This brief series of articles will present an alternative viewpoint, therefore is in a sense a response, to a recent one on Medium.com by Ted Wade with the two items in his title reversed. The purpose of his article is to deny the existence of the supernatural, and to provide a psychological explanation for humans’ belief in it. This is a common theme among modern ‘Enlightenment’ scientists, and the background which leads to this way of thinking runs something like this.
The universe began with the Big Bang. In the early stages there were only physical and chemical processes going on: the interactions of particles, the formation of primordial elements. There was therefore no consciousness present. Eventually stars, galaxies, and planets formed. At some point, primitive life-forms emerged on our planet out of non-life. As these life-forms became more complex, brains gradually developed in them, and at some later stage primitive awareness evolved as a by-product of these brains. We eventually arrive at the ape-like ancestors of humans, which were presumably too primitive to have fantasies of elves, unicorns, demons, gods and goddesses etc. These creatures eventually evolved into primitive humans. At some stage in this process a human self-aware consciousness developed out of the more primitive awareness of animals, and these humans did start having these fantasies. Since they are all illusions, and there is no such thing as the supernatural, we therefore have to come up with some explanation as to how and why this happened.
This would seem to be the starting point for Wade’s article. I’m assuming the above to be at least an approximation of the belief system upon what he writes is based, although I haven’t checked the details with him. Interested readers can consult his article for the details of his argument. Essentially, however, it offers a psychological explanation (Theory of Mind) for why primitive humans started to imagine supernatural entities, with particular reference to Julian Jaynes (author of the well-known book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, although this is not mentioned specifically by Wade). One of the main features of his explanation, as is common in such analyses, is the false attribution of agency to phenomena like the weather.
Wade is in the tradition of authors like Carl Sagan (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). An even better example, and the closest to Wade’s thinking, albeit by a lesser-known author, is Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors, by Pascal Boyer¹. Digressing slightly for a moment, I’ll mention a few things about this book, since they reinforce Wade’s position, and therefore help to clarify the viewpoint that I shall be arguing against.
The publisher’s notes on the back cover say: “Why are there religious beliefs in all cultures? Do they have features in common and why does religion persist in the face of science? Pascal Boyer shows how experimental findings in cognitive science, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology are now providing precise answers to these general questions, and providing for the first time, real answers to the question: Why do we believe?”
There is praise from some of the usual suspects:
- Steven Pinker: “… a deep, ingenious, and insightful analysis of one of the deepest mysteries of the human species. …the most important treatment of the psychological basis of religious belief (since William James)” .
- E. O. Wilson: “An excellent book in the spirit of the French Enlightenment, broadly learned and with modern behavioural science added” .
And also from novelist Ruth Rendell: “The wisdom in its pages will be revelation to any seeker after truth. …it lets daylight in upon magic… If faith is the last refuge of the would-be believer, Religion Explained takes it away but puts something better in its place, enlightenment and understanding” .
So there we have one side of the argument about the supernatural; it is all an illusion. This worldview is summed up well by Steven Pinker who once wrote: “The findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken”².
On the whole it’s not possible to change the mind of anyone convinced of the truth of ‘Enlightenment’ science, so here I’m merely going to offer readers an alternative understanding. I believe it to be true but, because on the whole it lies outside the realm of normal scientific investigation, I’ll leave it to the reader to judge which version is more credible.
Since his article, I have been corresponding with Ted Wade. One thing I’ve been trying to establish is a mutually acceptable definition of the terms ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’, therefore ascertaining what is considered to be above nature. Since he thinks that the supernatural is merely an illusory fantasy created by humans, it’s hard to make much progress on that one. So I’ve focussed on a definition of ‘natural’, and suggested that this should mean anything occurring within the space-time universe; anything beyond that would be existing at a different level of reality, and therefore ‘supernatural’. He has rejected this, however, saying that if there is anything outside the space-time universe, then that is merely the ‘natural’ waiting to be discovered by science.
I’m therefore going to have to make up my own definitions. I’m going to reject his objection just mentioned, and say that anything which seems to exist beyond the space-time universe is supernatural. Another way of saying this is, anything that modern science doesn’t believe in, and considers impossible according to its accepted understanding of life, and laws of nature. One example of such phenomena would be discarnate entities which, if real, would exist at various levels of reality outside space-time, for example:
- spirits of various kinds, whether formerly human and now in the afterlife, or otherwise
- elemental beings, otherwise known as nature spirits, e.g. fairies, elves
- gods, goddesses, angels, and any other such high-level beings.
According to my definition, there are some borderline phenomena that, if proved true, would have to be considered natural, since they happen to humans while in the space-time universe, for example ESP. There is, however, currently no explanation for this according to the laws of physics as understood by the paradigm outlined above. Another borderline phenomenon would be out-of-body experiences. Are they supernatural? They do suggest that consciousness is not dependent upon the brain, but nevertheless remains aware of the material world. So has consciousness moved to a different level of reality? Should this be considered a supernatural phenomenon or not?
Because these questions are difficult to answer, I’m going to concentrate on two simpler ones: are there other levels of reality beyond the space-time universe, and do discarnate entities exist? I’ll deal with these in the following articles in the series. Here I’ll just make some preliminary remarks.
There has been a longstanding battle between science and religion since the start of the Enlightenment. I’ve outlined the scientific understanding above. In what follows, I’ll be presenting an alternative spiritual or religious understanding, which is what I believe to be true. It is essentially what can be found in the various branches of the Perennial Philosophy, the idea that, despite their surface differences, at their core all religions are saying the same thing. Examples would be: Hinduism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, Sufism, Taoism and Gnosticism.
It’s worth noting that this alternative understanding, which follows below, can also be found in a book by Jonathan Black (which is a pseudonym, real name Mark Booth) called The Secret History of the World³. He claims that it is an account of the understanding of the universe, a “secret philosophy”, according to various Mystery traditions and secret societies, especially Rosicrucianism, which goes back many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. This is knowledge which they have attempted to keep away from the general public, but which he claims has been subscribed to by various figures, including some acknowledged geniuses, down the course of history. He mentions, among others: Dante, Shakespeare, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bach, Mozart, Newton, Goethe, Beethoven. (It’s a very impressive list. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether this is true or not.)
Even though Black calls it knowledge kept secret by various societies, some of what he says, at least in a simple form, can be found in published texts, including the scriptures of the spiritual traditions mentioned above. In his introduction he cites as some of his sources “cabalistic, hermetic and neoplatonic streams that lie relatively close to the surface of Western culture”, Sufi elements, and “ideas flowing from esoteric Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as a few Celtic sources”. He says that this teaching will “fly in the face of common sense”. This presumably explains why science has felt the need to come up with an alternative; Black says that a scientist will not like his secret history at all.
This is a worldview, therefore, that has been known and survived for thousands of years. It is good to know that it is still alive and well among educated, highly intelligent modern people. How these ancient sages discovered it is an open question; it may have been in deep meditation, through a psychic ability such as clairvoyance, or through altered states of consciousness as a result of psychoactive substances — for example soma, kykeon, amanita muscaria. Or perhaps they were just messengers from a high level, sent down to teach humanity.
THE ALTERNATIVE UNDERSTANDING
Any argument, whether scientific, philosophical, or otherwise needs to be built on firm foundations; the quality of the conclusions will depend upon the truth or otherwise of the starting assumptions. In this current debate, that means examining how true the worldview of modern science outlined above actually is. Even though it is widely accepted, there are still some difficulties, or leaps of faith involved. For example, there is no real explanation as to how living organisms could emerge from inorganic matter, or how consciousness emerged from the brain. (The latter is still called the Hard Problem, and philosophers and scientists are tormenting themselves trying to come up with a solution.)
Perhaps more controversially, despite the general acceptance among scientists of the truth of the Big Bang and Darwinian evolutionary theories, there are still good reasons to doubt them. In the specific context of this discussion, there is a problem with the Big Bang theory if there is an accompanying assumption that at the beginning and during the early stages of the universe, only unconscious particles existed. Such an assumption would lead to some of the later problems just mentioned.
According to the alternative understanding:
- the ultimate source of the material universe is a Cosmic Consciousness (what we might call a Divine Mind), and it comes into being through a process of progressive densification of this spirit/consciousness, which creates different levels of being, the lowest being the physical universe we know⁴. As Jonathan Black puts it: “According to the cosmologists of the ancient world and the secret societies, emanations from the cosmic mind should be understood… as working downwards in a hierarchy from the higher and more powerful and pervasive principles to the narrower and more particular, each level creating and directing the one below it. These emanations have also always been thought of as in some sense personified, as being in some sense also intelligent” (p39). (The personification would explain the belief in deities.) In similar vein he says: “Pure mind to begin with, these thought-emanations later became a sort of proto-matter, energy that became increasingly dense, then became matter so ethereal that it was finer than gas, without particles of any kind. Eventually the emanations became gas, then liquid and finally solids”.
- there is nothing in this multi-levelled universe, therefore, that is not a manifestation of this Divine Mind; there exist only various forms of consciousness. This solves the problem of how life ‘emerged’ from non-life. It didn’t; everything is alive, a form of consciousness. This understanding also offers a solution to the so-called Hard Problem. How does the material brain produce consciousness with subjective experiences? (You need to explain this if you subscribe to the scientific paradigm outlined above.) Answer, it doesn’t — when a problem seems insoluble, it’s always a good idea to stand back and consider, are we asking the right question?
- even if the evolution of life-forms took place in any way close to the conventional understanding (and it is not certain that it did) — single-celled organisms through to humans — it could only have been guided by supernatural intelligences, not by a blind, unguided process of natural selection. (It is interesting to note that, as frequently mentioned in evolutionary literature, Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin. However, the writer either doesn’t know, or omits to mention, that Wallace went on to believe in Intelligent Design and God as the underlying evolutionary principle, as is clear from the title of his 1914 book The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose.)
Ted Wade has raised the evolution question in our correspondence. He says: “Evolution by something like natural selection is supported by the fossil record, embryology, genetics and genomics, geology, radiochemistry, population biology, island ecology, planetary science. The list goes on and on. Nothing about our knowledge of the living world makes sense without an origin in an evolutionary process”. I think this statement was intended to persuade me of the correctness of his argument, in which case it wasn’t necessary because I couldn’t agree more. Only biblical Creationists try to deny an evolutionary process. This statement, however, has made the debate very vague, when it needs to be very precise. ‘Evolution’ means merely change over time. An evolutionary process of some kind is not the same as saying evolution by natural selection acting upon random genetic mutations, which is what the neo–Darwinian synthesis claimed. And what does “something like” natural selection mean? I agree that an alternative to natural selection is behind the evolutionary process. But is that something very close, another similar ‘natural’ explanation? (I’m not sure what that would be.) Or is it something outside what evolutionary biologists normally allow, something supernatural?
As I said above, I’ll address the question of whether there are other levels of reality beyond the space-time universe in later articles. I’ll discuss this from the point of view of quantum physics in part 2, and I’ll discuss Jungian synchronicity as potential evidence in part 3. Then in part 4, I’ll discuss whether discarnate entities exist.
In these earlier articles I’ve discussed at greater length some of the issues raised here:
I discussed in detail the problems associated with the Big Bang theory in a talk I gave in June 2019. There are two versions on Medium.com; links can be found, click here. The relevant material begins about halfway through. I extracted the Big Bang material, published it in separate articles, and then added new material in this series:
Part 5. A further article, restating some of the above, in the light of four articles in New Scientist magazine, click here.
Part 6. Further material in the light of a response I received to part 5, click here.
A more accurate understanding of the nature of consciousness, I believe, is provided by the Transmission Model of William James. Click here.
I discussed Alfred Russel Wallace, and how his views on evolution have been misrepresented. Click here.
The physicist Paul Davies has serious reservations about neo-Darwinism, as outlined in his book The Cosmic Blueprint, and leans in the direction of what I would call a supernatural explanation, although he would see it as a need to expand the boundaries of science. I’ve discussed his ideas, click here.
1. Vintage, 2002
2. “Science is Not Your Enemy”, The New Republic, August 19th 2013, p33
3. There is an earlier edition of this under the name Mark Booth. My copy is an updated edition under the name Jonathan Black, Quercus, 2010. It is described as an ‘International Bestseller’. Publishers often say that, of course. If true, however, it would suggest that such ideas are being spread more widely.
4. If the Big Bang theory is in any sense true, it could only be true if understood from within this alternative understanding. Strangely, the conventional version of the theory is a kind of weird caricature of this, the infinitely small singularity being the equivalent of the ultimate nothingness (void) of the spiritual traditions — Brahman in Hinduism, the Tao in Taoism, the Ayin of the Kabbalah etc. — which expands outwards, and densifies, until it eventually becomes the material universe, the “Ten thousand things” as the Tao Te Ching puts it.