Inside, Outside, and “The Real”

Atheism is on the rise thanks to progress in empirical sciences and reason. This movement of un-belief is popular in our social media due to the satirical efforts of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately it seems that these outspoken atheists cannot argue against the devoutly religious using reason, and so resort to a campaign of constant ridicule. Besides being generally distasteful and disrespectful, their comments have the effect of polarizing people, getting laughs from like-minded people while causing believers to dig in their heels. They generally do not promote dialogue.

When confronting this disrespect of religion it’s helpful to remember that religions maintained their power for centuries by the systematic persecution of all those who disagreed with them. This is much worse than ridicule, and entrenched power structures still pull this nonsense today. It’s only now that U.S. politicians are taking a second look at the religiously-inspired intolerance of homosexuality. (And just this weekend, BBC reported that a 60-year-old woman was tortured for alleged witchcraft in Nepal, which assault was apparently sanctioned by the local village council. Last year a different woman was burnt alive for the same reason.)

The problem seems to be that everyone is so sure of themselves. I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that mocked a Newsweek article called “Heaven Is Real”, in which a comatose neurosurgeon claims to have visited the afterlife. Bill and his panelists scoffed in their usual manner, claiming the account was unscientific and unreal. While the account was definitely unscientific, its reality is debatable.

The scientific empiricist laughs the experience off as a hallucination, as unreal because it is not verifiable in a laboratory. They say that such an article is harmful to science, and therefore to society, because it promotes belief in the supernatural. They would argue rightly that belief in the supernatural leads away from belief in empirically-testable phenomena and hence towards insanity.

Of course there is no doubt that Dr. Eben Alexander’s experience was real to him. It reordered his conception of reality and was a transformative experience with obvious subjective value. He is not wrong to write about his experience, though he is wrong to call it scientific. The whole method of science is to root out those variables that are purely subjective.

This debate brings me to one of my favorite topics: The Real. I get a lot of personal joy from the fuzzy definitions of the word “real”. Individually the definitions of the word are unbearably limiting because they fail to acknowledge the multi-ordinality of the word (to borrow a term from Alfred Korzybski). The definition of the word “real” depends entirely on its context and the structure of the argument in which it is used.

Through our entire lives experience is the primary datum. We can’t even properly speak of the universe without reference to our experience of it. Scientific advancements are valuable to us because they can make the macroscopic, microscopic, or sub-microscopic realms intelligible to our experience, just as a telescope is merely a technological extension of our sense of sight. A telescope does not measure the reality of far away places; it is the empiricist who proclaims “I see it, therefore it is real.”

“The empiricist…thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.” – G. Santayana

I am comfortable in proclaiming the reality of subjective experience. However, subjective experience has the insidious tendency to colour our perceptions of the outside world. William James says the mystic has every right to his or her visions, and that no outsider can refute this. However the corollary to this is that mystical realities are valid only to the one experiencing them and do not extend beyond the subjective realm. The connection between the inside and the outside cannot be perfect.

This is where I can get on board with Bill Maher: theism and atheism aside, when purely subjective experiences leak out into the objective world, the objective world is made insane. When religious metaphysics shape our social policies, the politicians are out of touch with the external reality they ought to be governing. It is only when subjective experiences are true to the facts of the external world that they should be used to dictate external laws. To do otherwise is a confusion of planes; what is real externally may not be real internally and vice versa.

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, which states we can never make it to our destination because we have to first travel half way there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum, is silly and insane because it disregards the external fact that we don’t travel according to logarithmic principles. I simply walk to my destination and arrive without noticing when I’m half or three-quarters of the way there. Zeno puts mathematics before experience, but mathematics is a priori and doesn’t refer to nature.

When empirical policies must be formed, empirical laws must be obeyed. When we decide our own personal code of beliefs and ethics, the subjective experiences of our life will be determinative. To regulate belief from without would also be a mistake. As for religion, if a subjective, personal connection to the divine becomes good enough for everyone, I bet these atheists won’t have much to say about it. It’s mainly belligerent evangelism they’re trying to tear down.