In my last blog, I sketched my notion of the significant role that empathy plays in the life of animals and humans in particular. To ground that explanation of empathy's place in our lives, I drew upon the research on neuroscience that projects a picture of the brain in three of its functions: thought, emotions, and instinctual behaviors.
Through the advanced technology of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, we can now observe the brain as it deals with sex, prayer, hunger, aggression, decision making, etc. This is a wonderful contribution toward educating ourselves as to how we human beings "tick." Various activities and functions of daily life may show resonance in different parts of the brain. Think about what this means for medical practice, understanding the criminal mind, and gathering information about the psychological functioning of children, adolescents, and adults.
However, there is a problem that arises with this momentous development. Actually, the problem is two-fold: (1) The information obtained may be used not only for good, but also for bad. For example, such profound data that lay bare the brain's functions may be used to manipulate people or modify natural functions toward a commercial or exploitative end. We learn how to sell products by analyzing what appeals to individuals and how they might be manipulated. (2) But, in the second place, this technology may be referenced as further "proof" that even states of consciousness may be seen simply as the physical workings of the brain. This world-view may be described as "materialism," which can be defined as "the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena." (The American Heritage Dictionary)
In his book, The End of Materialism, Charles Tart includes a summary of materialism in the form of what he calls "the Western Creed." He does not personally ascribe to this, but sees it as an overview of the philosophy of materialism. I am including it here:
I BELIEVE -- in the material universe -- as the only and ultimate reality --
a universe controlled by fixed physical laws -- and blind chance.
I AFFIRM -- that the universe has no creator -- no objective purpose -- and
no objective meaning or destiny.
I MAINTAIN -- that all ideas about God or gods -- enlightened beings -- prophets
and saviors -- or other nonphysical beings or forces -- are superstitions and
delusions --. Life and consciousness are totally identical to physical processes --
and arose from chance interactions of blind physical forces --. Like the rest of
life -- my life -- and my consciousness -- have no objective purpose --
meaning -- or destiny.
I BELIEVE -- that all judgments, values, and moralities -- whether my own or
others' -- are subjective -- arising solely from biological determinants -- personal
history -- and chance --. Free will is an illusion --. Therefore, the most rational
values I can personally live by -- must be based on the knowledge that for me --
what pleases me is good -- what pains me is bad --. Those who please me or
help me avoid pain -- are my friends -- those who pain me or keep me from my
pleasure -- are my enemies --. Rationality requires that friends and enemies --
be used in ways that maximize my pleasure -- and minimize my pain.
I AFFIRM -- that churches have no real use other than social support -- that there
are no objective sins to commit or be forgiven for -- that there is no divine
retribution for sin -- or reward for virtue --. Virtue for me is getting what I want --
without being caught and punished by others.
I MAINTAIN -- that the death of the body -- is the death of the mind --. There is
no afterlife -- and all hope of such is nonsense.
Of course, this statement by Tart is his own formulation of the world-view of materialism. Yours may differ, as indeed many people with this general world-view might state their beliefs in differing ways.
One such person that comes to mind is the respected author and professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, Oliver Sacks. We most often learn something profound and at the same time quite fascinating when he shares accounts of his personal and professional experiences working with patients who have suffered various neurological disorders of the brain. In his book, Hallucinations, he shares two incidents I want to include here. The first is about the voice he himself heard when he injured his leg while mountain climbing.
... when I was in danger once, trying to descend a mountain with a
badly injured leg, I heard an inner voice that was wholly unlike my
normal babble of inner speech. I had a great struggle crossing a stream
with a buckled and dislocating knee. The effort left me stunned, motionless
for a couple of minutes, and then a delicious languor came over me, and I
thought to myself, Why not rest here? A nap maybe? This was immediately
countered by a strong, clear, commanding voice, which said, "You can't rest
here -- you can't rest anywhere. You've got to go on. Find a pace you can keep
up and go on steadily." This good voice, this Life voice, braced and resolved
me. I stopped trembling and did not falter again.
He also tells about a mysterious voice that spoke to a friend when she was about to commit suicide:
My friend Liz, following the collapse of a love affair, found herself heart-
broken and despondent. About to swallow a handful of sleeping tablets and
wash them down with a tumbler of whiskey, she was startled to hear a voice
say, "No. You don't want to do that," and then "Remember that what you are
feeling now you will not be feeling later." The voice seemed to come from
the outside; it was a man's voice, though whose she did not know. She said
faintly, "Who said that?" There was no answer, but a "granular" figure (as she
put it) materialized in the chair opposite her -- a young man in eighteenth-
century dress who glimmered for a few seconds and then disappeared. A
feeling of immense relief and joy came over her. Although Liz knew that the
voice must have come from the deepest part of herself, she speaks of it,
playfully, as her "guardian angel."
Oliver Sacks shared these two stories with Terry Gross in an interview on "Fresh Air" from WHYY, November 6, 2012. When she asked Sacks where the voice came from in his case, and whether it was his voice or a stranger's voice, Sacks replied:
Not my voice. I often hear my voice. I am always sort of cursing or
muttering to myself. But this was a very clear, assured voice. Not
a voice I recognized, but a voice I trusted. Which I suppose I realized came from
some part of me, because there's no other place it could've come from.
This is, it seems to me, the understanding of a materialist. In this world-view, there is no other explanation but that the voice came from some part of him. And in the case of his friend Liz, some bodily form with eighteenth-century dress appeared briefly in the chair opposite her, but although she playfully recognizes the voice as that of her "guardian angel," she can only explain it as a voice that came from the deepest part of herself.
Materialists generally resort to explaining such incidents with reference to the hallucinogenic functioning of the brain. This is the reductionist view of reality that holds strictly to a view that our consciousness and the general working of the brain are nothing more than the physical operations of the brain. We are alone in this physical universe with physical bodies engaged in physical processes -- so this view goes. And the more extreme statement of this is one offered by the writer T.C. Boyle in an interview by Andrew Goldman, The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2012. When Goldman asked him how he imagined his own death, Boyle replied:
My dear fellow, we all put our heads down, don't we? In previous
generations, there was purpose; you had to die, but there was God,
and literature and culture would go on. Now, of course, there is no
God, and our species is imminently doomed, so there is no purpose.
We get up, raise families, have bank accounts, fix our teeth and
everything else. But really, there is utterly no purpose except to be
But this facile description of human existence and the nature of the universe is boringly simplistic and caught in the scientism of that materialistic world-view which I have been describing thus far. It is true, people generally see what they are predisposed to see. I will grant that reality to the materialist's understanding of the brain's predictability. But there is more; there is something else going on. When we have to sit in quiet observation of human behavior and note the unfolding of incidents around us, then the irregularities begin to make themselves known.
For example, here is a story related by a professional couple and their daughter. Given their education with graduate degrees in business and science, the husband and wife were deeply initiated in the culture of materialism and generally accepted those premises which affirmed rational thought, which is why they continue to have difficulty understanding this story they shared with me.
We were vacationing at the beach, staying in a cottage on the Outer Banks.
Late one afternoon following dinner, we decided to drive down past the fishing
pier to a little ice cream shop. On our way there, just before dark, we noticed
a couple unpacking their car at a cottage next to the pier. All three of us
recognized the man and woman as a couple we had known five years earlier in
the city where we were living at that time. My wife said, "Oh look, there's Ben
and Delores [names changed] just arriving. Let's come back in the morning and
speak to them." They were obviously busy unpacking, and we were ready for
Next morning we finished breakfast and headed for the pier, planning to walk out
on the pier briefly before calling on Ben and Delores. We got out of the car and
walked past the little restaurant at the front end of the pier. Suddenly
the door swung open, and Delores rushed out calling my name, followed by a
grinning Ben. After our hugs and greetings, Delores spoke about how they were
having coffee, and she just happened to glance up and see my face passing by
the small window pane at the top of the restaurant door. "Just think," she said,
"if I had not looked up, we would have missed you"! "Oh no," I replied. "We saw
you when you arrived last night and planned to contact you sometime today."
Silence. Then Ben said, "But we just arrived this morning."
This is the paranormal phenomenon that occurs in our daily lives with the kind of frequency that we do not acknowledge because we do not know to look for these experiences. Also, most of us are perplexed and somewhat embarrassed to talk about these things. People think they are "odd," and, as we do not want to look silly or "odd," we don't talk about these matters.
This is the suffering of living between the worlds of "collective conforming reality" and the "unexpected synchronistic reality." In this last world, we have to contend with telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, and realities that do not conform to our present paradigms, including our dreams. Of this, more later.