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Sunday 6 November 2016

It Might Be Angels Instead

Jonathan Black's real name is Mark Booth, because no-one really has a surname
of Black. This does not bode well.
A  little while ago I reviewed Dean Burnett's excellent layman's guide to neurobiology, The Idiot Brain. That was a self-declared attempt to de-mystify the workings of the brain, explicitly showing that while indeed our ignorance of the brain currently surpasses our knowledge, it's hardly as though we have no idea at all. The basic processes can be explained through the motions of electrons and chemical transfers. Not much need for anything mystical.

The Sacred History is essentially the opposite of that. In fact it's diametrically opposed : just about the most opposite it's possible to be. Rather than being due to rational, measurable phenomena like atoms and toasters, Black's answer is that it's all, when you get right down to it, "because God".

You might wonder why I'd even read such a book as this.

Many of you definitely shouldn't read this book or even try and come with a hundred miles of it. It'd drive you insane. Indeed, on more than one occasion I wanted to spit in Black's eye, punch him in the nose and shout, "you're f**ing stupid, Black !". Others of you might be interested in this for insights into why people come to wholly irrational conclusions and reject science. That's a worthwhile perspective to be sure (though there are probably shorter books you could read for that), but it's not the main reason I decided to give this a go.

Although I've defended religion against militant atheists many times, it's not often I give my own agnostic tendencies free reign. But sometimes it's important to ask the big questions, the ones that can't be answered. At its worst, I found this book to be a big steaming pile of effluence. At it's best, I found it to evoke some profound questions. And I found the opening intention, "What if the claims of the world's religions were true ? Is it possible to give an account of creation which is creationist but cannot instantly be dismissed by scientists ?" to be provocative enough to peak my interest.

Astonishingly, the answer very quickly became a firm, "no, of course not, that's incredibly stupid." But not always for the reasons you might think.

At his best, Black does try quite hard to reconcile the scientific world view - which very obviously does work, clearly - with the mystical. He rejects the idea of literal six-day Creationism, because obviously that's hopelessly stupid, and often seems content with not having to take religious texts literally. If there's a divinity at work, it must be causing things to occur in exact agreement with scientific observations. I don't think Black ever disputes the usefulness of science in its ability to measure the material world.

Beyond that things get tricky :
What the third or spiritual eye sees may lie outside the physical world, but that isn't to say that is is inconsistent with what the other two eyes see. Rather, it opens up a new dimension which weaves in and out of the physical world. It's important to bear this double vision in mind as we come to consider the creation. Here, mystics and scientists are, I believe, looking at the same series of events. They are merely looking at them from very different points of view.
What we have here is a notion that is unscientific, not anti-science. Just as it's unscientific to say, "I don't like cheese", whereas it would be anti-science to say, "I don't eat cheese because I think it's a sentient form of life which holds racist views". The problem is that strictly speaking it's true that science has very little to say on certain matters, some of them very important and others less so (the personal enjoyment of cheese versus the nature of justice), and this makes it very ambiguous as to whether or not science can "dismiss" a non-literal religious perspective. It can dismiss it in that the religious perspective has absolutely no relevance to the scientific one, just as cricket umpires don't make their decisions based on the current price of trout. It can't dismiss it as being inconsistent - to simplify, the divine could be what directs the rational forces at work in the Universe rather than acting to contradict them. Religion addresses why, science deals with how.

But you could reasonably argue that this is merely a linguistic slip-up, and the important point is the compatibility of the two world views. The most interesting aspect of the book are the philosophical parts. Black notes the two great world views are essentially materialism and idealism. Materialism is the idea that only objective reality outside are skulls is real, and indeed that our very minds arise from the motions of atoms and electrical forces and whatnot : matter over mind, if you like. Idealism doesn't mean that you want to save the rainforest or support democracy or adopt a hippo* : it's the idea that our so-called objective reality is influenced by our minds, that what we think can be more important that the material world. "Mind before matter", as Black puts it.

* Though Black does make an interesting case for a connection between believing in idealism and being an idealist.

Of course, the two ideas needn't be taken as absolutes and I suspect that most people probably fall somewhere between the two, albeit mostly closer to the materialist perspective these days. One could argue that our minds do have some limited control over their external environment by allowing us to physically interact with them. Or conversely, that our minds exist independently of the atoms in our brain but our perspective is affected by the crude nature of our senses.

I have more sympathy for the notion of idealism than you might suspect. For starters, I have no truck with the notion of a purely deterministic Universe - I have free will whether you like it or not, regardless of whatever any theory says. This is even scientifically justifiable, with quantum theory (as Black correctly points out) being very explicit in the inherent uncertainties of reality. But I'd feel the same if quantum ideas had never existed. Similarly, it's popular with some hard-line materialists to believe that the flow of time is an illusion. Well, tough, I can feel it flowing damnit, so I don't much care if that's rational or not.

Whether the Universe is deterministic or time flows are topics which are at least available to scientific study. On a more personal level and less rational level, I've long been fascinated by dreams - particularly lucid dreams. I learned to have these as a teenager after reading a very short book on the subject. Although there are various techniques one can use to induce them - even technological solutions - the basic idea is very simple, albeit time consuming. You just have to think about dreams a lot (recording them in a diary is a good start) and want to have one. It took me a few weeks to have a lucid dream but that's really all there is to it.

Do Scientists Dream of Electric Gods ?

Dreams challenge our everyday notion of consciousness. Initially, I just wanted to have something like a holodeck in my head - a reality I could experience which I could control. That is one aspect of lucid dreaming. Like everything else, it's a continuum.

In ordinary dreams I'm usually in the first person as myself, like an actor in a really weird play. Events happen, choices are made, but I have no control over them. It's a very different experience from ordinary consciousness. Sometimes I'm in the first person as someone or something else. At other times it's more like I'm seeing things from a third person perspective, like watching a movie but with more of a sense of being the characters involved as well as watching them, yet with no more control over the situation. I experience being the puppets, not the puppeteer.

Then there are dreams where I'm aware that I'm dreaming but still have no control over the events, or I merely speculate that I'm dreaming. Is the character in the dreams that I experience in this sense really me ? Or is my brain witnessing my own unconsciousness ?

The classic lucid dream is one where I'm both aware of the dream and in control over it. Usually the degree of control is rather limited - one can make deliberate, wilful choices, or perhaps fly or make things disappear, that sort of thing. But trying to alter the entire dream usually either breaks the lucidity, or wakes me up. Often, paradoxically, I gain more control by surrendering control. I know that makes no sense, but it happens anyway.

At the most extreme level there are what I call hyper-lucid dreams where the control is a godlike absolute. On rare occasions I experience a palpable sensation of my own brain generating the environment I'm experiencing, down to the level of every twig and leaf in exquisite detail. This is a sensation I cannot adequately describe - it must be experienced. In these cases I'm often able to choose to wake up, in which case there's no sharp transition of my consciousness - I go from being in the dreamworld to the real world as though I walked through a door. The sleeping me was identical to the real me. In a few cases I'm able to opt to remain asleep. I don't like doing this though, because I have no idea how much time is passing in the real world*.

* Recently I experienced one such dream after waking up for a while, so I was able to check the time before and after the dream. It was 15 minutes. How long it felt like in the dream I couldn't really say, but certainly it felt longer than 15 minutes.

Other characters also follow a spectrum just as much as lucidity itself does. Usually, characters in my dreams are mere shadows in terms of their behaviour. Sometimes my dream self plays the roles of multiple characters, flitting from one to another though never being many at once. At other times other characters are much more fully developed and independent of my own awareness. In one very recent hyper-lucid dream, a character directly asked me if I realised I was actually just talking to myself. This is common enough to see in fiction but very strange to actually experience.

While awake, my thoughts and my self-awareness are interchangeable. While asleep, the sense of self becomes a much more ephemeral thing. My thoughts can express themselves as independent characters, without being connected to my sense of self at all, even if that self-awareness is just as pronounced as in the waking world. Sometimes, as well as having dreams-within-dreams now made famous by Leonardo di Caprio, I have a "conscious" imagination within the dream. That is, I imagine I'm controlling the dream but I'm not really - other characters aren't subject to the choices I make. Like many aspects of the dreamworld, this description is crude at best. I'm not even sure it's linguistically possible to properly describe the experience. It's like my sense of self and imagination have each been broken into separate pieces.

Or to put it another way, that's why I'll never ever try mind-altering drugs.

Sorry ladies, but separating my awareness from my thoughts, breaking my consciousness into separate pieces and having absolute control over my own internal reality is enough for me.

But Is It Real ?

Given all this, I think it's entirely rational to speculate as to the nature of the mind. Certainly, it could be that the mind is nothing more than the actions of particles within the brain by some ferociously complicated process. But why is is considered so ridiculous to propose that our sense of self is actually just some shard of a much greater "cosmic mind", a "spark of the divine" with reality an "objective illusion" as Black calls it ?

Answer : it isn't. But it is unequivocally unscientific. Yes, everything could be an illusion or a simulation, but it isn't possible to test this scientifically. One could use this hypothesis to explain any otherwise tricky phenomena, thus getting us nowhere. We have no way of knowing if literally everything we see isn't really the dream of something much greater than ourselves. In terms of analysing the world around us though, it's useless.

And the "we're all living in a simulation" idea, which seems to be an increasingly reoccurring theme on the internet these days, is just a modern manifestation of old mystical notions. It's simply been redrafted in a way that militant materialists are marginally more comfortable with. Even the very term consciousness has mystical overtones. But computers ? Mere machines. We know about computers, we understand computers, with think we can build artificial intelligence => someone else has probably built an AI => we're all living in a simulation. It's exactly the same idea as that of a cosmic mind, just with a crude and ineffective attempt to strip it of the supernatural elements. It lets the materialists off the hook of having to concede that minds are all-important while simultaneously but stealthily acknowledging that minds are all-important. It's just replacing one god with another.

While The Matrix famously explores this purely technological scenario, Doctor Strange explores the older, mystical ideas in a surprisingly intelligent way for a comic book movie.
This isn't anti-science at all, unless you think that Elon Musk is anti-science - at least, so long as you don't go resorting to using simulation/cosmic mind as your explanation for everything. But it is most definitely un-science. It's a natural human effort to apprehend the nature of reality. Occasionally, Black manages to provoke these very deep questions in an intelligent way without ever denying scientific reality. I imagine that practically everyone thinks about this at least occasionally. People who think they're certain of the answer are scary, but people who never even ask the question are much worse.

Personally though, I couldn't think about this for any great length of time without going mad. As Black says, most of us have to just get on with living, most of the time. The point is that a belief in this "objective illusion" doesn't have to deny the scientific analysis of that illusion, it can simply be a "back of the mind" doubt about the nature of existence, not an all-consuming passion that it's all fake. As I've pointed out before many times, even if you accept materialism to the fullest extent, all you really are is this :

A warm, squishy, ~1.5 kg tissue soaked in blood. With that you're supposed to understand this :

Good luck with that.

Err, On The Other Hand...

Dreams are just one aspect of idealism and the one that resonates most closely with me personally. But throughout history, mystics have claimed to have had similar experiences in the waking world. The Sacred History explores the idea that idealism is correct, that these ideas are in some sense "real", and tries to tie them together to form a coherent narrative. The bulk of the book is given over to describing the history of the world according to myth. The stories are interesting enough when it's obvious they're not supposed to be taken literally, but unfortunately this idea is steadily abandoned as the book goes on.

I'm entirely comfortable with the idea that there's more to reality than materialism proposes. I haven't got the foggiest idea what the true nature of reality is; I just think it's interesting to consider from time to time. When going about my daily business I don't stop to ponder whether what I'm observing is really real or if it's all the fault of a divine but apparently very confused intelligence. Alas, Black does have the foggiest idea what the true nature of reality is, and this isn't merely unscientific, it is truly anti-science. If an unscientific statement would be, "I like hedgehogs because of their cute little noses", an anti-scientific view would be, "hedgehogs have seventy-six legs which is why they can't play badminton on a Thursday".

Black's idea is that the very nature of reality itself is shaped by our thoughts, and that human consciousness and even spiritual consciousness has evolved through time due to the actions of supernatural intelligences. While he claims that sometimes visions of mystical beings and whatnot happen in a spiritual realm which is normally inaccessible, which I could accept as merely unscientific, he also claims that sometimes these events happen entirely in the physical world.

And lo and behold... just like every single other book on the paranormal I've ever read (and there have been many over the years), his descriptions of these are unconvincing* and his citations are frankly appalling. If you want to say, "I'm being irrational but here's what I believe - I don't think these things can be analysed rationally" (which he does on many occasions), then fine**. But if you want to say, "here's the rational, measurable evidence for what I believe", then you've got to do better than a bunch of anecdotes.

* To say the least. One of his biggest problems is that he describes people having visions of angelic beings who apparently don't do anything. Besides convincing us of their existence, what the bloody hell is the point in that ? He even goes on at length about his friend who claims to see angels who told her to write a book. Oh yes, very divine I'm sure.
** I see no reason the Universe should work in accordance with the logic devised by some teeny-tiny squishy brains anyway, never mind the notion that even in materialism the existence of a larger, more complicated brain with a more developed consciousness is entirely logical. One simply has to take this to extremes...

Black doesn't understand this at all. He sets forth what he calls "the argument from experience", which probably sets a lot of alarm bells ringing as an obvious fallacy. Now, while it's not entirely true that anecdotes aren't evidence, Black takes this to an absurd extreme with no sensible justification. This is silly, but what's far worse is that he never even considers the possibility that he might be wrong. His argument basically amounts to :

Or, in his own words :
In the course of this book we are gathering evidence to show... that many people believe they are having spiritual experiences all the time. You may pray and sense your prayers are heard. You may have premonitions or meaningful dreams or other forms of otherworldly prompting. You may encounter coincidences which you sense are meaningful. You may fall in love and feel that it is meant to be.
Black at once declares that he cannot prove anything scientifically, then attempts to gather evidence to prove his position by the scientific method ! He fails miserably of course, because by it is by no means clear that "many people" means anything other than a miniscule fraction of the population. Even if it were so, he simply ignores the scientific idea that maybe this is just because of the workings of the brain, which are common to all. Nor does he address which people and mythic stories one should believe and which are genuinely crazy - he again says, "you just know". Which completely ignores the fact that many world religions are fundamentally incompatible - the Aztecs presumably "just knew" that their gods needed human hearts while the Mongols "just knew" it was their destiny to rule the world.

It really isn't very helpful, oddly enough.

The Sacred History is a frustrating mixture of the rational and irrational. Were it to be a wholly rational approach, we could easily defeat the arguments through counter-evidence. Were it to be wholly irrational, we could agree that the whole thing was unscientific and there'd be no conflict. But what he appears to be doing is cherry-picking when to attempt to be rational ("look at all these anecdotal stories, you can't just dismiss this !") and when to be irrational ("well of course the spirit world isn't a repeatable testable phenomena, angels don't work to a schedule"). Awfully convenient how divine manifestations haven't been captured on camera in this age of omnipresent smartphones and dashcams.

Worse still are his more direct attacks on science, which get steadily worse as the book progresses. By now it should be clear that I'm not follower of scientism - the idea that only scientific knowledge is correct or meaningful and that the objective world outside our heads is the sum total of reality. I admit that is one possibility but I also see nothing strange about other possibilities. Unfortunately Black tends (although for the most part he is quite careful) to somewhat confuse "scientists" with "followers of scientism", which are not at all the same thing. Science doesn't lead directly to scientism any more than religion leads inevitably to six day creationism. And of course he gets some very basic science just plain wrong :
Plants don't reproduce in the sexual manner characteristic of animals. Typically a seed breaks away to form a new plant. Scientists call this plant-like method of reproduction parthenogenesis... [Ummm... no, dude, seriously. I thought everyone knew that flowers are a plant's sex organs - that's school-level biology. Yes, some plants reproduce in this way, but so can some animals !]
There are only tiny scraps of evidence for the Big Bang and no evidence at all for what went before. [The evidence for the Big Bang is overwhelming. The classic mistake is to assume the term describes the creation event itself, whereas in fact it describes only the development of the Universe since then - from a microscopic hot fireball to a vast, cool cosmos. No other sensible interpretation of the data exists.]
...Michael as the archangel of the Sun and Gabriel as the archangel of the Moon, was a tradition not only in Christianity but in Judaism and Islam as well. [My word ! A common tradition between three religions derived from a common root in the same geographical area ! Amazeballs ! He makes the same silly claim at an even more extreme level from fairy stories in the British Isles, apparently oblivious to the fact that people were able to, you know, walk about.]
I suspect that militant materialists are not big readers of fiction. Deep down they may be suspicious of stories. They may see them as seductive and utterly contradictory to an atheistic world view. And they are right. [Dude, could you increase the bullshit level a bit please ? I need more verbal diarrhoea.] 
What, finally, are we going to trust - our own experience or the opinions of the latest crop of experts ? [...]

And yet there are also other passages which strongly resonate with me :
There is no easy way out and no easy answer. The road is always fraught with the danger of death, but if we do not take that road we will die in our beds without ever having lived. We must put at risk what we value most or we will lose it anyway. Beyond a certain point there is no return. That point must be reached.
How curious then that it's on the basis of beliefs in this area, where we are unable to assert anything with certainty, where the evidence is most faint and open to interpretation, where any hypothesis is bound to be tenuous, that our opinions tend to be fiercest, most fanatical and intolerant, and failing to show the equanimity and generosity that ought to be the mark of a happy and mature quest for the truth.
I have tried to show that there isn't a simple choice between reason and faith. Religion is reasonable, based on the assumptions of idealism, just as science is reasonable, based on the assumptions of materialism. 
While we should try and reconcile religion with reason, what it cannot be reconciled with is materialism. If you concede that matter came before mind, you have conceded so much that there is nothing left worth defending... if the only meanings the cosmos has are the ones we invent for it, then the great claims of religion are false. If we came from nothing, the world's religions are worth nothing.
The latter expresses a running theme through the book, that only mind can bestow meaning. I find it as preposterous to consider this...

... and conclude that it definitely has no absolute, intrinsic meaning - as scientisim assumes - as I do to conclude that it's all about a big beardy dude in the sky who is inordinately concerned with whether I eat bacon or what I do with my genitals.

I despise both of these memes separately, and I could go on at length about why they're both dumb, but when you stick 'em together...
The assumption that there's no great cosmic mind is just that - an assumption. A leap of non-faith. Ordinary science doesn't concern itself with this in the least, it simply looks at the world and tries to explain the observations according to rational processes. Whether there's some higher power at work causing those processes and imbuing them with meaning is irrelevant. Only scientism explicitly believes against the existence of such a divinity - ordinary science doesn't give a crap about it. Science is apatheistic, scientism is antitheist.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the whole mystical approach to me is that it never addresses why bad things happen to good people. Occasionally this discussion does provide some thought-provoking inquiries, but it's never really resolved. The best anyone's ever been able to come up with is, "God is greater than us and has a plan beyond our comprehension". That I could accept if "bad things" meant stuff like the dishwasher breaking at an inconvenient time or being kept awake by the mating calls of sex-crazed owls. But it doesn't. It means atrocities and natural disasters that devastate whole communities of innocent people. It means evil people in positions of power such that innocents cannot avoid becoming victims.

Black's most outrageous comment concerns Hitler :
Later Hitler would have the Spear of Longinus... transported back to Germany, amid great celebrations at its return to the Fatherland. It remained on proud display in St. Catherine's church in Nuremberg until the spirits that had been empowering Hitler deserted him and he faced defeat.
Yes, that's a wonderful way to sum up the sacrifice of millions it took to bring that monster down. It was all due to the spirits, not the struggles of ordinary mortals at all. Screw you, Black. Your idea is repugnant and stupid. I find the idea of materialism both more sensible and comforting in this respect. As the Death of Discworld put it :

Justice doesn't need to be the result of capricious deities we have no control over. It could be purely our own invention, but that wouldn't make it any less real. Maybe this isn't the true answer - maybe there really is a non-materialistic answer to morality and justice, but I'm damn sure I won't believe Hitler rose to power through the actions of malevolent spirits or that the material war against Nazi Germany should be dismissed out of hand.

It Was The Best Of Books, It Was The Worst Of Books

It was a thought-provoking read. I enjoyed the mythological stories, they were well told. At times the philosophical arguments were clear, logical, and evoked some of the deepest questions. There was an earnest attempt to reconcile the scientific world view with those of the mystics, citing the strengths of each. From a literary perspective there were only minor irritations - the use of extensive footnotes is extremely annoying (I don't want to have to keep flipping to the end of the book), especially when they're mislabelled, and he has this bizarre and frequent habit of ending a sentence with an ellipsis for no obvious reason . . .

But content wise it's a strange mixture of the profound and the unbelievably stupid. When dealing with the biggest questions of all, no-one really knows the answer. For me neither materialism nor idealism provide satisfactory solutions. Perhaps my tiny brain won't ever be able to comprehend the nature of reality, but that's not satisfying either. We could use that attitude just as we could use the idea of the Universe being a simulation to try and avoid answering the question at all. Bugger.

While I'm happy to consider these radically unscientific ideas at a very abstract level, when it comes to specific details I find Black's concepts to be utterly lousy. He simply states, bluntly, that angels are doing this that and the other without the slightest bit of justification. That the nature of human consciousness has seen profound changes in the last few thousand years as though that's a certainty - when to me, the works of Homer, Virgil, Herodotus and the like seem to be compelling evidence that ancient peoples were essentially just like us.

So am I glad I read this book ? Yes, definitely. When it succeeds it succeeds very well, evoking the biggest questions of all. Even the most uber-materialistic of us ought to stop and occasionally ponder the fact that anything exists at all. It's a bizarre universe, full of supernovae and giraffes and Michael Heseltine. Is it inevitable that should be the case ? Is it all just due to chance without any greater guiding principle ? Why don't we have a Universe full of giant snails and rocket-propelled sheep instead ? Why are the laws of physics exactly as they are and not completely different ? Why does the Universe appear to work in such a rational way instead of spontaneously turning into daffodils every five minutes ?

That, to me, is the constant everyday miracle we all take for granted. Yes, one can invoke the anthropic argument that if the Universe was different we'd be different too, which is fine as far as understanding the details go. But when it comes to those deeper questions, I find it glib and shallow.

Is the book a masterpiece as the front cover quote claims ? Oh hell no. Idealism may be the key to some profound truths, but it's also the key to irrational thinking. Just as scientific extremism, devoid of the quantifiable compassion and other subtle human attributes, can lead to an insistence on dogma and rigid, inflexible thinking, so too can idealism lead to batshit crazy ideas like the one about how forests don't exist.

I completely agree with Black's idea that some things are measurable and others are not (can you quantify how merciful someone is or how good their research is ?), but he doesn't stick with it. The book steadily slides into the simpler, stupider notion that actually these mystical experiences are objectively real and measurable and that scientists just won't accept them. He seems to want to be rational just as much as everyone else does. That's perhaps an innate human tendency too - we want to believe in something greater, but we also want to be able to poke and prod it to make sure it's not just our own imagination.

So, unsurprisingly, a book that looks at some of the deepest questions fails to provide any satisfactory answers. It managed to provoke some very interesting lines of thought : How do we know we can trust our senses ? Why do we assume the Universe must be meaningful or meaningless ? Can anything be said to have a meaning without some conscious being to observe it ? What is the nature of our awareness and consciousness ?  Why does anything exist at all ? But for all that, large parts of the book are like wading through a swamp of sheer stupidity.

The effort to find a harmony between idealism and materialism ultimately completely failed, leaving me in the unusual position of declaring that I rather liked this crappy book. I can't give it more than 3/10, but it was worth reading. Perhaps the truth lies not in opposition to materialism or idealism, but orthogonal to both of them. Maybe we'll never know. Either way, these deep questions are driving me a little nuts, so if you'll excuse me I'm going back to my Star Trek marathon on Netflix now.


  1. On your recommendation, I read "Your Idiot Brain" when those of us in Florida were without power during a recent weather event and really enjoyed it, thanks.

    This one, I probably won't read but thanks for taking one for the team.

    Finally, do you ever sleep?

    I read all your posts, may have previously commented on one or two but really enjoy all of them so, thanks again.

    Disclaimer: I am a bit of a Cymruophile having spent 3+ summers in North Wales doing and studying geology, iechyd da.

    1. Thanks !

      It's good to get out of one's comfort zone from time to time, but not too far and not too often. A 500 page ill-cited book of mostly mythological stories definitely isn't for everyone. Can't understand why this get such a high rating on amazon though...

      Yes, I do sleep - lucid dreaming is NOT FUN while awake :)


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