something else, ostensibly in the name of explanation, we stand to lose sight of the features we are talking about – since we are now talking about them as features of something else.  This is why I asked you to bear with me earlier – because beneath it all, we can see that everything remains unchanged.  So, apparently, things change and don’t change – we really are stardust – however, the preconditions for change don’t explain the inception of change, or where it leads.  The point is that we need to alter our approach to the way we define things – beginning with our definition of ‘things natural’ – and we can make a start by accepting that we don’t have an adequate understanding of ‘things natural’ or ‘things explained’ or, indeed, ‘things conscious’.

R:  Then would you say that the problem is solved by the idea of a grand design within it all and a grand designer behind that?

Mike Laidler

To be continued