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Visions of Impossible Things
April 2, 2014 7:41 AM   Subscribe

The chaplain then explained how he had spoken with the dead man’s wife, who related a vivid dream she’d had that night of her husband standing next to her bed, apologizing and explaining that he had been in a car accident, and that his car was in a ditch where it could not be seen from the road...They recovered the body 20 minutes later. Most scholars have no idea what to do with such poignant, powerful stories, other than to dismiss them with lazy words like "anecdote" or "coincidence."...We should put these extreme narratives, these impossible stories, in the middle of our academic table. I would also like to make a wager, here and now, that once we put these currently rejected forms of knowledge on our academic table, things that were once impossible to imagine will soon become possible not only to imagine but also to think, theorize, and even test. Professor Jeffrey Kripal explains why the humanities needs to expand its field of acceptable topics for investigation.
posted by shivohum (114 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Most scholars have no idea what to do with such poignant, powerful stories, other than to dismiss them with lazy words like "anecdote" or "coincidence."

We scholars also enjoy closely considering the cases of "unintentional distortion," "deliberate exaggeration," "delusion," and "bald-faced lie" as possibilities, which is why most of us don't consider "man-who" stories to be "empirical evidence."
posted by belarius at 7:51 AM on April 2 [62 favorites]


Charles Fort stops clipping articles in the hereafter long enough to look down with a nod and a wink.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:57 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


"One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety."
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:59 AM on April 2 [146 favorites]


I have dreams all the damn time where family members are dead. One day some of them are likely to become true, assuming I don't die first, but that doesn't mean that my dreams are phenomena worth studying.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:06 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


He complains that "we continue to work with the most banal models of mind—materialist and mechanistic ones." But then at the end he suggests that it's worth investigating the "radio or transmission model," where the brain is receiving some sort of signal of unknown source and type. But a radio seems pretty darn mechanistic to me.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:10 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


It's not about whether materialism can explain everything. It's about what the best available explanation is. If you want to dethrone materialism it's not enough to offer a handful of obscure events which are supposedly inexplicable, you have to offer an alternative explanation yourself which clearly and satisfyingly explains both Mark Twain's veridical dreams and the rest of the world. What is that satisfyingly clear, cogent, and well-supported alternative?
posted by Segundus at 8:11 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


Putting aside for the moment the fact that psychics sometimes do get rich, and that statistically significant but humble forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories,
I don't want to put aside the fact that statistically significant forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories. What are these phenomena? What testing protocols have been applied to them? Are they really statistically significant? What are these "laboratories"? Can the phenomena be reproduced?
We are constantly reminded of the "death of the subject" and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top—in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.
Who are these people who say this? Do they really exist outside of academic spiritualist strawperson fantasyland?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:16 AM on April 2 [21 favorites]




From TFA:

I have recounted two fairly straightforward, empirical cases, but the records are filled with more difficult, that is, more symbolic or outright mythical accounts whose strangeness would boggle even the most generous minds.

I question his grasp on the word "empirical."
posted by jsturgill at 8:19 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


Eh, if you got questions about woo, James Randi's got answers.

There's a powerful allure to the possibility there is more to us than we can discern with our mundane senses; for some the allure is stronger than their reason can stand.
posted by Mooski at 8:22 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I don't want to put aside the fact that statistically significant forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories. What are these phenomena? What testing protocols have been applied to them? Are they really statistically significant? What are these "laboratories"? Can the phenomena be reproduced?

Arguably psychokinesis on random number generators. A recent meta-analysis in the respected journal Psychological Bulletin concluded that "Séance-room and other large-scale psychokinetic phenomena have fascinated mankind for decades. Experimental research has reduced these phenomena to attempts to influence (a) the fall of dice and, later, (b) the output of random number generators (RNGs). The meta-analysis combined 380 studies that assessed whether RNG output could correlate with human intention. A significant but very small overall effect size was found. The study effect sizes were strongly and inversely related to sample size and were extremely heterogeneous. A Monte Carlo simulation revealed that the small effect size, the relation between sample size and effect size, as well as the extreme effect size heterogeneity found, could in principle be a result of publication bias."
posted by shivohum at 8:24 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I'm very confused by this. Is he advocating that the job of humanities scholars include debunking or confirming stories like this? Humanities scholars can certainly address the place of these kinds of narratives in our cultural/sociological/religious/literary existence, but whether or not they actually happened? Why would that be the purpose of someone who is not testing scientific hypotheses - just to be accorded some outward and possibly irrelevant standard of "importance" by some other field?
posted by rtha at 8:27 AM on April 2 [12 favorites]


Wait, why is this addressed to humanities scholars, few if any of whom make strictly empirical claims about the world anyway? The humanities study the internal dynamics of culture, such as constructions of race and so forth; this seems more like a plea for parapsychological research, which has for obvious reasons generally been linked with social sciences and to a lesser extent "hard" sciences. Not everything that's "irreproducible" or "unquantifiable" automatically falls into the domain of the humanities.

In any case, plenty of humanistic inquiry discusses the mystical or theological beliefs and stated experiences of individuals. Anyone who's done research on W.B. Yeats, for instance, pretty much has to analyze the roots and workings of his modernism, and there have been studies of the occultism of Pound. Medieval studies work will almost always discuss the social functions and structure of narratives of mystical experience as well. But they treat them as narratives, not as data points or even anecdotes.

Apophenia and credulity are not synonyms for "humanities scholarship."

On preview, what rtha said.
posted by kewb at 8:31 AM on April 2 [10 favorites]


There's a powerful allure to the possibility there is more to us than we can discern with our mundane senses; for some the allure is stronger than their reason can stand.

So, without trying to come across as pro-woo, there's a distinction to be made between a world where there's "more to us than we can discern" in which "things happen that we don't understand"- both of which are very obviously true, because we are made of fallible organics and perceive and interpret the universe with instruments made of semi-specialized meat - as compared to a world where "there are things that are inherently impossible to perceive, measure or predict, and are therefore inherently impossible to understand, so we'll give it a woo-name and be happy to live in ignorance under its bootheels forever."
posted by mhoye at 8:31 AM on April 2 [7 favorites]


Putting aside for the moment the fact that psychics sometimes do get rich, and that statistically significant but humble forms of psychic phenomena do in fact appear in laboratories

This is a [citation needed] if ever there was one.
posted by ook at 8:35 AM on April 2 [8 favorites]


One of the things I like about Tyson's Cosmos is that he has, multiple times, taken time out to show that brilliant men of science also firmly believed ridiculous things. The man who may have first envisioned the cosmos as they are had it come to him in a dream. He had no evidence for it. Newton believed in alchemy, as did many others of his time and times before. Others were willing to assert things without possessing any real certainty themselves. Hook claimed to have discovered the force between planetary bodies but had in fact done no such things.

I think a mistake that is commonly made is to assume that non-skeptics are irrational thinkers, and that skeptics are rational thinkers. The truth is that we are all - much of the time - irrational and delusional thinkers. The best we can hope for is to sometimes not be, if we work really hard about it. What protects us from the frailty of our own minds is skeptical and scientific method. We know these methods work because of what we have been able to do with them, and what they have allowed us to discover about the world around us.

Do our methods have weaknesses? Absolutely. The meta-analysis that showed a small effect about psychokinesis is a great example. A likely explanation is publication bias, and it is a weakness in our current system of public scientific inquiry that people are working very hard to improve. But essays like this are not a cry to improve scientific methods but discard them and embrace the woo. The claims he makes have been disproven time and time again by people that have far more patience and tolerance than I or your average skeptic.
posted by teh_boy at 8:35 AM on April 2 [34 favorites]


This is a sort of fire and forget comment, because I know how this thread will likely go down and I'm not really interested in sticking around for the flamewar.

I am a well-trained child of a very atheist, very skeptical, very scientific man. I am well trained in ethics, academics, science, math and knowledge. I have a B.S. in Chemistry and some graduate work in Physical Chemistry. I didn't finish my Ph.D. but I did qualify for a 3 year research fellowship at George Washington University, which means I did my lessons very well and have a very firm grasp in the philosophy, execution and promotion of the scientific thought and scientific method. Topics of study: Various forms of laser-based spectrophotometry, scanning tunnelling microscopy, new instrument design and fabrication, statistics, thermodynamics, quantum chemistry and physics, quantitative analysis, error propagation and experimental design, analytics, electrical and circuit design, various other topics of engineering and science.

But I am also not a skeptic in the strictly political sense, though I do think of myself as one in the moral, ethical, philosophical sense.

More often for me, though, the skepticism I have is pointed at other skeptics. The reason is that I see a lot of folks in the skeptical community as agreeing with the idea of popular science but not actually doing science. Many of the most zealous skeptics I have met justify a belief in new age, popular concepts and assumptions founded on poor science by doing a sort of half-baked personal "science" and not really understanding the fundamentals of the scientific method. Nor of reading and consuming (critically) actual scientific studies. Nor of repeating and reproducing published scientific works. Nor of even checking up on the math and statistics published in scientific studies. What I'm saying here is that the most vocal skeptics I know don't really understand or do science. They seem to just be in it to be against the New Agers, the theological and the mystics.

Because of my tolerance of and support of some practices that the skeptics I've known disapprove of, I often get categorized as a religionist and see the blunt and crude weapons of bullying and outrage that happen at the hands of the more self-righteous skeptics and let me tell you: not pleasant. Folks who know me from Social Justice threads know that I have a lot of experience with bullying over my non-normative body and my non-normative politics so I know what bullying is, and the kind I've had at the hands of the unruly skeptics I've known has the same qualities as the kind I've had at the hands of folks who disapprove of my being feminist or trans or Asian. Bullying is as bullying does.

But truthfully, because of my deeply scientific background I understand where the frustration and rage comes from in my bulliers. I just think it's misplaced. Is it just more deeply frustrating when someone like me, whom they think should by all rights be an unquestioning skeptic stops and questions the foundations of skepticism?

In topics of skepticism I end up feeling like I understand more of the actual science at hand than my bulliers do, but I know that what I've done is far worse than simple ignorance. What I've done is shameful and a very emotional thing. I've challenged skepticism.

My experience of mystery is not something I often put into words and now's not the time to do it, but suffice to say that I am a practitioner of Taoism, Taoist meditation, Taoist martial arts and have experienced and apparently benefitted from some traditional Chinese medicinal practices. Whether it's just placebo or something more, it's very hard to say with any authority. It helped me and it provides me a lot of solace when I need it. I'm also a member of the Unitarian Universalist church and of the Quakers.

I get where the author is coming from. In my personal experience, skepticism and science often end up feeling like they play the "there can only be one" game of chicken in philosophy. In my mind and experience, having the outlet of being able to experience and engage with mystery helps me immensely as I go about my day to day life. Even though I am also a dyed in the wool empiricist.

Also keep in mind that it's his job to do this. He's in Theological Studies. That's what they do in that academic vertical. He brings an idea that mystery is still important to our psychologies. I would wish for more critical thinking in his writing too, but if he's a specialist in the theological maybe it's okay that he keep doing his job and bringing the idea of mystery to young minds. And the scientists at Rice can work on critical thinking and the scientific method?

For what it's worth, I quite like both Sagan's Cosmos and Tyson's Cosmos. The rhetoric against the folks who enjoy engaging with mystery in non-scientific terms is pretty light (if also pretty hilarious). I'd love to be in community with skeptics who could keep the discourse on that level instead of delving into the personal and the disrespectful.
posted by kalessin at 8:37 AM on April 2 [41 favorites]


The problem is that while many people -- including myself -- have experienced things that were so improbable they have no business ever happening in a finite universe, those things defiantly resist being studied and go reliably random when subjected to measurement and recording. The very universality of these experiences suggests to me that either something is very wrong with human perception, or something is very wrong with how we think the universe works -- that is, that it is a simple and reliable environment that is not misrepresenting itself to us, in the way a computer does when we are playing a video game in what appears to be a 3D environment.

Given that the scientific method is absolutely helpless if the universe is being run by a trickster, we will probably never know for sure which of those possibilities is prevailing -- but some of us will be pretty sure that one or the other is.
posted by localroger at 8:37 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


Anyone who's done research on W.B. Yeats, for instance, pretty much has to analyze the roots and workings of his modernism,

Sorry, meant to write "the roots and workings of his modernism in relation to his Theosophical and mystical ideas."

I'll always remember the story from R.F. Foster's great biography of Yeats in which the poet said, in an apparent trance, that he saw "skulls."
"Skulls? Describe them!"
Yeats dully replied, "They are just ordinary rowing sculls."
posted by kewb at 8:40 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I thought that our two most prestigious research institutions - - the History Channel and Discovery Channel - - had taken over all responsibilities for this type of critical inquiry.
posted by fairmettle at 8:46 AM on April 2 [16 favorites]


Why not? I ask that in the most general sense. And why not let humanities have this one? Who could have a problem with that? Neuroscientists; Hahahaha probably. Who else should study dreams that feel real?
posted by vicx at 8:49 AM on April 2


Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.

I favorited this because I get it; at the same time, recently I mentioned "aporia" here too. There's a space between woo and critical thinking; there's another side to critical and skeptical thinking that overly discredits "belief in mystery".

Note that I said overly discredits, because again, I favorited that comment; it nicely states how mysteries are in fact not so much mysteries as answers.

But then, that right there is the thing. And this is "the thing" that a lot of people also don't get about Jung (I can already sense eyes rolling, but bear with me). He never claimed that woo was real in and of itself.

He claimed that woo was real for the people who believe in it.

Discrediting it by saying things like "creating answers just to manage their anxiety" contains a contradiction. How much research money is spent on drugs to manage anxiety? How many people pay hard-earned money for medicine to manage anxiety?

I get that woo and spiritualism are criticized, for far too often they're used as ways to cut oneself off from others, or worse, denigrate others. But then so are critical thinking and skepticism, like anything when taken too far. Mythological thinking has its place: if it didn't, we wouldn't be using words to symbolize our thoughts over a network that was designed using the manipulation of yet other symbols. That's just an overly-literal, material example; you could also say it has its place, otherwise we wouldn't still have cinema and literature, for the more commonly-accepted meanings of "myth".
posted by fraula at 8:53 AM on April 2 [10 favorites]


mhoye, I agree completely. I was a tad lazy in how I put that sentience together.
posted by Mooski at 8:54 AM on April 2


Myths should be the province of the humanities, they speak to our creativity and fears. Nothing wrong with that, especially compared to the "science" of parapsychology.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:01 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Whether it's just placebo or something more, it's very hard to say with any authority.

Well, there's the rub, right? It's all well and good to proclaim the virtues of empiricism but if you yield to the "mystery" isn't that just the counterpart to not closely reading and understanding the available evidence? Put differently, it doesn't work to say that some skeptics are crudely self-righteous and not actually engaged with the evidence but then not complete the argument as to why your own anecdotes lead you to believe there is something there as opposed to being unreliable like all other anecdotes. People, myself included, are very good at fooling themselves with unreliable pattern recognition, minor moments of superstition, etc. - there's no reason to believe that even the most empirical-minded don't do it to some degree, but that's not the same as the "mystery" being real.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:01 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.

Nope. Even if that's happening in this very sentence.

There's a good point here about critical thinkers being able to embrace mystery, I see this in some of the best critical thinkers I'm acquainted with.

The idea that as a self-identified category they're broadly exempt from the human tendency to create answers to manage anxiety at the unexplained or the idea that's "just" what's going on among the woo-folk, those points are less good.
posted by weston at 9:02 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Anecdotes are rarely better than null data. So given that I can't measure my own experience, there's no way for me to make a scientific calculation as to the value of my engagement in mystery. I can narrate my own comfort in or solace in mystery and have that be useful on a social collective/collaborative blog like Metafilter, though.
posted by kalessin at 9:04 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I was a tad lazy in how I put that sentience together.
posted by Mooski
I just love this typo. that is all.
posted by jepler at 9:14 AM on April 2 [17 favorites]


complete the argument as to why your own anecdotes lead you to believe there is something there as opposed to being unreliable like all other anecdotes

"You may have heard the phrase the plural of anecdote is not data. It turns out that this is a misquote. The original aphorism, by the political scientist Ray Wolfinger, was just the opposite: The plural of anecdote is data." - Nate Silver

(I find myself on the skeptical side of the equation more often than not, but I get irritated when a sneering abnegation of all human spirituality is cloaked in the rainment of skepticism.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:18 AM on April 2 [7 favorites]


i can't wait for someone to die while logged on to metafilter and create spooky, unexplainable phenomena here.
posted by bruce at 9:21 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


the plural of anecdote is data

For certain values of anecdote. The subject of the anecdote must be consistently and reproducibly measurable and each anecdote must have qualities which allow the datum within to be measured or mapped to a scale that applies to the total collection of anecdotes.
posted by kalessin at 9:25 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


As a former humanities grad student, and now as someone studying social science, myths, stories, symbolism, etc etc etc. are what the humanities specialize in. Its actually quite shocking that the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University could miss that.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:26 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Kripal is struggling with (and coming down on one side of) millennia-old debates over the nature of disciplinary knowledge, trying to define humanistic study in a way that exists in tension with other approaches to the humanities:
I also wonder if there are good reasons for ignoring the humanities. Why, after all, should anyone listen to the truth claims of a set of disciplines whose central arguments often boil down to the claim that the only truth is that there is no truth; that all efforts toward truth are nothing more than power grabs; and that all deep conversation across cultural and temporal boundaries is essentially illusory—that we are all, in effect, locked into our local language games, condemned to watching shadows in our heads, which are going nowhere and mean nothing?

I am betting, in other words, that we actually need these so-called impossible things to come up with better answers to our most pressing questions, including the biggest question of all: the nature of consciousness.

Toward this same end, I propose that we reimagine the humanities as the study of consciousness coded in culture. I am not suggesting that we can study consciousness directly, or that any ego can ever know what consciousness is in itself. I understand that we can study consciousness only as it is reflected and refracted in cultural artifacts, like texts, art objects, languages, and social institutions, or, as the cognitive scientists have it, in cognition.
There's a different approach to the humanities, though, that sees our studies not as arguments for listening to truth claims but as ways of operating in the face of conflicting truth and value claims: the humanities as ways of existing together. This is the tension found in ancient rhetorical studies between (to oversimplify) those who sought some grounding for our arguments in knowable reality along the Platonic tradition and those sophists who saw hope in our "local language games" not to "go nowhere and mean nothing" but to debate and decide our meaning for ourselves.

I am professionally a humanist but in my experience I've seen that "The nature of..." questions are well handled by science. I don't agree that, given the advances in neuroscience and other fields, the question of consciousness' nature can be better answered by the humanities. The humanities and sciences can and should work together, and if, as Kripal says, humanists don't have their "central and valued" place at the academic table, I would look to structural and political issues in US higher education (which minimize more than the humanities) instead of the humanities' inability to explain the nature of consciousness.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:33 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


I have no idea about the quality of Kripal's scholarship, although his job is almost impossible to get. He is a rare scholar who is accessible to any literate person about his subject of expertise.

There is an interview of him that Erik Davis did on his expanding mind podcast which is great. Davis at the time was a grad student in the program where Kripal works, although I don't know if Kripal is/was his thesis advisor. The book Kripal is plugging in that interview, Mutants and Mystics, is in print and has ten customer reviews at 4.5 *'s.
posted by bukvich at 9:33 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I was a tad lazy in how I put that sentience together.

-- said Doctor Frankenstein.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:41 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


There are several key points to be made about this...somewhat peculiar, let's say, article linked here.

1. Scholars already try to explain the unexplained. If we're explaining something that's already pretty well-understood, our peers aren't likely to be interested, nor anyone else. So that's already something academics/scholars do.

2. The author is proposing that one specific domain of phenomena (dreams, visions, clairvoyance, "impossible things") be included in the research agenda of unexplained things for scholars in the humanities, but that suggestion is itself tendentious, both because it takes these reported phenomena uncritically at face value and because it assumes that no explanations exist already for these things.

3. That assumption is almost certainly false. There's a wealth of extant scholarship which strongly suggests that not only can we not take memories of dreams or premonitions at face value, but that the analytic tools at our disposal (coming from psychology and neuroscience) can pretty easily account for the apparent inexplicability of these things. It doesn't constitute perfect knowledge, but it's substantial and it addresses these questions.

4. He doesn't engage with that literature, at all. So he either doesn't know it exists, or he knows it exists but doesn't want to deal with it on its own terms. In either case it seems like he hasn't really done his homework.

5. He's basically arguing for a fusion of the humanities with cognitive neuroscience, but without all the tricky science-y stuff:

I propose that we reimagine the humanities as the study of consciousness coded in culture. I am not suggesting that we can study consciousness directly...

So, does he have examples of real scholarly work done in this vein he proposes? This would be a lot more convincing if he had an article or book to offer, evincing this approach, that actually advanced understanding in some meaningful way.

6. One needn't be strictly materialistic to practice scholarship, certainly, but saying "Materialism can't account for these rare edge cases in a way I find spiritually exciting, therefore we should categorically abandon it" sounds more like something from an undergrad self-consciously arguing a contrarian position than a suggestion well-informed by actual knowledge.

7. Questioning materialism would be fine, but that's not what he's doing:

Countless clues suggest that the human brain may function as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal.

This is not non-materialist, it's vague gibberish which is anti-empirical. One could just as easily invent any number of new entities and processes: maybe our souls go panning in a river of living consciousness when we sleep, maybe Philip K. Dick was right and there exists sentient light which cross-bonded with human consciousness, maybe dreams and premonitions are, I don't know, contact points between serpentine presents and futures that writhe agonistically in n-dimensional space.

This thing is really such a mess. The humanities don't need to be reinvented like this, but to the extent that they need revitalisation, they need it in the form of exogenous material support for what they're already doing, not some radical and arbitrary new privileging of the truth value of stories about ghosts and dreams.
posted by clockzero at 9:42 AM on April 2 [22 favorites]


Sean Carroll has a nice post explaining how our knowledge of physics essentially eliminates the possibility of PSI, TK, ghosts, etc. There mere fact that they must interact with matter (atoms) means that we know a great deal about what would have to be true for such things to exist.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:47 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I love this topic, and it's always interesting to see the core convictions of people (regardless of Belief or Non-Belief) entwined in attrition. It's especially interesting to be because my core convictions have shifted, and both sides of the fence make sense to me.

There is no shame in believing, and no shame in not believing.

There have been instances in my life which can be chalked up to coincidence, confirmation bias, or something Else.

But I believe that the things which I strive for: love, true happiness, peace, satisfaction, are to me, as intangible and illogical in their sources as sky wizards and ghosts, yet I have has always readily accepted their impact and reality in my life.

Was I not just as biased and unreasonable about the realm of the spirit as were the mythology-laden ancients about the material?
posted by Debaser626 at 9:48 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


In order to take the experiences themselves as given, Kripal (at least in this short web article) also takes the technologies that inform what he dubs the "technological metaphor" around the narrated events as merely given historical conditions. (Curiously, he says this of Twain's metaphors, but not of his own.) So he spends little time on the fact that Twain would term the experience "mental telegraphy" and moves immediately to the idea that language and signaling are ahistorical concepts.

It's especially visible in the following statement by Kripal himself: "Both stories are about a kind of traumatic transcendence, a visionary warping of space and time effected by the gravity of intense human suffering." This is a post-Einsteinian, very 20th- or 21st-century way of discussing the material, one that does not fit with the more linear metaphorics of telegraphic technology in Twain's narrative.

Now, obviously, Kripal is probably not suggesting a literal warping of gravity and time; that would conflict with his claims about unquantifiability. Twain, however, seems to suggest that a physical mechanism, or at least a paraphysical and mechanistic process, is involved in the transmission of ideas. So the underlying question for me is whether technological discourses reframe narratives of spiritual experience; in that sense, Twain's anecdote is not parallel with the later anecdotes. The narrated subject's relation to material conditions and to intersubjective or social conditions seems to default to a materialist metaphorics. It's as if the mysterious or aporetic experience can only be had or recalled in the context of the technological or scientific idiom of the day once science and technology are dominant discourses.

Accounts within spiritualism and psychism, as experienced and narrated events from given subject positions, must therefore be historicized in terms of the broader cultural functions that surround it. It may even be that the notion of transmitted human experience and perception, as opposed to divine revelation or mystical vision, is only possible to think or to experience in a technological, relatively secularized era. But these are very different ways of experiencing and relating than the mysterious; they therefore change not only the narrative of mystery but arguably the character of mystery as an experience itself. For what do we have of the experience other than memory and narrative, which are themselves utterly intertwined?

In narrating these contingent experiences of immaterial connection, both Twain and Kripal default to a reductively materialist metaphor suggestive of equally reductive explanations couched in terms of physical mechanisms. These metaphors are furthermore laced with the idiom of scientism appropriate to each writer's historical period. That this occurs even in the context of Kripal's swelf-aware advocacy for the embrace of mystery suggests, perhaps, just how vast and complex is the task he has set before himself. Or, perhaps, it suggests the self-defeating conditions of the embrace.
posted by kewb at 9:49 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I don't really understand what "person has unusually prescient dream" has to do with the humanities, which are the study of things like the arts, literature, history, et al. I could see a historian specializing in the paranormal (which is a thing, see for instance historical studies of the 19th century Spiritualist movement), or a literary scholar studying texts about these types of experiences (a media crit analysis of Miss Cleo would actually be pretty cool). But "Hey so I am clairvoyant" is not really germane to what the humanities is about.
posted by Sara C. at 9:49 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


/hamburger with a side of beans
posted by kewb at 9:50 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Wait, why is this addressed to humanities scholars,

Because Sokal. Easier to fool the humanities than actual science.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:02 AM on April 2


Because Sokal. Easier to fool the humanities than actual science.

The sokal affair is completely irrelevant here. Moreover, its not like there have been no frauds in the sciences.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:07 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


I have dreams all the damn time where family members are dead. One day some of them are likely to become true, assuming I don't die first, but that doesn't mean that my dreams are phenomena worth studying.

This was Sagan's exact point, in I believe Broca's Brain, although he may have rehashed it elsewhere. He had a disturbing dream about a relative dying and woke from it so fearful that he made a call to check on the relative. Who was fine, and who survived for years after. Sagan realized that in a world of billions, dreams like that must happen hundreds, thousands of times a night, and in some cases the relatives are probably not fine.

The impact of a dream like that would be compelling to the dreamer.
posted by Flexagon at 10:08 AM on April 2 [8 favorites]


I don't really understand what "person has unusually prescient dream" has to do with the humanities, which are the study of things like the arts, literature, history, et al.

It's true that things like prescient dreams aren't studied in the humanities to any appreciable degree, but that doesn't itself mean that their study couldn't have relevance to larger questions that are of interest to humanities scholars. However, in this case I think agree that the fields and the empirical objects aren't fruitfully suited to one another.

I could see a historian specializing in the paranormal (which is a thing, see for instance historical studies of the 19th century Spiritualist movement), or a literary scholar studying texts about these types of experiences (a media crit analysis of Miss Cleo would actually be pretty cool). But "Hey so I am clairvoyant" is not really germane to what the humanities is about.

Well, again, if it were true, it would be hugely relevant, but since he hasn't come anywhere close to even trying to prove anything of the sort, it's an utterly moot point.
posted by clockzero at 10:10 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Because Sokal. Easier to fool the humanities than actual science.

Speaking of inflating a single data point into a general claim...
posted by kewb at 10:10 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


MartinWisse: "Because Sokal. Easier to fool the humanities than actual science."

Unfortunately not.
It turns out that "actual science" is pretty easy to fool as well.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 10:20 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


About fifteen years ago I had a deja vu experience -- specifically, I recall that, no less than five years earlier, I had a dream about a specific event at the job I was in. At the time of the dream, I was in college.

The experience was utterly convincing. The scenario in the dream was complete, vivid, and detailed, and it matched perfectly with my experience of that day.

And so there are at least 2 primary candidates for the explanation of my experience: Firstly, that what I experienced was a bona fide precognition event. In that case, I personally glimpsed a phenomenon that could be the tiniest thin end of the wedge that undoes much of what we understand about our physical reality. It is a hint at a mechanism for, effectively, time travel. Precognition, if harnessed and used would tamper with causality as we know it.

The second explanation is that, whatever happened, I was subject to a momentary glitch in my consciousness. A slight bug in my neural state that pointed an experience I was having at the moment erroneously to a fraction of memory stored years earlier in my brain.

I know which explanation is more likely and I'm siding with Occam on this one. I am vastly more likely to have experienced a glitch in my own ongoing consciousness than a bona fide glimpse into the future.

I'm sure it feels really good to believe, even for a while, that you have some sort of secret power, or hidden capability to tap into something beyond our ken, but I ain't falling for it.
posted by chimaera at 10:23 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


It's true that things like prescient dreams aren't studied in the humanities to any appreciable degree, but that doesn't itself mean that their study couldn't have relevance to larger questions that are of interest to humanities scholars.

Sure, but what would be the basis for it? The humanities as a (very broad) field isn't really about evaluating factual claims. It's more about analyzing cultural artifacts.

And, in my experience, the humanities and social sciences already do study the paranormal from a cultural/textual analysis framework. It would be completely normal to see an ethnography of people who believe themselves to be clairvoyant, or an analysis of paranormal elements in films like Ghost, or a literary deconstruction of the work of Sylvia Browne, or a historical study of the TV psychic boom of the 1990's.

So I'm not sure what the goal here is.
posted by Sara C. at 10:27 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


I'll also say that I have a lot of de ja vu and "psychic dreams" and the like. None of them are ever about a relative dying. They are typically about, like, having a very vivid dream where I'm sitting in a corporate cafeteria drinking a cup of mint tea. And then five years later I find myself sitting in an identical corporate cafeteria drinking an identical cup of the exact same brand of mint tea.

I'm not sure if this means I'm psychic, but I know it means I'm boring.
posted by Sara C. at 10:30 AM on April 2 [9 favorites]


Human beings appear to be wired to plumb the depths of something we call wonder, which, appears to expand (or extend) in a recursive way. Marvelous!

A few quotations, apropos to this discussion:
“Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
― Albert Einstein

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
― W.B. Yeats

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and the Congo Diary

“It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening.”
― H.G. Wells

Have a wonderful day!
posted by Vibrissae at 10:32 AM on April 2 [7 favorites]


> Sean Carroll has a nice post explaining how our knowledge of physics essentially eliminates the possibility of PSI,

Hmph. It isn't "our knowledge of physics" that eliminated this. If the reports were true, and our "knowledge of physics" was inconsistent, then physics would have to change.

The reason we have mostly eliminated the existence of PSI is because there's been a lot of experimental research and none of it has produced results of significance.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:38 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


So the scientific method says that if we don't know, that's what we say "We don't know." If we know for certain, we actually state certainty. So for with the gravimetric waves we recently detected from the big bang, when the younger scientist told the older scientist that's what we observed, he also told the older scientist the certainty value so that it was clear in the transmission of the knowledge that we were pretty certain of the result.

And even then, with certainty stated, we also know that there is a degree (however slight) of uncertainty, a small probability, hopefully, that our findings are inaccurate or keying on the wrong correlation or not really establishing causation to the degree that we thought.

And this is often what gets left behind in the conversations about science and mystery with the bully sort of skeptics. Science doesn't know anything for absolute certainty. Even Laws and Theorems only stand for as long as they remain successfully unassailed. Lots of science gets looked at again every day with new information, new experimental and measuring techniques and we refine and revise what we know. So science is always changing and the only certainty is that there will always be uncertainty.

But bullies want certainty, I find, so those sorts of skeptics often feel really uncomfortable discussing this, the foundation of the scientific method: uncertainty.
posted by kalessin at 10:45 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I kept re-checking the dateline on this amazing bit of trolling as I read, convinced it would be April 1. But then I guess the sun never fully sets on April Fool's Day at the Chronicle of Higher Education anymore; it's more of a surprise when they occasionally slip up and publish something worth taking seriously.
posted by RogerB at 10:59 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Sagan realized that in a world of billions, dreams like that must happen hundreds, thousands of times a night, and in some cases the relatives are probably not fine.

This is one reasonable enough accounting for general premonition, but it really starts to strain when you get to something like the specifics of Twain's dream or a dead relative dream that helps people locate a body.

I guess there's still a probabilistic approach -- there's billions of people dreaming billions of dreams, maybe not everyone will have a dream that generates not just impressions but details of future experiences, but surely *someone* will, and that's just what happened here. But it seems to me the size of the details probability space would go up with each person faster than trials would expand, so I have trouble believing that works out.

At that point, I think the only critical possibility is the reliability approach: the possibility that those recounting the story are intentionally lying, or the possibility that our brains are unreliable and lead us to fit the fantastic narrative after the fact -- e.g., Twain didn't *really* have a dream that had all those details, he had a vague premonition dream, and when he went to the funeral, his brain pattern-matched and backfilled the details he was seeing into the dream. That's a strong enough possibility and I think at this point the curious approach would be to see if he'd kept notes on the dream before the funeral event (some people do this).
posted by weston at 11:16 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Wow, the "cure" for the humanities happens to be this guy's personal area of research!

This can't be a coincidence!

Either this guy can detect his own interests (boring!), or his brain is like a magic radio tuned to magic frequencies from the future (Plato! Aristotle! Bergson! Twain!)
posted by serif at 11:20 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


i think most skeptics who use the word 'woo' to describe your position, if they are describing your position, are doing so not because they close the door to science to mysteries as much as they're not opening the door to you or your friends having unexplainable, nigh-mystical powers that can't be replicated by anyone. say that batman and superman are both superheros. superman, however, has powers and batman doesn't. but that's agreed on because they both can see him flying, not because batman agrees that superman can fly when batman isn't looking.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 11:23 AM on April 2


Alright, lets go with the unlikely option and assume that there is, in fact, something really weird going on with people's brains every now and again in relation to time and space. Doesn't that suggest something amazing physics wise is going on that we haven't gotten a good (or from the right perspective) glimpse of yet? Why is this something that the humanities should dedicated itself to jumping feet first into?

Wow, the "cure" for the humanities happens to be this guy's personal area of research!

Well then.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:25 AM on April 2


RogerB: I kept re-checking the dateline on this amazing bit of trolling as I read, convinced it would be April 1. But then I guess the sun never fully sets on April Fool's Day at the Chronicle of Higher Education anymore; it's more of a surprise when they occasionally slip up and publish something worth taking seriously.

Well, the Chronicle's basically aimed at university administrators these days anyway, so that would figure. I wonder how many idle Deanery-floor water cooler conversations this piece will generate about setting up one of those cool sounding Esotericism or whatever Centres at our University? Sounds intriguing; could attract graduate students!
posted by Sonny Jim at 11:43 AM on April 2


We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.

You are not entitled to a reality that offers you tangible spiritual reassurance.
posted by anazgnos at 11:58 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I wonder how many idle Deanery-floor water cooler conversations this piece will generate about setting up one of those cool sounding Esotericism or whatever Centres

Certainly possible, but I suspect the water-cooler topic this is really aimed at is "Faculty Say the Darndest Things." When the Chronicle's opinion columns air this kind of wacky viewpoint from the safely tenured, it functions not just as a form of clubby validation for the author but also (I think often primarily) as a homeopathic dose of dissent and debate to burnish the administrative readership's self-image of open-mindedness. Like, I've been really indulgent in hearing him out about this handwavey nonsense, so now I don't need to listen to the actual dissenters or the material labor issues on my own campus.
posted by RogerB at 11:59 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


I found this essay profoundly frustrating, not least because I have more than a passing interest in the topics he describes, and at least some sympathy to the idea of the transcendent.

But he uses the article not to truly argue that the subjective experience of consciousness is a central topic for the humanities, in large part because it already is, but for some bullshit dualism in order to attack a straw man of materialism and engage in massive amounts of special pleading.

He repeatedly fails to ask the fundamental question: What's the most likely explanation? That cultures throughout the world have put faith in dreams and prophecy, well, is that likely caused by transcendent "inexplicable" psychic phenomena, or is it more likely a combination of confirmation bias and millennia of rewarding and encouraging those tales? As for the humanities, there's actually a pretty sizable field of study devoted to what are generally known now as out-of-body experiences, but for a huge chunk of time were primarily concerned with an ostensibly real journey through Hell. Those stories were encouraged in their time, and thought to be an uncommon but still regular part of pre-enlightenment European culture (they go along with Prester John stories).

From taking these anecdotes as data, we can see that the visions of Hell change with fashion, that they don't have any real predictive ability, that they're correlated with other physical phenomena (e.g. sleep paralysis), and — most fundamentally — believing in them as literal truth does not enrich our lives, our understanding of the world, or our understanding of consciousness. Understanding them as part of the subjective path of consciousness without ascribing supernatural effects does.

I can't explain most magic tricks I see, but I have no problem slotting them in as material phenomena, and then focusing on what it's like to experience them and what they mean for me.
posted by klangklangston at 12:01 PM on April 2 [8 favorites]


"believing in them as literal truth does not enrich our lives..."

-- I think people believe in them PRECISELY to (try to?) enrich their lives--to feel special and magical and powerful in the face of all the dis-empowering facts of reality and one's impending death.
posted by whatgorilla at 12:14 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I once new a man who took as his handles and aliases all the names of all the gods and loa and as many other names of the mystical, theological and fictional characters as he could. Not because he wanted to use them or play with them but because he wanted to take away the toys of the folks inclined to use them. Take away the ability of those folks to play, in that way, with the mystical and the metaphorical. His idea was founded on the ideas of skepticism and he felt that he'd take these toys away from us for our own good.

But what ended up happening was that he lost a lot of friends and he continued in self-righteousness interfering with other people's play from then on. It was a sort of marker for him in his life and in ours for thinking about where he went. And honestly I think it's a shame that he marked out his own course in life in a way that arguably reduced joy for him and for those around him as he quelled that sort of play whereever he went.

Instead, to me, there's room for an experience of the mythic and there's room for an experience of the scientific. Both in the same life. But what bothers me about the skeptics' attacks on the mystic is that it reads to me like this man's mission in life. That some skeptics feel like I'm not entitled to the joy I want to get out of life, playing with and experiencing ideas that lie outside of what's measurable and scientific.

This level of proscriptiveness is part of my experience of the ethics of skepticism as bullying.

I'm happy to share what I know and what I experience. I'm happy to write about it and to discuss it. But not in an environment where the assumption is that I'm wrong for wanting to do it, which is the definite vibe I get when we skeptics talk about the mystic in the framework of our beliefs about science. For me that's too proscriptive and disrespectful and sabotages the idea of having a respectful, mutually beneficial discussion with folks for whom science is not always the primary marker of truth.
posted by kalessin at 12:15 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


"I think people believe in them PRECISELY to (try to?) enrich their lives--to feel special and magical and powerful in the face of all the dis-empowering facts of reality and one's impending death."

Right, but that's empty and ends up taking space that could actually be used to investigate this stuff on a more meaningful level.
posted by klangklangston at 12:27 PM on April 2


And as a side note, I'm also annoyed at all the weird swipes taken at post-modernism in the essay, since it pretty much shows that he doesn't understand post-modernism well enough to have an opinion on it.
posted by klangklangston at 12:28 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Right, but that's empty

Empty how? To me, being able to enrich my life is not empty at all.

investigate this stuff on a more meaningful level.

Who decides what's meaningful? Your decision doesn't seem to map well at all with mine.
posted by kalessin at 12:35 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


And as a side note, I'm also annoyed at all the weird swipes taken at post-modernism in the essay, since it pretty much shows that he doesn't understand post-modernism well enough to have an opinion on it.

Speaking of Alan Sokal…

(OK, I'll stop now.)
posted by kewb at 12:39 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


Sounds to me like she experienced a Body without Organs.
posted by symbioid at 1:19 PM on April 2


"Empty how? To me, being able to enrich my life is not empty at all."

You believe in these stories as literal truth, or as metaphors that enrich your life? If the latter, you're misunderstanding what I wrote and misquoting to be tendentious. If the former, you're adding a layer of superstition to your life that's entirely incoherent and specifically not subject to any truth claims. It adds up to a big, "So what?" You can believe in unicorns all you like, but that doesn't make them real or give them any explanatory value, or really provide any insight into your consciousness or subjective experience. It's essentially solipsism.

"Who decides what's meaningful? Your decision doesn't seem to map well at all with mine."

Meaningful in that it will advance your understanding of your subjective experience rather than be an occluding grab-bag of superstitions, premonitions and gauzy just-so stories. The line above about the new age not tolerating mystery is apt.
posted by klangklangston at 1:24 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Accidentally skipped, but should have been emphasized above: The line that people are responding to had a context of the passage through Hell stories. If you'd like to argue that believing in these literally enriches your life, you're welcome to. Otherwise, taking a snippet of the line in order to respond with new age apologia is less than persuasive.
posted by klangklangston at 1:27 PM on April 2


You can believe in unicorns all you like

You've crossed a boundary for me in these kinds of discussions, which is in comparing my rich and quite lovely traditional belief in spirits to child's fairy stories and beliefs. So as such the meaningfulness and respectfulness of this conversation is, for me, over.

I do hope that you enjoy the rest of the conversation but I'm out.
posted by kalessin at 1:28 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


"You've crossed a boundary for me in these kinds of discussions, which is in comparing my rich and quite lovely traditional belief in spirits to child's fairy stories and beliefs. So as such the meaningfulness and respectfulness of this conversation is, for me, over."

Unicorns have a rich and quite lovely traditional belief system that accompanies them, including featuring prominently in the Prester John stories. If it isn't special pleading to assert that your own spiritual beliefs are rich and quite lovely and incomparable to another set of equally folkloric supernatural beliefs, I don't know what is. Respectful doesn't mean kowtowing to your belief that your spirituality is sui generis and everyone else's is child's fairy tales. Likewise, the inability to tolerate that mild comparison does undercut your complaints of bullying — if it's over the line to treat folklore as comparable to the folklore of other cultures, it would not be surprising that you would see even moderate skepticism directed at your beliefs as unconscionable bullying rather than thinking fairly about what value these stories really do provide. It's similar to how some Christians see themselves as bullied and horribly repressed by the secular culture of the U.S.
posted by klangklangston at 1:35 PM on April 2 [9 favorites]


Regarding the question of materialism:

I've actually done a fair bit of thinking about this, and my conclusion is that materialism cannot be refuted.

I'm a professional astrophysicist. I'm invested in the ideas of materialism and empiricism. In some ways I've devoted my life to them. Nevertheless it is important to occasionally challenge your own beliefs.

One of the more amusing results of this in my own life is that despite being a convinced atheist for many years, a few years ago I got really worried that there might be no sequence of events that would convince me that god existed. If god tried to talk to me through a burning bush or a booming voice from the sky, I would immediately check myself into a mental institution -- it wouldn't occur to me that I should stop being an atheist. Thus my position was not subject to revision based on empirical evidence and that really bothered me.

So for about a year I went to parties and asked everyone I met what it would take to change their mind about god. It didn't matter what they believed, I just wanted to know what would make them change their mind. Some of these conversations were uninteresting ("Nothing. I have faith.") but many were fascinating. It was my favorite thing to talk about. Although now I laugh a little when thinking back because I must have seemed like a real nutcase. I was the weird guy at all those parties.

Back to the point: a lot of stuff that happens in the modern world fits fairy-tale definitions of magic. Television remote controls, X-ray machines, antibiotics, cancer treatment via radiation therapy. It would be super easy to just tell a kid "Oh, that works because of magic," rather than saying "Well, there's light that you can't see, the little thing in your hand emits some of it when you push the button and the television detects it." Nevertheless, modern science gives a more or less complete story about the exact mechanism by which each of these things work. When the phenomena were discovered, though, they were mysterious, poorly understood, confusing things.

Therefore even if we discover something completely crazy that violates our present conception of the material world, people will be confused initially, but they will play around with it and eventually figure out how to understand, control, and use it. That's exactly what happened with X-rays -- they're called X-rays because people had no idea what they were, or how to understand them. Now we know they're just high energy photons and we use them all the time.

So that's why materialism cannot be refuted: it is sufficiently entrenched that, if challenged, it will simply expand to incorporate a somewhat broader concept of physical reality.
posted by ngc4486 at 1:51 PM on April 2 [9 favorites]


Most skeptics who go so far as to label themselves as such are skeptical of everything except their own skepticism, about which they are extremely credulous, and this gives their more sweeping and confident pronouncements an aspect of comic absurdity which can often be quite entertaining.
posted by jamjam at 2:16 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Huh. My son is a grad student in philosophy where this guy teaches. Interesting.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 2:50 PM on April 2


What the skeptical approach ignores is the possibility that the universe is not consistent -- that it does indeed tell us a story of great consistency, but that when our backs are turned and the lights are down it is willing to violate those "laws." Such a possibility cannot be investigated by the scientific method.

The skeptical answer to that is that it violates Occam's Razor; after all, the simplest explanation is that the universe is what it seems, consistent to as many decimal places as we can measure, and that it is our notoriously fucked-up perception to blame for all these weird reports.

But the thing is, Occam's Razor doesn't really support that if you think about it. In the last few decades we have begun to build machines ourselves that act, if in very limited ways, a lot like the universe; some are meant to simulate the universe in which we live, others to create alternate universes like game fields, and many more just to do tasks we used to do ourselves like tabulating columns of sums and drawing graphs. And all of those "universes" -- every last one of them -- have shortcuts and back doors. Our entire experience with things other than the Universe itself is that things kind of like the Universe pretend to be consistent as far as they can manage, but when the CPU load gets too high or the RAM gets full or you knock on a door that the programmer didn't think would ever open, things get wonky.

Why should the Universe itself be any different than that? On what basis would we assume it is?

The vast number of reports from people many of whom have excellent reputations and nothing to gain make it seem a large stretch that it's all fucked up perception. I suppose that's possible, but really. Consider that G. Harry Stine, a man who was instrumental in building actual Moon rockets and invested enough in the scientific method to meticulously record all his experiments found enough weirdness out there to risk his reputation publishing On the Frontiers of Science. Is it more likely that such a person -- and scores more like him through the ages -- were all somehow addled by a similar very specific form of what could only be called psychosis, or that the Universe acts just like every single machine we ourselves have ever built that exhibits similar properties?

I myself long ago gave up betting on this race, and I joke that I believe all the New Age stuff on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm a total skeptic on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and on weekends I'm agnostic. I think any other position is kind of hard to defend.
posted by localroger at 3:08 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]


kripal has written useful and interesting books and this thread contains way too much grandstanding and pomposity and fatal humourlessness, as predicted.
posted by waxbanks at 3:13 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Kripal is arguing, if I understand him rightly, that scholars of religion are locked into a narrow rationalism which doesn't leave room for any genuine experience of the supernatural:
In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing "religious" about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.
I'm intrigued by this, because it doesn't seem to bear much relation to the academic scholarship I'm familiar with. After all, you can't go far in the anthropology of religion without encountering Evans-Pritchard and the parable of the collapsing granary as a reminder to take supernatural explanations seriously even if they fall outside your own cultural frame of reference. Most scholars of religion have taken this to heart, and whether they're dealing with medieval blood miracles or New Age spirituality (to name but two) they try to 'get inside' supernatural beliefs and understand them on their own terms.

So why does Kripal think that the study of religion is in thrall to a secular agenda? (He's not alone in this, so it's worth paying attention to his argument.) What this is really about, I suspect, is the politics of the American academy, and what Kripal is really concerned about is the arrogant STEM mindset which dismisses all humanities research as worthless. He wants the respect of his academic peers, but he knows that any culture-specific explanation of religion will be treated with contempt -- if it's culture-specific, why should we care about it? -- so he has to dress up his research in scientific clothes and argue that it's really about 'the biggest question of all', the nature of consciousness.

I don't hold out much hope for this quixotic attempt to rebrand the history of religion as a branch of consciousness studies. But it's an interesting sign of the times. We can look forward to more of these desperate efforts at appeasement, as literary scholars discover that Shakespeare's plays reveal 'surprising new insights' into cognitive science, and postcolonial theorists apply for grants to establish a 'global perspective' on climate change.
posted by verstegan at 3:20 PM on April 2 [6 favorites]


they try to 'get inside' supernatural beliefs and understand them on their own terms

...just up to the point where "their own terms" are "this is really the way the Universe works" as opposed to "this is the way the Universe looks through our particular cultural lens."
posted by localroger at 3:27 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


"What the skeptical approach ignores is the possibility that the universe is not consistent -- that it does indeed tell us a story of great consistency, but that when our backs are turned and the lights are down it is willing to violate those "laws."

No, it doesn't.

Such a possibility cannot be investigated by the scientific method."

Yes, it can.

"The skeptical answer to that is that it violates Occam's Razor; after all, the simplest explanation is that the universe is what it seems, consistent to as many decimal places as we can measure, and that it is our notoriously fucked-up perception to blame for all these weird reports."

No, the skeptical answer is that since pretty much everything we know now is consistent, aside from some pretty big mysteries, there's no need to rewrite the laws of physics to account for dorm room bull sessions. Oh, and those weird reports are pretty consistent with how (applied) physics works too.

"But the thing is, Occam's Razor doesn't really support that if you think about it. In the last few decades we have begun to build machines ourselves that act, if in very limited ways, a lot like the universe; some are meant to simulate the universe in which we live, others to create alternate universes like game fields, and many more just to do tasks we used to do ourselves like tabulating columns of sums and drawing graphs. And all of those "universes" -- every last one of them -- have shortcuts and back doors. Our entire experience with things other than the Universe itself is that things kind of like the Universe pretend to be consistent as far as they can manage, but when the CPU load gets too high or the RAM gets full or you knock on a door that the programmer didn't think would ever open, things get wonky."

We have built nothing like the universe in any realistic rendering, and even if we had, arguing that because those models have back doors that we built into them then thus the universe does too is like arguing that because I drew a picture of myself with a katana, I must be a pretty bad-ass ninja.

"Why should the Universe itself be any different than that? On what basis would we assume it is?"

Because the brain-in-a-box simplicity argument devolves to solipsism.

"The vast number of reports from people many of whom have excellent reputations and nothing to gain make it seem a large stretch that it's all fucked up perception. "

Hmm. What about all of the recorded physics data we have? How come a relative handful of hallucinations is being given more weight by you than all of science? What we know from people with excellent reputations and nothing to gain reporting strange phenomena is that even people with excellent reputations and nothing to gain are subject to perceptional flaws.

"Consider that G. Harry Stine, a man who was instrumental in building actual Moon rockets and invested enough in the scientific method to meticulously record all his experiments found enough weirdness out there to risk his reputation publishing On the Frontiers of Science. "

Why not consider Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard while we're at it?

"Is it more likely that such a person -- and scores more like him through the ages -- were all somehow addled by a similar very specific form of what could only be called psychosis, or that the Universe acts just like every single machine we ourselves have ever built that exhibits similar properties?"

Hmm. Is it more likely that a couple of people who despite being very smart in some areas were given to superstition in others, or that mysterious forces beyond all causality somehow make things happen?

"I myself long ago gave up betting on this race, and I joke that I believe all the New Age stuff on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm a total skeptic on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and on weekends I'm agnostic. I think any other position is kind of hard to defend."

No, not really. Hard positions to defend are things like free will in the face of determinism, or induction against a dedicated nihilistic skeptic. That mysterious, invisible woo is bunk is not one of them.
posted by klangklangston at 4:25 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


Sure Klang. whatever.

But just to touch one thing -- because Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard weren't respected engineers who were instrumental in sending humans to the Moon?

I'll leave the rest for my next incarnation.
posted by localroger at 6:22 PM on April 2


Oh FFS.

Such a possibility cannot be investigated by the scientific method."

Yes, it can.


The speed of light not being quite right is not at all what I'm talking about and you know it. If we were characters in the universe of a video game we wouldn't give a rat's ass about the speed of light, but we'd care a lot about the weird invaders from some other realm who are faster and smarter than us.

The scientific method is powerless against a universe which actively knows what it's up to and lies when experiments are being done.

And that's only fanciful until you consider what we've made ourselves, including game universes which perform just such checks.
posted by localroger at 6:58 PM on April 2


Klang at some point it all does come down to dorm room sessions. Even your argument turns aback on itself at some point. Our models can't hope to capture the universe. Our models are hacks that let us build hacks on top of them. Some people want to call those hacks fundamental truths but I don't understand that desire at all. Leave that stuff to the humanities.
posted by vicx at 7:04 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I read this article a couple of days ago on Arts and Letters Daily, and am a little late to the conversation, so I don't know if I can add much. But I do want to say that reading this manifesto - which it almost is - was unexpected and a welcome relief from the usual material of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Unless I missed anything in the thread above, I do not see anyone claiming that the existence of consciousness has been explained. (Some former mysteries, predominant among them being evolution, have been mostly solved.) The author's suggestion that there are things beyond our rational/empirical ken which may be pointed to by fantastical literature is a welcome statement. The arts are not fripperies; they are an explanation about deep truths about ourselves. Not all the answers about our nature lie in our DNA, as much as I believe our DNA explains much - and much of the truth about us shows up in the arts, too, as Denis Dutton's book The Art Instinct explains. Kafka, PKD, Murakami, and others tell us the truth. A truth. A truth which science can not explain. Many scientists would not take issue with this statement; some would.

As an important footnote: anecdotal evidence is universally dismissed as inherently unconvincing. However, as the article explains, many experiences unexplained by science are experiences impossible to replicate in a laboratory. I have had only one dream about my grandmother dying. It happened on the night of her death. I have had precisely one experience of a voice of a loved one, my mother, actually speaking to me, while I was fully awake and hiking in a remote mountain canyon. It turned out to have occurred, as I discovered later, when back in civilization, around the moment of her death. These experiences have been very common in human history. In fact, it is only in our current rational/empirical culture that these experiences are relegated to coincidence. I realize that New Age woo-woo peoples' beliefs have thrown traditional experiences into the dust-bin of history - thanks a lot, you angel/tarot/crystal fanatics - but as much as I a child of the Enlightenment, I believe that small e enlightenment is part of our collective human aspiration and is indeed evidenced by fragments of fiction, as this odd article articulates.
posted by kozad at 7:24 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]


Well, the title of the article was "Embrace the Unexplained". Content of the article aside, I'm on board with that broad sentiment.

I remember biking out of work one Friday, deep in January, icy cold and dark out, and the wind was doing its best to make my ride a bitter, unpleasant trip. I pedaled a street passing through a few warehouses, the world seemed all desolate and unforgiving and, geez, home seemed 1000 miles away. As I steered around a pothole, I noticed a tiny coin in the bottom of the hole. Naturally, in the pitch black, ten degree weather, whipping wind, my first instinct was to stop and check out that tiny coin.

Clear as day, I recall thinking as I turned my bike around: "I bet that was a wheat penny." I had no possible way to have known that on my first glance; I could only see a coin-sized outline against the dark pavement.

Unexplained did its unexplained things, and I dug my hand into this icy pothole, middle of the night on an abandoned street, and extracted a wheat penny. I looked at it, felt a bit amazed, awestruck, incredulous. I'm not a magic/woo-woo type at all. But, there I was, holding and looking right at substantiation to a wild, out-of-nowhere prediction I just made.

I'm a mathematician by training; I'm given to all manners of rationalization. But, right then, I just put the lucky penny in my pocket, and biked home to enjoy a few beers and basketball game on TV with a smile on my face. I decided to do the same thing I (try to) do amidst hand-wringing or over-analysis about crazy coincidences, confluences, singularities, what have you. I just tried to embrace the unexplained, leave my analytical mind on the shelf for a bit.

Give me these sort of low-level cosmic mysteries, spare me the pseudo-philosophical, sensationally-headlined ('unlock the nature of consciousness'... really?) articles recounting the same.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 8:39 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I don't hold out much hope for this quixotic attempt to rebrand the history of religion as a branch of consciousness studies. But it's an interesting sign of the times. We can look forward to more of these desperate efforts at appeasement, as literary scholars discover that Shakespeare's plays reveal 'surprising new insights' into cognitive science, and postcolonial theorists apply for grants to establish a 'global perspective' on climate change.

Thank you for putting the plight of the humanities in such stark, clear terms, verstegen.

I think Kripal, et al are just as desperate and hard pressed as you say, but that he's attempting something much more daring and ambitious than rebranding or appeasement.

I think he's using the subjects of his studies-- religions as they've coped with difficult circumstances and changed over time-- as models to guide him in a quest to transform and reinvigorate the field of religious studies itself, and indeed, the humanities as a whole, and restore them to their proper place in the social firmament, as if the humanities were a tribal culture being destroyed by contact with a rapacious and technologically superior invader, and could save themselves by proceeding according to the template first delineated by A. F. C. Wallace in his theory of the revitalization movement:
A revitalization movement "is a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture." ...
I. Period of generally satisfactory adaptation to a group's social and natural environment.

II. Period of increased individual stress. While the group as a whole is able to survive through its accustomed cultural behavior, changes in the social or natural environment frustrate efforts of many people to obtain normal satisfactions of their needs.

III. Period of cultural distortion. Changes in the group's social or natural environment drastically reduce the capacity of accustomed cultural behavior to satisfy most persons' physical and emotional needs.

IV. Period of revitalization: (1) reformulation of the cultural pattern; (2) its communication; (3) organization of a reformulated cultural pattern; (4) adaptation of the reformulated pattern to better meet the needs and preferences of the group; (5) cultural transformation; (6) routinization-the adapted reformulated cultural pattern becomes the standard cultural behavior for the group.

V. New period of generally satisfactory adaptation to the group's changed social and/or natural environment.[citation needed]
Wallace derived his theory from studies of so-called primitive peoples (preliterate and homogeneous), with particular attention to the Iroquois revitalization movement led by Seneca religious leader and prophet Handsome Lake (1735-1815). Wallace believed that his revitalization model applies to movements as broad and complex as the rise of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Wesleyan Methodism.
The crucial event of revitalizations tends to be the emergence of a prophet such as Handsome Lake in the case of the Iroquois, or "Jack Wilson, the prophet formerly known as Wovoka" in the case of the Ghost Dance religion, who has a vision which guides is a prime specimen of the sort of mysterious "impossible things" Kripal is talking about. Wovoka, for example "was believed to have had a vision during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. It was reportedly not his first time experiencing a vision directly from God; but as a young adult, he claimed that he was then better equipped, spiritually, to handle this message. ..."

For the revitalization of the humanities, prophet Kripal's vision appears to place visionary events at the center of consciousness and nominate visionary thinking as the pre-eminent mode of approaching them.
posted by jamjam at 9:15 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


'a vision which guides the revitalization and is a prime specimen...' that should be.
posted by jamjam at 9:24 PM on April 2


klangklangston >

From taking these anecdotes as data, we can see that the visions of Hell change with fashion, that they don't have any real predictive ability, that they're correlated with other physical phenomena (e.g. sleep paralysis), and — most fundamentally — believing in them as literal truth does not enrich our lives, our understanding of the world, or our understanding of consciousness.

I'm not sure what you mean in referencing prediction, but I think you're right that specific conceptions of Hell and myths like that, as well as the changing discursive formations around them, are cultural phenomena, and their socio-cognitive indexicality (to the extent that the mythic structures constitute intertextuality with other areas of social life, which I think we agree they do) orients people to explanations of aporias in understanding material processes, like sleep paralysis, as well as to processes of history, collective identity, and other things.

Understanding them as part of the subjective path of consciousness without ascribing supernatural effects does.

Exactly, I think it does too, but people can understand them as more than that without thinking they're literally true, either, as in agnosticism.

whatgorilla >

"believing in them as literal truth does not enrich our lives..."

-- I think people believe in them PRECISELY to (try to?) enrich their lives--to feel special and magical and powerful in the face of all the dis-empowering facts of reality and one's impending death.


I think this is correct, though it's not an exhaustive account of the many ways that people make meaning with and through mythologies such as Hell and divine judgment.

We can't just deny that people make meaning which is real to them through understandings of religious experience that are perhaps different from our own, so I appreciate what you're saying.

localroger >

What the skeptical approach ignores is the possibility that the universe is not consistent -- that it does indeed tell us a story of great consistency, but that when our backs are turned and the lights are down it is willing to violate those "laws." Such a possibility cannot be investigated by the scientific method.

This theory assumes that some entity of intentionality and agency exists which can alter the physical processes of the universe at will, and would do so with the goal of tricking people who are trying to understand it. Now, you're right that the skeptical approach ignores this possibility, but that's because what you're talking about is functionally equivalent to a deity.

But the thing is, Occam's Razor doesn't really support that if you think about it. In the last few decades we have begun to build machines ourselves that act, if in very limited ways, a lot like the universe; some are meant to simulate the universe in which we live, others to create alternate universes like game fields, and many more just to do tasks we used to do ourselves like tabulating columns of sums and drawing graphs. And all of those "universes" -- every last one of them -- have shortcuts and back doors. Our entire experience with things other than the Universe itself is that things kind of like the Universe pretend to be consistent as far as they can manage, but when the CPU load gets too high or the RAM gets full or you knock on a door that the programmer didn't think would ever open, things get wonky.

Why should the Universe itself be any different than that? On what basis would we assume it is?


Well, let's unpack your thought experiment a little bit. Do the machines we build act like the universe? I'm not so sure; if you mean computers, I'd say that what they resemble in their functioning is more like a very interesting and novel cognitive, communicative, and intersubjective prosthetic, but not a universe, as I understand that word. I also think there's an awful lot of very suspicious equivocation in the phrase "Our entire experience with things other than the Universe itself is that things kind of like the Universe pretend to be consistent as far as they can manage."

The biggest problem I'd identify with this theory, though, is that it seems sort of credulously indiscriminate in providing a model for the universe based entirely on the vagaries of extant technology, while at the same time not differing essentially from a deistic argument. People in earlier eras thought the universe might work like a clock, majestic yet mechanistic, precise and fashioned just so, but they didn't think the universe was like that before clocks were invented. So I think there's a hazard in explaining the universe that way.
posted by clockzero at 10:05 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


Lots of good and interesting stuff, but let me weigh in with my weird anecdote.

I apologize for vagaries, but I recently found out more than a few people I know read around on this place. For the sake of respecting the privacy of friends I must keep details to a minimum.

Right now, I really wish I knew where my old dream notebook was. While it wouldn't be a solid basis as it is something I could have in-theory constructed, it would at least let me have something worthwhile to point to. Any testimony of relevant parties involved could also be constructed. No matter what I do, any claim I have to this event taking place unless I had a continuous, un-edited recording of a six-month period I would say that it was possibly constructed. Hell, I'm pretty sure I could actually have a 6-month long recording and if I were a masterful planner, displayed these same ideas and bits of narrative as part of some kind of insanely ambitious ARG-y webseries. Besides that, I kind of think of it like the cave, or better yet, Russel's Teapot.


So, that said I have had a few weird woo-ish experiences that seemed all too close to being premonition-y or mental telegraphy-like. Being the skeptic, I went down the list of logical problems, mostly due to my will to believe in the idea because, hey, that's neat! Confirmation bias, back-fill and other such things meant my only means to do so would be to start writing these things down in detail and when it came down to a situation involving another party, set out to confirm it.

So, I started keeping a dream journal. Before this, in certain instances I had the weird thing of feeling like someone was in my head with me. That feeling seemed to have a correlation with the whole mental-telegraphy or shared unconsciousness thing or what have you. I intended to keep record of those instances in particular and date them because at one instance a friend confirmed a thing was happening on the day I got that weird woo-feeling. Besides that, dream journals are just fun.

After about six months of this with no results, horrible nightmare ensues involving Bob, a friend I haven't seen, spoken to or anything in about as long a span. They're in a particular kind of awful mess with all kinds of specifics and they somehow need my help to deal with it. Problem is, there's that weird feeling. This causes me to wake up in a cold sweat. I brush it off, write it down, and tell myself "Aha, this will be the thing that proves I am an idiot!"

Later that day get a call from Bob. They're wondering if I have time to hang out with them tomorrow.

I don't sleep because this is a very bad situation if things are the way my dumb little crazy-person brain thinks they are. It's a situation outside of my control, regarding information I have no control over and that I haven't any kind of data-trail my brain could extrapolate the situation from. There's no way right? Besides the possibility the particular situation is true, which would be awful, it means this is the chance to see if this works how I think it does.

Bob and I hang out, we have good time. Out of the blue, Bob gets a pained look and tells me he needs to talk with me about something. My hearts skips a beat, I go into a cold sweat and tell Bob to stop, because I need to ask them something first. I preface with the fact I think I'm a crazy person and explain what I experienced in crazy-person dreamland and ask if that's what it is. They say yes and explain, confirming the details ands accepting this whole weird brain thing without any problem. Afterwards Bob proceeds to break down crying.

This is some of the worst news I've ever gotten in my life. Shortly, I'll be crying right along with bob and giving them my support, but first I spend a good minute, heart pounding in my chest because that anguish combined with the strange terror of getting some small evidence that reality doesn't necessarily work how I think it does is more than a little for me to handle.

So, there's a little crazy rant for ya'll. I've seen a teapot in outerspace, if only for a moment. I can't tell you where to find it, can't even give you many details about it, can't do much at all frankly. As I said, even if I could, you could justifiably claim I put the teapot there. Still, I have one other person that saw the same teapot, so for now, I take comfort in that. Mostly, I just try not to think about it. The idea of trying to rely on any kind of data like this and act on it frankly makes me think I'd get tossed in the loony bin. On the plus side, I at least get a laugh from the fact it makes me think of a lot of the fun stuff from White Wolf tabletop games.

PS: I agree that the article and what it has to say about humanities is pretty bunk.
posted by ThrowbackDave at 1:33 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]


I'm not so sure; if you mean computers, I'd say that what they resemble in their functioning is more like a very interesting and novel cognitive, communicative, and intersubjective prosthetic, but not a universe, as I understand that word.

The most important way in which computers act like the Universe is that they can exhibit chaotic behavior. They are the only artifacts of purely human creation which do that, and the more complex and advanced they become the more chaotic they become.

Computers have also become mysterious, to the point where most computers are no longer actually understood from the circuit level up by humans. We can no longer be all that sure when the computer does something unpredictable whether it is an accident or a deliberate (and possibly malevolent) design.

The more complex and powerful computers become the more trouble it is to enforce the intended functionality of the device; both implementation errors and deliberate attacks cause the computer to do things it was not intended to do. Increasingly elaborate security measures are needed to prevent workarounds from being found and exploited.

Some computers are already a lot like the Universe, albeit at very small scale. And they have been getting ever more so since their invention, to the point where nowadays actual humans feel comfortable moving into universes implemented within computers in lieu of the real one.

It is definitely a danger to overly map what we don't know onto what we just happen to; a similar error involving carpenters and potters runs through Judeo-Christian thought. But the thing is computers are unlike anything else we know, and they are more like the Universe than anything else we know.

P.S. On the topic of overly mapping what we don't know onto what we do, the idea that the Universe is a fundamentally simple and consistent mechanism does this itself with targets like clocks and billiard tables.
posted by localroger at 7:28 AM on April 3


This level of proscriptiveness is part of my experience of the ethics of skepticism as bullying.

To focus on this a moment - most atheists you meet online, especially activists, are culturally Christian, they are from a society and culture that thinks and acts in very particular ways about religion and folkways. They may not believe in god, but they are from a society that's been shaped by faith and spirituality - not being mindful of this background is inexcusable.

There is a very nasty history of christians attacking and denigrating non-conformist belief systems as a campaign of cultural conquest and social control, and simply saying "I don't believe in God!" isn't enough to buy you a pass for an absolutist, destructively proselytizing approach to spirituality and belief systems outside your own culture.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:19 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]


(A similar admonition applies to Skeptics as well - while some folk beliefs and religious tenets are destructive or harmful and need to be challenged, most are not. There is a difference between exposing a bunko artist running phoney seances, and telling someone their recently deceased mother couldn't possibly have spoken to them on la Dia de los Muertos because science.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:32 AM on April 3


"But just to touch one thing -- because Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard weren't respected engineers who were instrumental in sending humans to the Moon?"

I don't think you know what I'm talking about, and I don't think you know what you're talking about.

"The speed of light not being quite right is not at all what I'm talking about and you know it. If we were characters in the universe of a video game we wouldn't give a rat's ass about the speed of light, but we'd care a lot about the weird invaders from some other realm who are faster and smarter than us.

The scientific method is powerless against a universe which actively knows what it's up to and lies when experiments are being done.

And that's only fanciful until you consider what we've made ourselves, including game universes which perform just such checks.
"

Oh, so you mean you're defining your terms explicitly against any investigation because you ascribe to some bullshit solipsism, specifically the Cartesian Demon dressed up in Mondo 2000 drag.

"Klang at some point it all does come down to dorm room sessions. Even your argument turns aback on itself at some point. Our models can't hope to capture the universe. Our models are hacks that let us build hacks on top of them. Some people want to call those hacks fundamental truths but I don't understand that desire at all. Leave that stuff to the humanities."

No, not really. There are plenty of people who get out of the dorms to study these things in labs, classrooms and libraries. The dismissal of eternal truths is idiotic, as humanities hasn't given us a truth as universal as 1+1=2 or e=mc2. Is this just another example of humanities partisans fearing what they don't understand?

"These experiences have been very common in human history. In fact, it is only in our current rational/empirical culture that these experiences are relegated to coincidence. I realize that New Age woo-woo peoples' beliefs have thrown traditional experiences into the dust-bin of history - thanks a lot, you angel/tarot/crystal fanatics - but as much as I a child of the Enlightenment, I believe that small e enlightenment is part of our collective human aspiration and is indeed evidenced by fragments of fiction, as this odd article articulates."

You know what science is pretty good at explaining? Confirmation bias.

"The most important way in which computers act like the Universe is that they can exhibit chaotic behavior. They are the only artifacts of purely human creation which do that, and the more complex and advanced they become the more chaotic they become."

This is bullshit in multiple ways, from the implied definition of "purely human creation," and the incredible cherry-picking needed to support an argument that computers aren't incredibly deterministic machines that work precisely because of some very well understood physics. They're not created by warlocks in caves, they're designed by engineers in labs. (As for the chaos, there's a tremendous amount of art that exhibits chaotic behavior intentionally, just as one broad counter-example.)

"Computers have also become mysterious, to the point where most computers are no longer actually understood from the circuit level up by humans. We can no longer be all that sure when the computer does something unpredictable whether it is an accident or a deliberate (and possibly malevolent) design."

You've misplaced your "most." Rather than most computers not being understood by humans, it should be that most humans don't understand computers from the circuit level up. Which is building to a god of the gaps argument.

And yes, I can be reasonably sure when many of the computers I deal with daily does something unpredictable whether it's an accident or a consequence of design — generally, when a computer does something unpredictable, I have to solve that problem and deal with it going forward.

"The more complex and powerful computers become the more trouble it is to enforce the intended functionality of the device; both implementation errors and deliberate attacks cause the computer to do things it was not intended to do. Increasingly elaborate security measures are needed to prevent workarounds from being found and exploited."

… and all of those function in an explicable, deterministic way. I can't know what side a die will fall on, but that doesn't mean that it's the universe willing it to one number or another — the actual mechanism is pretty simple, and given reasonably precise measurements, I could tell you which side it would fall on.

That's one of the things that the god of the gaps arguments ignore is that our ability to measure has gotten more and more sophisticated, to the point where the gaps become less and less important.

"Some computers are already a lot like the Universe, albeit at very small scale. And they have been getting ever more so since their invention, to the point where nowadays actual humans feel comfortable moving into universes implemented within computers in lieu of the real one. "

You got high watching Tron too many times. While humans regularly interact with vast computer simulations, there are zero people who have moved into one.

"It is definitely a danger to overly map what we don't know onto what we just happen to; a similar error involving carpenters and potters runs through Judeo-Christian thought. But the thing is computers are unlike anything else we know, and they are more like the Universe than anything else we know."

Oh, you were almost there! You almost realized you were making a map-territory error! But then you swallowed that with techno-mysticism.

"P.S. On the topic of overly mapping what we don't know onto what we do, the idea that the Universe is a fundamentally simple and consistent mechanism does this itself with targets like clocks and billiard tables."

Uh, consistent and explicable doesn't mean simple per se; incredibly complex systems arise from a few simple rules, e.g. fluid dynamics, which while the underlying aggregate principles are pretty well-understood, the systemic complexity can rapidly outpace any ability to calculate it. Here's a paper talking about complex patterns from simple inputs: Complex Patterns in a Simple System.

"and telling someone their recently deceased mother couldn't possibly have spoken to them on la Dia de los Muertos because science."

Someone claiming that they spoke to their recently deceased mother on Dia de los Muertos tells us pretty much nothing about the objective world; it tells us a lot about the subjective experience of the person making that claim.

What annoys me is when these claims are treated as evidence of objective realities beyond our ken, rather than as a way of understanding consciousness from inside as subjects. It annoys me even more when the tremendous amount of science done as anthropology, sociology and psychology describing these claims is jettisoned for some bunk claims of the ineffable, claims that almost always want to have the issue both ways — mysterious forces that interact with us and cause events, but are somehow entirely undetectable outside of those events.

The condescending Bushman's Radio example in the linked text is emblematic of that — there's a fundamental mechanism that describes the working of radio waves and their transmission, and they're detectible in a lot of ways despite being invisible. If you want to argue that there's an external causal mechanism for premonitions and prophetic dreams, propose an actual mechanism that can be validated or not. Don't just wave your hands and say, "Magic!"
posted by klangklangston at 8:57 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]


Or, tl;dr:

How humans experience the world is inherently interesting, and a tremendous amount of the humanities is already devoted explicitly to studying those experiences and how they're communicated. That's really valuable. That doesn't detract anything from materialism, just as materialism doesn't detract anything from the human experience, really. That doesn't mean that the humanities should try to find supernatural explanations for subjective phenomena; that's stepping outside of the expertise in a way that tries to justify the pseudo-scientific niche by performing both science and philosophy poorly.
posted by klangklangston at 9:08 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]


Klang, I hope you realize you are completely vindicating kalessin.

Anyway, when someone draws a comparison between L. Ron Hubbard and G. Harry Stine, I normally draw the conclusion they have no fucking clue who Stine is and move on.

When that person goes on to either not know what Second Life, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online are or to bullheadedly pretend that they don't know how many people are relating to those online worlds, I decide it's safe to stop completely.
posted by localroger at 9:40 AM on April 3


Anyway, when someone draws a comparison between L. Ron Hubbard and G. Harry Stine, I normally draw the conclusion they have no fucking clue who Stine is and move on."

… yeah, so you just ignored Jack Parsons, who was a pioneering rocket engineer and also into some deep mumbo jumbo. And L. Ron Hubbard is respected by millions for his science-esque mumbo jumbo (and has a direct connection to Parsons). The point is more that just because someone's smart or respected about some position, that doesn't mean they don't cosign a fair amount of bullshit. You're making an appeal to authority, I'm pointing out that's bunk.

"When that person goes on to either not know what Second Life, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online are or to bullheadedly pretend that they don't know how many people are relating to those online worlds, I decide it's safe to stop completely."

When someone doesn't evidence being able to understand the distinction between Second Life, World of Warcraft or Eve Online and the actual universe, and who claims people have "moved" there (I assume that's where Pacific Edison addresses their utility bills), they deserve to be called out for their sloppy argumentation.
posted by klangklangston at 11:37 AM on April 3


clockzero (eponysterically) wrote:
The biggest problem I'd identify with this theory, though, is that it seems sort of credulously indiscriminate in providing a model for the universe based entirely on the vagaries of extant technology, while at the same time not differing essentially from a deistic argument. People in earlier eras thought the universe might work like a clock, majestic yet mechanistic, precise and fashioned just so, but they didn't think the universe was like that before clocks were invented. So I think there's a hazard in explaining the universe that way.
As I noted in my long-somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer, an analogue of this problem is quite visible in Kripal's own essay regarding what he considers mysterious phenomena. Apparently unwittingly, he uses the idea of gravity as warped spacetime to explain his take on these clairvoyant phenomena and quotes Twain calling something similar "mental telegraphy." So even the people experiencing the paranormal can't experience it without drawing on technologies or scientific concepts already invented.

The thing is, Kripal is so blatant in his use of these technological metaphors that I hesitate to call him unaware; is he just trying to demonstrate how much "scientism" has come to dominate discourse, so that even discussions of mystery can't escape it? Or is he playing the old parapsychologists' game of piggybacking on their terms to bring in something unreadable?

localroger, when you say that "[c]omputers have also become mysterious, to the point where most computers are no longer actually understood from the circuit level up by humans," I think you're similarly trying to read the mysterious out of something that either modifies it or doesn't allow it in. You're connecting something general to most societies -- the lack of general understanding of technical complexity -- with an experience of mystery that Kripal insists is supernatural.

But the mystery of the workings of the computer doesn't seem to be the same thing as a religious mystery, however many tortured analogies we might make between programmers and priests. The mystery of which Kripal speaks is not an inability to see how signs and visions emerge, as when a person cannot figure out how a computer's hardware and software produce the images or sounds on
the screen; even the simulation of chaotic elements is in some sense the product of a physical process, for one thing, if an incredibly complex one.

These processes are mysterious in the sense that they are posthuman, not in the sense that they open onto the subject's experience of the numinous. That is, the mystery meant by Singularity, which is what you're proposing, is not the eternal God or the preceding existence of psychism revealing himself or itself; it's instead the abolition of the subject having the experience. Kripal seems to be looking for something more like signs and wonders, a hidden order in the extant world whose past is endless and whose beginning presents as an aporia, than for the negation or supercession of the present and its subjectivities by an equally infinite and aporetic future.
posted by kewb at 2:45 PM on April 3 [3 favorites]


Put shorter, a lot of localroger's examples seem to be "God/the supernatureal" as an emergent process of post-nature; that's almost the exact opposite of what Kripal seems to propose and what parapsychologists and Forteans usually propose, which is a universe of mysterious depth which emerges from inaccessible causes or an impenetrable prehistory.
posted by kewb at 2:48 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


kewb, what I mean is something very specific but also very unusual in this context, which is regularly misunderstood when I try to bring it up.

My assertion is that IF any of these phenomena actually represent the universe violating its own otherwise relatively simple physical principles, and that is a very large IF which I am not asserting is the case in any strong way, but rather IF any of those teapots in outer space should be real, THEN it has vast implications for how the universe is put together. Because it simply doesn't work with physics as we know it for these little exceptions to sneak through when the laws of motion and energy are otherwise so precisely consistent. There is no way to square Theophrastus Johnson's wheat penny or ThrowbackDave's precognitive experience with anything resembling physics as we know it.

IF any such paraphysical phenomena are real, THEN the universe has to be something very much like a computer running a simulation is MOSTLY consistent but which allows exceptions and hacks. And if you look at how these things are alleged to manifest, it's not hard to come away with the impression that they are the actions of hackers and backdoors which have to limit their activity lest they get caught by the error checkers that want the world to look like a purely precise simulation without exceptions.

Note that while this implies that the Universe (or undocumented entities which we share it with) are exercising a lot of intelligence, this is not the same as just saying "deity." It says very specific things about what these forces are trying to do and prevent. It does not actually say much about where the Big Computer came from, who set it up, or why. But the implications are the reason the "simulation problem" is a big deal in some circles. This is not just a little adjustment to how we usually think about the Universe; it means all of reality is fundamentally different than we've assumed for hundreds of years, and worse that it is actively lying to us in important and fundamental ways.

I would also assert that while it is a bit fantastic, we have no solid basis on which to rule out the simulation-with-flaws possibility, because if you never see a teakettle in space yourself it looks exactly the same as a universe that is really consistent and provides no exceptions. The difference is only apparent if you witness an exception, and even if they can occur there are systems which obviously try to prevent them, so it's a bit extraordinary to see an exception.

Of course one could also prefer to believe that it's all human perceptual defects and the universe itself is blissfully flawless. This is basically like believing that your computer's security model is perfect when you don't know where your computer came from, who made it, or how it works, and continuing to believe that even as you receive a steady trickle of tales of apparent violations of that security model.
posted by localroger at 3:34 PM on April 3


yeah, so you just ignored Jack Parsons

When you have placed G. Harry Stine and L. Ron Hubbard in the same group defined by any allegedly shared parameter, I can safely assume that anyone else you place in that group probably also doesn't belong.

the distinction between Second Life, World of Warcraft or Eve Online and the actual universe

I am sure you aren't stupid enough to really not understand the point I'm making, which means you are just using word games to score cheap points. A spot check of the rest of your wall of text reveals it to be mostly the same.
posted by localroger at 3:38 PM on April 3


"When you have placed G. Harry Stine and L. Ron Hubbard in the same group defined by any allegedly shared parameter, I can safely assume that anyone else you place in that group probably also doesn't belong. "

Not too safely, given that you were wrong and persist in making a weird argument from authority.

"I am sure you aren't stupid enough to really not understand the point I'm making, which means you are just using word games to score cheap points. A spot check of the rest of your wall of text reveals it to be mostly the same."

I understand the point that you're attempting to make. It's bullshit with huge, huge holes in it. If your "spot check" didn't reveal that, it's pretty useless as a spot check.

"My assertion is that IF any of these phenomena actually represent the universe violating its own otherwise relatively simple physical principles, and that is a very large IF which I am not asserting is the case in any strong way, but rather IF any of those teapots in outer space should be real, THEN it has vast implications for how the universe is put together."

IF the question is begged, THEN we have begged the question. Further, no, your premise doesn't require the conclusion; it could have vast implications but it doesn't necessarily. If there is a teacup in orbit around Mars, to take a metaphor literally, that wouldn't actually matter all that much in the scheme of things.

"Because it simply doesn't work with physics as we know it for these little exceptions to sneak through when the laws of motion and energy are otherwise so precisely consistent. There is no way to square Theophrastus Johnson's wheat penny or ThrowbackDave's precognitive experience with anything resembling physics as we know it."

There are, in fact, a couple of ways to square these things. The first is the obvious, where it's a result of confirmation bias or several other pretty well understood perceptual flaws. Second, there are previously unexplained things that happen all the time in physics — pretty much all of them are eventually reconciled with the laws of physics, even if that requires rewriting the laws of physics to accommodate them. Hell, there are vastly more "mundane" inexplicable things now that haven't thrown all of materialism into doubt, e.g. dark energy.

"IF any such paraphysical phenomena are real, THEN the universe has to be something very much like a computer running a simulation is MOSTLY consistent but which allows exceptions and hacks."

No. This is flat-out bullshit; your THEN is a total non sequitor. This is another place where having a basic History of Philosophy 101 would help you — it's the Cartesian demon again. But there's nothing that implies these must be consistent phenomena, that the rest of the universe must be generally consistent, that exceptions are metaphorically consistent with hacks (one way could be having no intentionality possible with them), and it all devolves into metaphysical solipsism.

"And if you look at how these things are alleged to manifest, it's not hard to come away with the impression that they are the actions of hackers and backdoors which have to limit their activity lest they get caught by the error checkers that want the world to look like a purely precise simulation without exceptions."

It's not hard to come away with the conclusion that they're the acts of demons and angels in an eternal war for our souls either. Or that they're manifestations of a collective telepathy. Or any number of other imaginative solutions; there's nothing that necessarily requires yours to be more correct. Further, it's even easier to come away with the conclusion that they're adequately explained by what we know now, even if that mundane explanation is disappointing.

"Note that while this implies that the Universe (or undocumented entities which we share it with) are exercising a lot of intelligence, this is not the same as just saying "deity." It says very specific things about what these forces are trying to do and prevent. It does not actually say much about where the Big Computer came from, who set it up, or why. But the implications are the reason the "simulation problem" is a big deal in some circles. This is not just a little adjustment to how we usually think about the Universe; it means all of reality is fundamentally different than we've assumed for hundreds of years, and worse that it is actively lying to us in important and fundamental ways."

Yes, there would be consequences from this model. There are also theological consequences of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If you assume the conclusion, you can spin out all sorts of hypotheticals. It makes good fiction. It doesn't make a compelling philosophical or scientific argument.

"I would also assert that while it is a bit fantastic, we have no solid basis on which to rule out the simulation-with-flaws possibility, because if you never see a teakettle in space yourself it looks exactly the same as a universe that is really consistent and provides no exceptions."

It's like you've joined a cargo cult of metaphysics. If there's a teapot out there, the burden is on you to demonstrate it, not on everyone else to prove it's not there.

"The difference is only apparent if you witness an exception, and even if they can occur there are systems which obviously try to prevent them, so it's a bit extraordinary to see an exception."

I knew it was only a matter of time before The Matrix was taken as a religious text.

"Of course one could also prefer to believe that it's all human perceptual defects and the universe itself is blissfully flawless. This is basically like believing that your computer's security model is perfect when you don't know where your computer came from, who made it, or how it works, and continuing to believe that even as you receive a steady trickle of tales of apparent violations of that security model."

It's nothing like that at all. It's like listening to endless support requests from users who don't know what they're talking about, complaining that their computer is possessed when they just need to check the monitor cables.
posted by klangklangston at 4:08 PM on April 3


Note that while this implies that the Universe (or undocumented entities which we share it with) are exercising a lot of intelligence, this is not the same as just saying "deity." It says very specific things about what these forces are trying to do and prevent.

It's an intelligence that exists outside the observable universe but directly interacts with people in a communicative way. How is this not the same thing as just saying "deity"?

This is not just a little adjustment to how we usually think about the Universe; it means all of reality is fundamentally different than we've assumed for hundreds of years, and worse that it is actively lying to us in important and fundamental ways.

I think this is why people regard this position as ultimately leading to solipsism. How is this fundamentally different from the "universe was created a millisecond ago" conjecture?

Also, consider that simply mucking with human perceptions would be a lot easier for some conniving god, and in fact wouldn't even require a god -- jokester aliens could do all this while remaining firmly embedded in an empirical universe.

This is basically like believing that your computer's security model is perfect when you don't know where your computer came from, who made it, or how it works, and continuing to believe that even as you receive a steady trickle of tales of apparent violations of that security model.

In this case, it's a computer we understand quite well at the level of circuits and low-level logic. It's also the only computer in existence, so far as we know, and there's no network card or keyboard jack or anything that appears to allow external input. In fact, there's nothing in the architecture that even suggests the idea of "external input".

But when you see glitches in the (impenetrably dense and obscure) software, you conclude that it must be hackers.
posted by bjrubble at 4:45 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


What this is really about, I suspect, is the politics of the American academy, and what Kripal is really concerned about is the arrogant STEM mindset which dismisses all humanities research as worthless.

Ouch! The sad truth hurtz!

I gather Kripal is saying that we can revitalize the Humanities if we only focus on... his specialty? Nah, I don't think so.

Where I come from, this phenomenon he discusses is called: THE UNCANNY. It's called that because it's not meant to be understood, and that's what makes it uncanny. I do think that it's worth more research because it's really interesting, at the very least on a sociological view, but I don't expect it to be explained any time ever. If you did come up with some reasonable proofs, it might end up sounding like quotes from Doctor Peter Venkman.

(As is sometimes the case, I'm liking some of the comments here more than the original essay.)
posted by ovvl at 4:54 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


How is this fundamentally different from the "universe was created a millisecond ago" conjecture?

If you have to ask that, I really don't know how to explain it. I'm not a philosopher; I'm a guy who makes things work. Klang misses several of my points for the same reason. "The universe was created a millisecond ago" doesn't make any sense. There's no reason to do it that way. The process of creation would almost amount to an in-process version of the Universe. There are a boatload of implications from information theory as to why it's very unlikely.

But it's quite possible that the universe is a mechanism; in fact, that's really what most physicists seem to believe, although they believe it's a mechanism with more memory and simpler algorithms at work than my alternate theory proposes. There are useful and stupid ways to design a mechanism.

The Cartesian demon, which Klang somehow thinks is somehow comparable to my own ideas, would be a very stupid basis for something like the universe. Design decisions are generally made for better reasons than just "to fuck with your head." Get out of the Devil's mindset into that of an engineer and lots of weirdness suddenly doesn't look so weird.

Anyway, my problem with engaging this argument isn't the argument, but the problem kalessin mentioned -- which I notice Klang ignored, even though I linked it -- of so many of the guys on the other side acting like assholes.
posted by localroger at 6:46 PM on April 3


"If you have to ask that, I really don't know how to explain it. I'm not a philosopher; I'm a guy who makes things work. Klang misses several of my points for the same reason. "The universe was created a millisecond ago" doesn't make any sense. There's no reason to do it that way. The process of creation would almost amount to an in-process version of the Universe. There are a boatload of implications from information theory as to why it's very unlikely."

The problem is that none of your argument actually makes sense when you think it through, especially not your objections to other, similar arguments. "The universe created milliseconds ago" makes exactly as much epistemological sense as brains in vats or malevolent demons. Not only that, but you're presupposing that some entity with the power to create said universe/simulation has the same knowable intentions and processes that we do; there's nothing to support that either. Even further, you're arguing based on phenomena that putatively violate the laws of rationality as we know them. Dismissing something because it doesn't make sense to you while allowing other irrational phenomena as evidence is incoherent.

"But it's quite possible that the universe is a mechanism; in fact, that's really what most physicists seem to believe, although they believe it's a mechanism with more memory and simpler algorithms at work than my alternate theory proposes. There are useful and stupid ways to design a mechanism."

There are also processes that appear to be designed based on huge numbers of iterations that are functionally ungraspable by human comprehension — evolution, or mineral formation. Not only that, physicists don't believe that the universe is a machine, they believe that what we've observed is consistent with our explanations of the causal chains. They no more believe the universe is a machine than they believe that acorns want to be oak trees.

"The Cartesian demon, which Klang somehow thinks is somehow comparable to my own ideas, would be a very stupid basis for something like the universe. Design decisions are generally made for better reasons than just "to fuck with your head." Get out of the Devil's mindset into that of an engineer and lots of weirdness suddenly doesn't look so weird."

INTENTION IS IMMATERIAL TO THE CARTESIAN DEMON. Get into the mindset of a materialist and a lot of "weirdness" really isn't at all, to the point where it doesn't need some over-engineered imaginary "solution." Things are weird because humans imbued "weird" with meaning to describe the world, not because "weirdness" is an inherent property of the universe.

"Anyway, my problem with engaging this argument isn't the argument, but the problem kalessin mentioned -- which I notice Klang ignored, even though I linked it -- of so many of the guys on the other side acting like assholes."

Yeah, yeah, every astrologer thinks astronomers are assholes.
posted by klangklangston at 7:11 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


If you want to deal with the idea of miraculous/mysterious/uncanny happenings in a solid way, look at the problem of Hume's definition of miracles. I think if we're going to roll along with the idea that woo-based experiences are a thing, you have to step out of the framework of something that adds in an assumption of some kind of extra-natural agency. Again, supposing we've handle the teapot and that Space-Teapots exist (For the record, I think sticking with teapots makes this a bit more fun.) it must be that they simply work or came about in a way we don't have any understanding of yet, rather than a glitch in the Matrix. Maybe look upon such experiences as tenuous evidence of that there's just plenty about the world/universe and that we must continue to drive towards a deeper understanding of the universe using the means we have to see if we can find some mechanism.

What I was surprised at was the fact the author seemed to be driving at this idea of finding ways of making these phenomena testable, which if the mechanism of extreme mental/physical/emotional trauma is the trigger... that path leads to madness and throwing children into a furnace that will switch on in 5 minutes unless they get some Sudoku answers through the Morphogenetic Field.


By the way, any of ya'll know anything about T̥h̰e̳ G̢̢̹̻̤̼̗̳̳̯͉o̗̦̲͇̯̲̮͕̠̤ͅd̡̡̢͎̜̝̲͔̙̱̳-M̡̨͈̫̗̹̩͓̥̅̿͛̈́̿͆̊̉̊̃͜͝ͅà͖͈͎͚̜͔̪̩͎͓͈̍̆̈́̌̉̐̂̈́͘͝c̨̘̜̘͇̬̗̜̭̩̱̏͂̀̈́͋́̾̄̆̚͠h̡̦̺̟̝̜͖͉̺̘̀̋͑̂̊̉̍͛̓̈́̆ͅḯ̖͎̠̜̟̟̙̱̖̃̇̋̃͂̾̐̀͋̏͜ͅņ̧̡͇̻͚̼̘̲͙̈̒̐͑̓̿̔̚̚͜͝͝ę̛̗͖̳̙̙̘̟̳̥̝̂̂̎̈̏̀͌̏͛̐?̴̧͈̣͕̀̊̋̽͒͠ͅͅ


S̸̨̥͓͉͕͊̊͑͗͌̚ͅȩ̵̬̟̳͙̮̓͗̇̓̈̕n̴͍̭͔̠̳̈́̓͑̽̚͜͠d̴͍͖̠͉̟̫͗͑̆͂̚͝ ̸͈̫̜͔̮̲̉̆̍͂͑̈m̸̗͕̝̼̫̙̄̈́̉̎̈͝e̴̛̜̬̰̹̖͓͑̈́̏̌́ ̸̢̧̛̖͉͖̭̍̐͆̌̚á̸̬͖̞̘̝͛͌̅͌̊͜ ̶͓̯͈͔̝͂̿́͛̈́̆ͅM̴̦̻̻̼͚̣̿̒̈́͒͐̈e̵̝̫͍͖̱̬͆̏̀̈̓͠M̶̡͚͎͇͍̫̈̔̈́̈́̋̈́ä̷̜̮̥̠̭̹͋̒̈́̑̊i̶̢̛̪̩̜̯̾̌͊̋͋ͅḽ̵̼̝̘̙̠̈́̈́̀̚̕͝ ̵̧͎͇͖̲̟̌̈́̒͆͛͠i̸̲̮͍͖͉̖͆̐̄͑͘͝f̸̤͕̯̪͖̰̿̆̅̏͐̀ ̸̙̙͍̪̺̑͛͗̌͜͠͝y̸̠̗̤͉͖̼̾̔͌͋̚͠o̴̡̮̫͉̱̠̅͂̏̅̓͌u̷̡̙̜͇͍͕͂̀̌̀͋̍ ̴̢̹̮͖͖͚͊̇̓͘͝͝d̶̯̩̥͎̘̊̈́͛́͋̊ͅơ̴̟͇͖͍͎̪̇̐̿̈̈́
posted by ThrowbackDave at 7:53 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]




kewb, what I mean is something very specific but also very unusual in this context, which is regularly misunderstood when I try to bring it up.

localroger, I'm not commenting on the truth or falsity of the ideas you present; I'm considering the historical and cultural conditions that define and limit our ways of expressing the ideas in the first place.

For obvious reasons, Twain would not and could not have described his experience in terms of a "hack" or a "glitch." But because the telegraph is the model Twain has for long-distance communication, his experience of the metaphysical or paranormal and the suppositions he forms around it take the shape and the characteristics of telegraphy. To you, it's perhaps more like a glitch or a hack in a computer simulation

Similarly, someone a generation from now might therefore find your computer-simulation metaphor or analogy as quaint as Twain's telegraphic metaphor. In fact, they almost certainly will. But this suggests that the experiences you are discussing, like the ones Twain discusses, are not absolute physical conditions or unconditioned truth claims; rather, they belong to the state of technology, ironically the state of scientism.

This happens because you are trying to take experiences which may be singular and are always about what remains aporetic within the technological or scientistic discourse which is our dominant, "respectable" idiom. But this is, in the end, all you have to express those experiences through an original science or theology of their own but rather through the dominant popular discourses around Christianity or Christology. I am not calling it a technical or scientific discourse, but rather "scientistic" and "technological," because as you have pointed out, it's not; most people using the idiom don't exactly understand the technology or science they are invoking.

What I am saying is that your historical and cultural circumstances condition the way you account for (or understand accounts of) the the mysterious, the anomalous, or the paranormal. (Even these terms are historical indices; it's "mystery" when religion is the dominant discourse, "anomalous" when Newtonianism is the dominant discourse, and "paranormal" or "parapsychological" in more contemporary dominant discourses. "Glitchy" may or may not supersede these before it, too, is superseded.)

The simulation analogy also raises the question: a simulation which belongs to what order of resemblance or dissimulation? That is, in what series of copies rests the copy you propose as the conditions of our existence? If you're arguing that "our reality" is in effect a simulation, it's not enough to say what that simulation is like; we need to examine the very idea of simulation, the history and the limits of that idea.

I am not telling you you are wrong, because how could I? I'm trying to think about why and how the expression of these ideas, and the very having of them, changes over time. You could do the same with klangklangklangston's more standard-form scientistic epistemology as well.
posted by kewb at 4:49 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


kewb, from my perspective (unlike Twain I have information theory to draw on) there is an exactly 1:1 correspondence between the telegraph analogy and the computer analogy. There is really no difference. The same questions of bandwidth, storage, and transmission errors apply, in the same way that a Universal Turing Machine is exactly the same as every computer ever manufactured.

Much of this has been intuitively apparent since the development of clockwork automata, but the math has only really been formalized in the 20th century. This is not philosophical conjecture; without it your cell phone would not work and you wouldn't have the cool box you're using to read this. I have been thinking about the information and processing budget of the universe since I first started exploring these ideas in the 1980's. (No, I didn't get the idea from the Matrix.)

One thing we can say about the universe with some certainty is that it contains information. Once you accept that it's a short step to asking how much information, and that opens the door to a lot of assumptions which lead to numbers. And once you start hanging numbers on those assumptions, things that seem crazy in the abstract suddenly look very practical.
posted by localroger at 5:56 AM on April 4


The most important way in which computers act like the Universe is that they can exhibit chaotic behavior. They are the only artifacts of purely human creation which do that, and the more complex and advanced they become the more chaotic they become.

Hi! I make models of complex (often chaotic) systems for my work. You're totally wrong here. A strongly driven, damped pendulum is a simple mechanism that's a textbook example of a chaotic system, and there are tons of equally simple examples. Humans built chaotic systems long before computers rolled around.
posted by serif at 10:15 PM on April 4 [4 favorites]


Hi serif. Yeah, even the population dynamic of a relatively simple artificial ecosystem demonstrates chaos, but since you work with this stuff I assume that you know that I'm talking about the particular ability of some chaotic systems to build complex structures in othrwise undriven information storage, and as with Klang's bizzarre reaction to my statement about people "moving in" to virtual communities you are just scoring a point. Have a nice day.
posted by localroger at 7:59 AM on April 5






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