Who doesn’t love that feeling of transcendence one gets when feeling lucky, graceful, grateful, at peace, at home and one with the universe? Transcendence is like an anti-gravity spell, a coping strategy for lifting you out of low points and a way to achieve lift-off to some higher ecstatic plane.
You can wait for that feeling of transcendence to strike when it does, or you cultivate it, going back to whatever spring you slurped it from before, in church, in love or in nature, in exercise dance, music, art – whatever floats your boat skyward above the choppy seas of life.
Some anti-gravity practices are content-neutral. Exercise, art, sport, for example – the transcendence you feel when participating in these usually doesn’t come bundled with a philosophy, credo or cosmology.
Other anti-gravity practices come bundled with a set of beliefs – religious or spiritual practices, for example. You get transcendence plus a credo, often with the implication that the credo is the one true path to true transcendence, as though you can only get the true uplift when you finally see reality plainly and clearly, through the undistorting lens of the accompanying credo.
The credo often involves interaction with the supernatural, a transcendent realm. The uplift takes you out to a God’s-eye view. Through that other-worldly perspective, you see reality plainly, undistorted and true.
You’ve got this friend who exercises almost daily. He tells you it helps him cope with stress and lift his spirits. You say “cool.” You don’t begrudge him his anti-gravity strategy. Life is stressful. We all need ways to elevate our spirits.
You’ve got this other friend who believes in God. He tells you it helps him cope with stress and lift his spirits. Again, you don’t begrudge him his anti-gravity strategy. Still, whenever some mystery comes up, some question that scientists are still trying to answer, your friend tells you that it’s no mystery. There’s a supernatural explanation.
Though there are plenty of scientists who believe in god, science is a campaign to find in nature explanations for everything – no exceptions. Science is a commitment to the bet that nature makes sense without the addition of supernatural forces. If scientists don’t yet have a natural solution to a mystery, they keep looking in the natural universe. Science can’t settle for “it’s a miracle!”
After all, if miracles explain anything, what’s to stop them from explaining everything? Where would you draw the line between what can and can’t be explained by supernatural forces?
How would we even detect anything happening in a supernatural realm? To detect anything, we use our senses, either directly or indirectly with scientific instruments. By definition, the supernatural realm is inaccessible, beyond the senses.
Suppose everyone woke up one day to find a gigantic sign in the sky: “The supernatural realm is real and I’m in it. Yours truly, God.” Is that supernatural evidence? No. The sign would be natural, detectable by the senses.
Since the supernatural realm is beyond the senses, it’s a wild card. You can believe anything you want about it, and there’s nothing scientists could ever do to prove or disprove your beliefs. As an anti-gravity strategy, that’s great. You can calm yourself about bad news by saying “it’s God’s will,” and nothing could ever prove you wrong.
The supernatural is also a trump card, not the Donald, the other kind, though, as a know-it-all he does employ trump cards a lot. The supernatural is super, right? Bigger, better, truer. Claiming to know what goes on in the supernatural realm is a way to claim higher authority against any natural evidence.
Maybe you think it’s OK to use supernatural wild-card trump cards for a good cause, like claiming that a supernatural god wants us all to love one another. But once you’ve melded a wild-card trump card, what’s to stop others from using them for purposes you find evil?
You say that a supernatural spiritual force commands that we love each other; religious terrorists say the supernatural force commands that they use nuclear weapons to bring about god’s kingdom on earth. Where do we go from there? Having abandoned science, anything goes with nothing to stop it other than crusader conflicts over who’s supernatural intuitions are stronger. Might doesn’t make right. Holy war is might bolstered by claims about what goes on in a realm no one can access.
So there’s the challenge. You don’t begrudge people their anti-gravity strategies. Whatever floats folk’s boats lifting them up out of the choppy seas of life. Still, if you care about the scientific campaign to find natural explanations for everything, you’re going to want to hold out for natural explanations to mysteries. You’re not going to settle for “it’s a miracle.”
So maybe the challenge can be resolved by keeping the two uses of the supernatural apart. Fine to use it as an anti-gravity strategy, but not as an alternative to science. Sounds good except that the anti-gravity strategy works best if you believe that the supernatural realm is real and you know something about it. It’s hard to get people to say “I believe in miracles with all my heart even though my mind knows I’m just kidding myself.”
So maybe the challenge can be resolved by segregating cultures. Agree to disagree. The secular can exercise, enjoy nature and the arts for their anti-gravity practice and the supernaturalists can embrace whatever supernatural beliefs float their boats.
Sounds good except that supernatural explanations are not kept private. They bind people together. Though we’re not certain where the word religion comes from, a good guess is from re-bind. Lesions, after all, are scars, skin that brings skin together. Supernatural anti-gravity strategies work best when lots of people confirm them. So supernaturalists proselytize. They promote supernatural beliefs often to great social benefit. Civilizations are built and held together by supernatural beliefs.
There are libertarians and anarchists who think we’d do just fine if we eliminated or shrunk government. The rest of us doubt civilization could handle that. Atheists often think we could do without belief in the supernatural. They have a point there. Belief in those supernatural wild-card trump-cards have also wreaked plenty of havoc, and besides, we have our hands full doing what it takes to survive in the natural world. Do we really want to add to our to-do list obedience to this or that imagined supernatural command?
It’s unlikely that we could ever really eliminate belief in the supernatural, but if we did, what would happen to social cohesion? Eliminating supernatural belief could be as dangerous as eliminating government. Sure, plenty of atheists find other anti-gravity strategies, but it’s not clear that all people would if they didn’t have their supernatural credos to hold onto.
Though I’ve concentrated here on the trouble with the supernatural anti-gravity strategies, my bigger beef is with scientists. There’s a mystery that slices right through the heart of science, that scientists rarely admit remains a mystery.
Call it the mystery of mattering – why living beings do what matters to them when non-living things don’t. Why is it that you can talk about living beings as trying to do what matters to them, but you can’t talk about molecules, machines, planets or galaxies trying to do what matters to them? Scientists can’t tell you. There are a few theories but none of them are convincing enough to yield anything like a scientific consensus. The most anti-supernatural atheists, some of them scientists talk as though they’ve got it all figured out. But they don’t and true to the scientific method, they should be honest about it. Scientists keep track of the problems they haven’t solved yet. They don’t settle for “it’s a miracle” and they don’t settle for unscientific solutions either.
I’ve worked for 20 years with Terrence Deacon, a Berkeley neuroscientist, evolutionary biologist and biological anthropologist on developing a scientific solution to this mystery. My book distilling his approach will be out in the Fall. In the meantime, here are three short videos I’ve made introducing the mystery and his solution to it.
What is valuing (7 minutes)
What is mind? (11 minutes)
What is trying? (20 minutes)
Trying to solve mysteries is another anti-gravity strategy. I exercise, dance, play music (bass and singing) and get out in nature. I love those strategies, and I love science too as a content-neutral anti-gravity strategy. I get that feeling of transcendence from all of them.