Mystery Does Not Equal God

By Sarah Braasch

When I was about seven years old I almost died. It wasn’t the only time I almost died, but it was one of my most colorful near death experiences. I had acquired some sort of flu bug or food poisoning or I don’t know what, but my mother, in her either infinite ignorance or indifference, failed to procure anything in the way of medical attention for her ailing child. In all fairness, at first, I attempted to minimize my illness in order to be able to participate in a planned trip to a local amusement park.

I know it sounds silly to say that I almost died from a flu bug in the US during the later part of the 20th century, and, yet, my story is true. I hadn’t eaten anything solid for about two weeks, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been able to hold down water. It seemed like I was either vomiting or dry heaving non-stop. I was parched and too weak to lift my head off of my pillow. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my mother later told me that I looked like a little concentration camp survivor, I had lost so much weight.

I remember that there was an old black and white movie on the tiny television on the dresser at the foot of the bed. I remember that the movie took place in a faux harem in a faux Middle Eastern palace in a faux Arabia. I think Gregory Peck may have been involved.

I wasn’t scared. I just remember how I wanted nothing more than for the overwhelming waves of pain and nausea rolling through my body to stop. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink. I couldn’t move. All I could think about was the pain. I didn’t have the strength to dry heave anymore, but I kept dry heaving while lying on my back. I didn’t even have the strength to turn onto my side or even turn my head. My body was convulsing involuntarily. Then, the convulsions started to fade. My body no longer possessed the ability to exercise its involuntary impulses. The ripples in my stomach waned. Everything slowed down. My heartbeat. My breathing. I felt nothing so much as relief. I just didn’t want to feel anything anymore. I lost the will to live.

It was so strange how everything came into such clear focus at that moment. I remember the bizarre brown and gold patterned wallpaper. I remember these tiny clip on cabbage patch dolls I had purchased at the local five and dime. I remember the huge yellow plastic bowl I had been throwing up in, when I still had something inside of me to vomit. I remember the bedroom furniture and the way the bedspread draped over my legs and feet. I remember the light in the room.

I was completely still. My little legs began to rise. Actually, my entire body began to rise, but flat as a board, as if someone was lifting me by the feet, but my head was secured to my pillow. I watched this with great curiosity. I realized that my legs remained swathed in my nightgown, even as my legs were lifted higher and higher, until my feet were directly overhead. Then I watched as my body swung back down, in the same manner, towards the bed. As I watched my legs and feet return to the bed, I discovered that my body was also still on the bed, covered in the bedspread, completely still. This occurred multiple times. My head never left my pillow. I didn’t feel fear, only intrigue, and, even, amusement.

At that time, death was not particularly terrifying. I had no fear of hell, not because I thought I was without sin, but because I didn’t think hell existed. I was a little Jehovah’s Witness girl, and Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in hell. But, I was confused. It seemed to me as if a version of me, a spirit, a soul had left or was trying to leave my physical body. But, I had been taught that I was a living human soul, but that I didn’t have a soul, which survived the death of my physical self.

My feet were directly overhead again. It felt final. It felt like I was being asked to make a choice, like I was on the edge of a precipice, about to jump. It felt like my feet were being tugged on, but something inside of me was resisting. My head remained securely on my pillow, as if it were attached. Not exactly terror, because I wasn’t afraid, but determination, and, maybe, panic washed over me, almost instantaneously. Then, I chose. I wasn’t ready. But, I wasn’t sure how to get back inside myself. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to do anything.

With everything and anything I had left inside of myself to give, I screamed for my mother. It came out as a barely audible, raspy plea. I tried again. Louder. Again. Then, she was beside me, looking down at me.

“What is it?” she asked, seemingly unable to see that which I could see.

“Mommy, why are my feet up there?” I asked.

“What are you talking about?”

“My feet are up there, in the sky.”

“No they aren’t. They’re right here.” My mother sat on the bed, placing her hands on my lifeless limbs under the bed covers. It was the strangest sensation. It was like I fell back into myself. My mother looked terrified. She called the doctor.

I guess it would be pretty easy to chalk up the entire experience to an illness induced hallucination, but I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ve never stopped feeling as if there was something more to it than just dehydration or religious fervor induced psychosis. It was hardly my only mystical experience as a child, or even as an adult.

I’ve had tons of mystical and spiritual (i.e. allegedly nonmaterial, supernatural) experiences. I was able to conjure up transcendental experiences at will as a child, which could probably best be described as astral projection, although I wouldn’t have understood that term at the time, of course. But, somehow, I knew that I had separated from my ostensible physical self. All I had to do was contemplate the unfathomable idea that nothing would have ever existed if Jehovah God hadn’t chosen to create everything, including existence itself. I would float around in outer space, amongst the planets and stars. It was the strangest feeling. It made me feel high, even after I’d returned to my body. I became addicted to it, and it became more and more difficult for me as I got older. I would spend hours alone in my room trying to recreate the sensation. As I grew older, it also got scarier. I had been raised to believe that anything even remotely attributable to spiritism and the occult was the product of demonic influence. I became obsessed with the notion that I was inviting demons into my life.

I’ve seen what would commonly be referred to as ghosts, demons, and angels, not to mention the future. I practically have a mystical experience once a day. None of these experiences, past or present, compel me to believe in God, certainly not the God as typically conceived by any of the major mainstream religions. There are lots of things in the world, which I neither understand nor can explain, starting with my personal existence. This doesn’t presume a divine source. This doesn’t even presume a supernatural or metaphysical cause.

The very act of employing the term supernatural is rather arrogant when we understand so little of our natural world. How do we know that these mystical experiences aren’t the result of interacting with alternate dimensions or alternate universes or alternate versions of ourselves? As our perception of reality approaches our wildest science fiction fantasies, we realize just how disappointing, prosaic, and mundane the world’s religions’ gods are, seemingly endlessly fascinated and preoccupied by the quotidian sexual exploits of my next door neighbor.

With the ever exponentially telescoping expansion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, I believe that we are moving closer and closer to answering those most difficult ontological and teleological existential questions. We will know the nature of God, and we will discover that God is nature. General relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, M theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse. We just keep getting closer and closer.

I am not troubled at the thought of losing life’s zest and purpose once the mystery is gone. First of all, that point is far, far away, still, despite our amazing progress. Second, just imagine the possibilities. The infinite universes to explore, the infinite selves with whom to acquaint oneself. Ultimately, we will harness our ability to shape our myriad existences and universes. Time and materiality will be of little consequence. We will become gods with the ability to determine our own destinies, our own realities. And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David

    Sarah- Your perspective is told in a meaningful and fascinating way. I am impressed and delighted by your story and your insight. Thank you! – David

  • Reginald Selkirk
  • Reginald Selkirk

    Out of body experiences and their neural basis
    BMJ 2004;329:1414-1415 (18 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1414
    Olaf Blanke

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Yep! Been there and done the whole astral projection thing in my early teens. It’s a fascinating experience but of course has nothing to do with souls. I found in my later teens that L.S.D gave similar results:Odd that:)

  • TommyP

    Good to see other people with “spiritual” experiences who are still smart enough to think rationally about them, and not invoke a random local deity. I’m flat-out atheist, and that does not stop me from having some really superb mystical experiences. I always wonder what, if any of it is even remotely realistic. Probably not much. But the lessons learned and the perspective gained, even if it’s just in your own mind, can be helpful, enjoyable, and useful. To me, mystical experience is a tool, and a good one. It’s helped me to appreciate the world in different, nuanced ways, and to really get the most out of the occasional recreational drug.

  • Greg

    HI there, just stumbled upon your post from reddit… yeah.

    You know that trick where you press a rock between you fingers really tight; then, when you release the rock, you fingers “magically” attract each other like a magnetic charge? Its because your fingers are so used to moving toward each other, they continue to do so.

    I’d imagine that some near death experiences can be attributed to this effect. Your body spends its entire existence fighting gravity. Keeping your limbs from falling to the Earth like a clumsy drunken ragdoll. Now, once your central nervous system begins to shutdown… the brain stops receiving feedback from the limbs. Without any feedback to account for gravity, it would seem like the brain is fighting upwards with no gravity fighting downwards. This would seem like relative levitation.

    That’s just my opinion on the matter, and I only hope to experience it once.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Although I’ve never had an out-of-body experience, I sometimes get a strange sensation where, when standing or sitting, I feel as if I’ve become extremely tall and I’m looking down from a great height. It happens more often when I’m tired. I’ve always assumed it’s because the part of my brain responsible for balance has gotten confused.

    As Sarah’s essay shows, our brains can play tricks on us in a huge number of different ways. Natural phenomena like infrasound create feelings of chills and fear that are often attributed to hauntings; people confabulate memories while hypnotized that they later sincerely believe to be real; temporal lobe seizures produce religious ecstasy; most normal, healthy adults at some point in their lives have hallucinations of dead relatives; and, of course, people imagine that they’ve left their bodies and can travel in spirit form. (I wonder to what extent belief in the soul is due to OOB experiences.)

    Most religions have learned to exploit these tricks even without understanding what their real causes are, and to people who don’t know how the brain works, having one of these experiences in a religious context can be extremely impressive. If everyone understood these things better, we’d be on much firmer ground when it comes to telling the real apart from the unreal!

  • Wayne Essel

    Seems to me that I have heard of anecdotal literature where people experiencing an OBE have seen things that are out of the line of sight of their eyes, such as a key atop a tall cabinet. Has all of that been proven false?

    Is it possible to say unequivocally that the correlation between OBE and brain function is cause and effect with brain as cause? Or is it more honest to say that that is beyond the realm of proof and the answer should be that it’s unknown?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Seems to me that I have heard of anecdotal literature… Has all of that been proven false?

    Wayne, I recommend some remedial reading on the burden of proof.

  • Steve

    “And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.”

    Are you not bothered by the untold suffering, exploitation, hurt, and abuse visited upon the human race by the unbridled, unprincipled reign given this powerful drive, which brings so much pleasure and good when kept with the boundaries of love. God is love, and that is why He is “bothered”.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Steve,

    Are you not bothered by the untold suffering, exploitation, hurt, and abuse visited upon the human race by the unbridled, unprincipled reign given this powerful drive, which brings so much pleasure and good when kept with the boundaries of love. God is love, and that is why He is “bothered”.

    So, let me get this straight. god is love, so he’s bothered, but not actually bothered enough by it to use one scintilla of his omnipotence power to alleviate the “untold suffering, exploitation, hurt, and abuse visited upon the human race,” instead preferring to condemn the sexual exploits of consenting adults?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Wayne Essel: Seems to me that I have heard of anecdotal literature where…

    Anecdotes are not good enough. You’re talking about something that would defy all our knowledge of physics and biology. We understand pretty well how people see. Light bounces off an object, enters the eye through the cornea and pupil, gets focused by the lens onto the retina. Photoreceptors in the retina take up the image, and it is transmitted by the optic nerve to the visual lobe of the brain. We know that people who have these various biological and physical organs damaged have their sight impaired.

    So I don’t think anecdotes are enough to make me believe people could see without their eyes. For something that goes that strongly against a great body of scientific knowledge, I would need to see some air-tight reproducible evidence.

    Please follow my link in comment #2 and read the article. There a woman undergoing an OOBE claimed to be seeing herself from above, but in fact could not see anything not visible from the actual location of her eyes. Most other OOBEs do not happen under such well-controlled conditions.

  • PC

    With the ever exponentially telescoping expansion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, I believe that we are moving closer and closer to answering those most difficult ontological and teleological existential questions. We will know the nature of God, and we will discover that God is nature. General relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, M theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse. We just keep getting closer and closer.

    I am not troubled at the thought of losing life’s zest and purpose once the mystery is gone. First of all, that point is far, far away, still, despite our amazing progress. Second, just imagine the possibilities. The infinite universes to explore, the infinite selves with whom to acquaint oneself. Ultimately, we will harness our ability to shape our myriad existences and universes. Time and materiality will be of little consequence. We will become gods with the ability to determine our own destinies, our own realities. And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.

    1. Your post is mainly an account of your “supernatural” experiences (or whatever you want to call them). As such, it’s an interesting if subjective post, without much logical or analytical substance – and what’s present is unfortunately second-rate at best. Its value is mainly descriptive. (Harsh, perhaps, but you’re a university-educated engineer as well as lawyer, so I don’t think it’s unfair to expect more from you.)

    2. How does the increase of “knowledge, especially scientific knowledge” move us closer to answering the “most difficult ontological and teleological existential questions,” by which I take you mean questions like, “Who/what are we?”; “How do we know what we know?”; “Why are we here?”; and so on? This strikes me as no different than the God-of-the-gaps argument. In fact, we might call it the science-of-the-gaps argument. You’re saying, for example, we don’t know why we’re here, but “knowledge, especially scientific knowledge” will one day explain things. What makes you think “general relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, M theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse,” and so on will be able to explain why we’re here or how we know what we know or if God exists or the like? You seem to have a lot of faith in the science of the future.

    Of course, I’m not at all deploring modern science. Rather, I’m asking you, given what you’ve said, how is your faith in future science justified? That’s the real question.

    3. Speaking more broadly, science itself also has certain philosophical presuppositions which it must justify before it can even get off of the ground. For starters, see the debate between scientific realism and anti-realism.

    4. Likewise, given your apparent scientific naturalism (not to mention pantheism), on what grounds do you believe your cognitive faculties and senses are reliable?

    5. You’re not thinking objectively; you’re prejudiced in your thinking. You’re coming to a premature conclusion when you say things such as “We will know the nature of God, and we will discover that God is nature.” What if, instead, future “knowledge, especially scientific knowledge” disproves your form of pantheism?

    6. You’re a bit derogatory, and arguably adopt a sarcastic tone of voice, in one or two of your sentences: e.g., “And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.” You have a right to be derogatory. But your derogatory remarks fail to be intelligent, well-informed derogatory remarks, and are simply derogatory remarks, which would probably be an embarrassment to those who aspire to intelligent criticism.

    Here are some problems:

    a. First of all, “sexual goings-on” is a vague term. What do you mean by it? Do you mean married people having sex with their spouses, single people having sex with other single people, married people having sex with people other than their spouses, heterosexuals having sex, homosexuals having sex, pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia, etc.?

    b. Also, you indiscriminately lump together “Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah.” Again, this isn’t logical, analytical thinking. This is shoddy thinking. How do you know Allah has the same views on all forms of sex as Jehovah does?

    c. Finally, if you’re not bothered by “the sexual goings-on” of your neighbors, then what sort of morals do you have? If your neighbor is secretly downloading child pornography, or molesting children, then why aren’t you bothered?

    And if you are bothered, then who are you to judge what they’re doing, given your scientific naturalism and pantheism?

  • Wayne Essel

    Hey, critical thinking has to start somewhere… First there is anecdotal literature, then when enough interest there is initial investigations and eventually if there is enough interes, full investigation with all the trappings. Somewhere in there you have to prove a lot of anectodal literature false.

    Tart, C. T.
    ‘A Second Psychophysiological Study of Out-of-the-
    Body Experiences in a Gifted Subject’ (International Journal of
    Parapsychology, 1967, 9, pp. 251-258).

    In this study, there is a striking example of ESP. A woman got all five digits in a remote target correct while in an OBE.

    Where do you go next with something like that?

  • Andrew

    You know I believe in God without ever having had a ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experence. But yea I agree subjective experences cannot, in themselves prove anything. Although that doesnt completely rule out the possibility that God is behind at least some of them *shrugs* honestly I dont really care that much.

  • jonathan

    I’ve had an out of body experience as well. Three actually, but they were all the same night. They were not provoked by drug use or illness or anything else.

    I thought they were odd, and they convinced me that we do have souls and reassured me in my religious beliefs for a while. That did not last.

    My current interpretation is that our brains stitch together a seamless experience from our many senses. It happens to place the perception of these senses behind our eyes, even though our feet and body produce sensation as well. Even your vision is not consistent with the input your brain actually receives: two images from two eyes which cannot even perceive color anywhere but in the center of your vision. Your eyes cannot produce all of the complete image you see at all times.

    I think it must be possible for the brain to become confused and move that center of your perception to a different location. Then it attempts to stitch together a seamless experience from that point. Being fairly good at this, it is possible for it to succeed and allow you to experience looking at yourself. And you think it’s a real experience because, as always, your brain tells you that you are perceiving it, even though you aren’t.

    I suspect that this is where the idea of the soul comes from. I would imagine that humans have always had these brain errors. I bet other mammals experience it too. But since they lack sophisticated language, the notion of the soul can’t be communicated.

  • Chris

    I’m not sure why things like String Theory and M Theory are given any more weight than Intelligent Design. They’re just as testable. I guess the difference is at least those theories are based on science in the sense of trying to create a unification theory, but really they’re just pure speculation with no means of being able to test them. Not to mention they often require a “bending of the rules” to even work mathematically, such as the necessity of extra dimensions (usually 10 or 11 compared to the 4 we know to exist). Maybe I’m a jerk for saying it but this post seems out of place on an atheist blog. I find the whole “god is nature” thing to be primitive and out of place with an understanding of evolution. I agree with the points brought up by PC and would like to see them answered. Again, not trying to sound like a jerk so sorry if I offended.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/6/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • jonathan

    I’m not sure why things like String Theory and M Theory are given any more weight than Intelligent Design. They’re just as testable.

    I’d guess that string theory and m theory are given more weight because they are valid as mathematical constructs. Intelligent design is not.

    In physics, mathematical constructs have been predicting crazy things that were eventually proven true for at least a hundred years. Intelligent design doesn’t have the ability to predict anything.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    PC,

    3. Speaking more broadly, science itself also has certain philosophical presuppositions which it must justify before it can even get off of the ground.

    Such as? And, if you are talking about realism vs. anti-realism, you’ll have to explain how that pertains to science’s supposed philosophical presuppositions.

    4. Likewise, given your apparent scientific naturalism (not to mention pantheism), on what grounds do you believe your cognitive faculties and senses are reliable?

    No, our senses are not reliable. That’s why we use science.

  • Andrew

    No, our senses are not reliable. That’s why we use science.

    If I may say so that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Science doesnt replace our senses. In fact we have to assume that our senses are , at least generally, reliable before we can employ the scientific method. How else do we observe the results of an experment if not by using our senses?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    If our senses were reliable, the sun really would move around the Earth. Now, are senses are somewhat reliable…at least reliable enough for us to have survived as a species, but that’s only part of the story.

    We know our senses are not reliable for quite a few things. We know that we connect the dots in ways that don’t always accurately represent reality. That’s where science comes in. Science is a way of making measurements objectively, using senses and tools to take data and then verifying, re-testing, etc. Science allows us to drop the assumption that our senses are reliable and figure things out separately.

  • Andrew

    So how does science let us “drop the assumption that our senses are reliable and figure things out seperately” when we have to use our senses to make the observations necessary to do science?

    our senses allow us to make observations that lead us to believe the sun revolves around the earth, but those same senses allow us to make observations leading to the oppisit conclusion. Either way, we’re putting our trust that the observations we make with our senses reflect reality.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Andrew,
    I see what you are saying, and I already anticipated it when I said that we use verification, re-testing, and tools to take data. It’s not our senses that allowed us to make the observation that the sun revolved around the earth, it was the process.

  • http://adoptanatheist.blogspot.com/ Vince R

    I find I am easily able to vivid dream. There are certain techniques to employ during waking hours to train your mind for the night time, so that you are able to “awaken” in the dream, given a certain cue you train yourself to recognise, without actually waking up. It takes a bit of discipline but it is great fun! Like a free, harmless acid trip. There is nothing better than being able to control the dream, and being aware that you are aware in a true dream state. Mind blowing! And there’s nothing supernatural about it, It’s just exploring the boundaries of this weird consciousness that seems to be a property of the universe.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Sarah,

    Wow, definitely not at all what I expected when Ebon mentioned your essay was forthcoming. Great write. In a strict sense of rational rigueur, I agree that mystery does not equal God. However, I’d also note that mystery does not equal atheism, either. I’ve had OBE’s as well – both voluntary and involuntary – and I’d be glad to answer questions about them – for anyone interested in a non-atheist perspective on them. I can relate perfectly to the things you describe and could tell many similar stories. I bet we’d be terrible at the bar together!

    You said,

    This doesn’t even presume a supernatural or metaphysical cause.

    Do you mean to say only that the experiences could be entirely neuro-physiological or psychosomatic in nature? Or do you mean to say that perhaps “other worlds” exist that have nothing to do with God as described by religion? I get the feeling from your following paragraph that you mean the latter. If so, I also frequently argue that if they exist at all, transcendent or spiritual phenomena (for lack of a better word) are not supernatural at all. To me, all that exists is natural regardless of whether or not God exists. I try to avoid using the word supernatural because it carries so many connotations and frequently doubles as a euphemism for human ignorance. People used to describe lightning as supernatural.

    I am not troubled at the thought of losing life’s zest and purpose once the mystery is gone.

    I would say that even if science achieved the convergence you allude to, such would not eliminate the mysteries of life. I don’t think the mystery could ever be gone. For example, unless science devises a way to resurrect the dead or unless they develop a way to falsifiably test spiritist communication while somehow keeping a straight face, the mystery of death can only be solved by dying.

    I think the thing you wrote that stood out the most for me was the feeling of having your feet tugged, and I really enjoyed your guest post here. I’d love to read similar material if you have any.

    We will become gods with the ability to determine our own destinies, our own realities.

    My skeptical side has to ask – don’t you see some significant evidentiary shortcomings in such a statement? Although I could foresee some de Chardin-esque comments about upward evolutionary trends and the Omega Point – still – I don’t see how such is categorically any different than any other God-claim.

    Steve Bowen,

    I would say the fact that LSD can induce a particular experience in no way precludes a spiritual component to said experience, but that’s just my two cents.

    Thumbs up, TommyP.

    It’s probably no surprise that I think Ebonmuse jumps the gun by attributing these experiences to “tricks of the brain.” The truth is, these phenomena are currently unexplained. To say we know the cause of unexplained phenomena when we do not is superstition, whether we invoke God or nature.

    OMGF said,

    If our senses were reliable, the sun really would move around the Earth.

    To me, the sun really would move around the Earth if and only if the sun really moved around the Earth. Such has nothing to do with whether or not our senses are reliable. Misinterpretation of collected data doesn’t mean the instruments used to collect the data weren’t reliable; it means one or more assumptions going into the experiment were faulty. In the sun example, we all know what the faulty assumption was. Still, the senses of every person viewing the sun move in and out of visibility were (and are) reliable.

    It’s not our senses that allowed us to make the observation that the sun revolved around the earth, it was the process.

    I don’t get that, either. I don’t see how anything other than our senses can allow us to make observations at all. To me, in the sun example, unreliable assumptions colored the interpretation of reliably collected data.

    Vince R,

    Indeed.

  • Andrew

    I see what you are saying, and I already anticipated it when I said that we use verification, re-testing, and tools to take data. It’s not our senses that allowed us to make the observation that the sun revolved around the earth, it was the process.

    And all of that requires trusting our senses. No matter how much we re-test things, or what tools we use, we still have to assume that what we are seeing through these tests and tools is a reflection of whats reallly there. The process of science allows us to discover things we might not otherwise, but we still have to assume that what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch throughout the process is real in order to allow the process to work. Really we need to assume our senses, at least generally, reflect reality in order to….well do anything really. It’s not an unreasonable assumption(although its one that much of Eastern philosophy rejects), but its also one that cant be proven with any real degree of certainty.

    Really, this is something so basic, it amazes me that somebody is actually questioning it. Unless you just dont like the idea of having ‘faith’ in something. In which case I recommend nihillism, because scientific naturalism doesnt work unless you make a couple of ‘properly basic’ assumptions(the external world exists, our senses are a generally accurate reflection of said world).

  • Alex Weaver

    Rather, I’m asking you, given what you’ve said, how is your faith in future science justified?

    Pattern recognition.

    c. Finally, if you’re not bothered by “the sexual goings-on” of your neighbors, then what sort of morals do you have? If your neighbor is secretly downloading child pornography, or molesting children, then why aren’t you bothered?

    I think the fact that she was talking about things like “I don’t care if my neighbors are having butt sex or if they’re willingly sharing their bed with a willing friend” was clear to anyone marginally intelligent or intellectually honest who read and interpreted her post in good faith…

  • Alex Weaver

    In this study, there is a striking example of ESP. A woman got all five digits in a remote target correct while in an OBE.

    Where do you go next with something like that?

    How many times did she get them wrong?

  • Alex Weaver

    No matter how much we re-test things, or what tools we use, we still have to assume that what we are seeing through these tests and tools is a reflection of whats reallly there. The process of science allows us to discover things we might not otherwise, but we still have to assume that what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch throughout the process is real in order to allow the process to work. Really we need to assume our senses, at least generally, reflect reality in order to….well do anything really. It’s not an unreasonable assumption(although its one that much of Eastern philosophy rejects), but its also one that cant be proven with any real degree of certainty.

    The word is “foundational axiom,” and a more thorough formulation would be “our senses, even if imperfect, tell us something useful about the external world.” It comes after “there is, in fact, an external world.”

    Principles that are necessary to make sense of evidence can’t be proven evidentially. So what? Has there every been the slightest indication that our senses are, in fact, too flawed to allow us to do science reliably?

    Additionally, we can confer with each other and verify that our observations match reasonably well, such that, with the exception of people who are clearly abnormal and whose functioning in the world is demonstrably impaired because of it, we can find that, if our senses are that innaccurate, virtually all humans’ senses seem to be the same kind of innaccurate. It’s not clear to me how this would or could be meaningfully different from “our senses are reasonably accurate” and even if it was, it’s the most parsimonious interpretation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    So how does science let us “drop the assumption that our senses are reliable and figure things out seperately” when we have to use our senses to make the observations necessary to do science?

    We do experiments that, wherever possible, use instruments that give us objectively measurable answers, rather than relying on guesswork or intuition. We repeat and rerun tests so that errors will be noticed or will cancel each other out. We draw error bars around our results and calculate how likely it is that the observed results were due to chance. These are all ways in which the scientific method compensates for the known unreliability of unaugmented senses.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I also want to remark on Wayne Essel’s comment:

    In this study, there is a striking example of ESP. A woman got all five digits in a remote target correct while in an OBE.

    Where do you go next with something like that?

    That’s easy: I read the study and see if the results actually reported match the description of it that you gave. Unless we’re reading drastically different studies, my conclusion is that they do not.

    Here’s the paper you cited:
    http://www.paradigm-sys.com/ctt_articles2.cfm?id=32

    First of all, the study participant was a man, not a woman. Second, he didn’t get the target number right; in fact, he didn’t even claim to have seen it:

    With respect to the question of whether there is an ESP component to Mr. X’s OOBEs, the evidence from this study is fairly positive but inconclusive. Mr. X did not claim to have seen the target number, which would have provided very strong evidence for the operation of ESP.

    Is this the study you meant to cite, or do you want to retract your claims about the efficacy of ESP?

  • Andrew

    The word is “foundational axiom,” and a more thorough formulation would be “our senses, even if imperfect, tell us something useful about the external world.” It comes after “there is, in fact, an external world.”

    Yes thats a good way of phrasing what I’m trying to say.

    Principles that are necessary to make sense of evidence can’t be proven evidentially. So what? Has there every been the slightest indication that our senses are, in fact, too flawed to allow us to do science reliably?

    I think we may actually be in agreement here. I’m not arguing that our senses are unreliable, on the contrary, I’m arguing AGAINST the idea that science somehow allows us to ‘bypass’ our senses. It doesnt, no matter what tools we use we still need to use our sensory organs to read those tools, and no matter how many experments we do, we will NEVER rule out the possibility that somehow what we are seeing is a masterfully crafted illusion.

    Again, its not an unreasonable assumption to say(as Alax Weaver put it) “our senses, even if imperfect, tell us something useful about the external world” and in fact to not make that assumption is to leave us on rather shakey ground(philosophically speaking), but it’s still just an assumption. It’s also the assumption on which both science and western religions rests.

  • Andrew

    We do experiments that, wherever possible, use instruments that give us objectively measurable answers, rather than relying on guesswork or intuition. We repeat and rerun tests so that errors will be noticed or will cancel each other out. We draw error bars around our results and calculate how likely it is that the observed results were due to chance. These are all ways in which the scientific method compensates for the known unreliability of unaugmented senses.

    And again we need to use our senses to do all of these things. You still havent gotton us around our Axiom

  • Alex Weaver

    Andrew, when you’re driving on the freeway, do you ever screech to a panicked halt mumbling “gosh, the road ahead looks clear, but what if there’s really an invisible concrete-like wall and I’m about to run into it?!”

    Are you planning to start?

  • Andrew

    Alex, when did I say I DONT assume my senses reflect reality? I’v said multipule times that its a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, that its necessary to do most anything(including science) and that to not make that assumption leaves us on shakey philosophical ground.

    But since you obviously are incapable of reading between the lines: I DO IN FACT ASSUME THAT MY SENSES REFELCT REALITY So to answer you question: no I do not normally concern myself with invisible walls(on the freeway or anywhere else for that matter) because I assume that what my eyes tell me is there, is actually there.

    Now, if you’ve finished missing the point: perhaps you’d care to address what I ACTUALLY said?

  • Alex Weaver

    I was merely making the point that the notion that our senses are not only thoroughly inaccurate but are undetectably inaccurate is not one to be seriosuly entertained, even if it’s “technically” not impossible (IE, not “square circles” impossible). There’s no need to show it to be impossible; as a belief that’s needed to make sense of evidence, it’s not subject to evidential proof, and it’s enough to observe that it A) is in fact needed as a starting ground for anything sensible; B) no serious evidence has been provided that it is false; and C) the only challenges to it that are consistent with data so far as inherently unfalsifiable.

    However, there’s no need to assume our senses are even “generally” reliable; if our senses ever tell us anything useful, the scientific method can be used in combination with those senses to gradually (perhaps very, very, very gradually) arrive at an increasingly accurate picture of reality.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Andrew,
    Would you agree that sometimes our senses are not accurate? Let’s take the case of the sun revolving around the Earth. Would you say that our senses tell us that the sun moves across the sky, and that is not accurate? Yet, with science, we’re able to figure out that the Earth actually moves around the sun. Is this not an example of us bypassing the sensory input that we receive from our eyes in order to obtain a result that is more accurately descriptive of the universe?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    > 14 Wayne Essel: Where do you go next with something like that?

    I would ask whether these results have been replicated in other labs. They have not. After about a century and a half of scientific inquiry, there are no replicable results of any alleged psychic, paranormal or ESP abilities. The study you cite was 42 years ago. Where is the successful follow-up by other reputable researchers?

    I would ask whether the results are consistent with the world as we know it. If people really could see hidden objects and influence physical events, casinos would go out of business quickly. Instead, Las Vegas is still thriving.

    I would ask whether the experimental design and execution was up to standards. Such studies need to be carried out with controls sufficient to rule out potential sources of error – including cheating by either the experimenter or the subject. We know that people cheat. It has been observed over and over again. The entire history of paranormal research is a litany of shoddy experimental design and cheating.

    I would go to the literature to find independent descriptions of Tart’s experiments, and find out if others are impressed by his experimental design and execution.
    The Skeptic’s Dictionary might be a good starting point for references for both technical comments and popular accounts from a skeptical perspective.

  • Andrew

    Alex, it would seem we are in agreement here. I’m confused as to why you are arguing with me.

    OMGF, otoh:

    Would you agree that sometimes our senses are not accurate?

    Our senses can be fooled yes.

    Let’s take the case of the sun revolving around the Earth. Would you say that our senses tell us that the sun moves across the sky, and that is not accurate?

    I would say that some observations we make with our senses would tell us that. But that other observations we also make with our senses can lead us to the oppiset conclusion.

    Yet, with science, we’re able to figure out that the Earth actually moves around the sun. Is this not an example of us bypassing the sensory input that we receive from our eyes in order to obtain a result that is more accurately descriptive of the universe?

    no its not. Let me ask you this: Did we not, at some point, use our seneses to make the obesrvations necessary to determine that the earth revolves around the sun?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Does it matter?

    You claim that in science, we assume our senses are accurate. That is simply not the case, because in this example our senses were telling us something inaccurate and science ferreted out reality despite our senses. We don’t have to assume accuracy of our senses in order to perform science and gain accurate knowledge about the world (as accurate as possible at least). In fact, through science we have demonstrated inaccuracies in our senses, which is contradictory if you wish to claim that we rely on the assumption of accuracy of our senses.

    Either way, we used objective equipment to make the observations necessary and the scientific process along with verification, testing, re-testing, etc.

  • Andrew

    You claim that in science, we assume our senses are accurate.

    Or to do most anything else.

    That is simply not the case, because in this example our senses were telling us something inaccurate and science ferreted out reality despite our senses.

    No, thats NOT what happened. Tell me what observations did we make that didnt involve using our senses?

    We don’t have to assume accuracy of our senses in order to perform science and gain accurate knowledge about the world (as accurate as possible at least).

    So how do we do that without using our senses?

    In fact, through science we have demonstrated inaccuracies in our senses, which is contradictory if you wish to claim that we rely on the assumption of accuracy of our senses.

    Not really. I never claimed that our senses were 100% accurate. Ironicly we have to assume a certain degree of reliability of our senses in order to discover how unreliable they are. Thats sounds paradoxal, but its also true. Unless you can think of an experment that doesnt involve using our senses.

    Either way, we used objective equipment to make the observations necessary and the scientific process along with verification, testing, re-testing, etc.

    So What sort of equipment do have that isnt read by one(or more) of our senses? What sort of experments can we do that dont involve our senses?

    Probably the closest thing I can think of is the construction of mathmatical models, but even those rely first on observation.

  • Maynard

    Andrew,
    Science isn’t a way of bypassing or getting around our senses. Science is a process that, through repetitive experimentation, we can determine if our senses are giving us accurate information. If we are sensing something that isn’t really true, then science can help us determine what, if anything, is actually there.

    We use our senses to start and finish and all point in between. Science just allows us to remove the inaccuracies along the way.

  • Andrew

    Thank you Maynard. Tell that to OMGF.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Andrew,
    I see what you are saying. You’re saying that in order to receive the information from any objective source or measurement device, we need to receive through our senses. I agree with that. That’s quite different, however, from the claim that science must make the assumption that our senses are accurate. That’s simply not the case. If we assumed that our senses were accurate, we would not be able to show, through science, when our senses were not accurate. It seems paradoxical because it is and it doesn’t make sense. How can I assume my senses are accurate in order to show they aren’t? If it’s simply a degree of accuracy as you seem to imply, what is that degree? How accurate do I have to assume my senses are in order to do science? This is where it falls apart to claim that science must make this assumption.

  • mikespeir

    It’s not an all or nothing thing. The reason we do double-takes when we see something unusual is because we know our senses can fail us. We want to look a second or third time to see if our first impression was right. Sometimes we find that it was; sometimes not. As has been noted, our senses are generally reliable enough to get us through life successfully. But we do make mistakes–whether in the sense organs themselves or in the brain that interprets their input.

    Here’s the deal from where I sit. When I look once, my perception is either right or wrong. If I look a second time, the chances that I get it right go up considerably. A third or fourth look slants the odds in my favor even more. Science is the practice of looking many times, enough so that we come away fairly sure of the truth of the matter under investigation. It is, as has also been noted, a way to compensate for the fallibility–not inevitable, but demonstrably possible–of our senses.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Sarah, you say this:

    “All I had to do was contemplate the unfathomable idea that nothing would have ever existed if Jehovah God hadn’t chosen to create everything, including existence itself.”

    Interesting how close this is close to my own home-grown method. I visualize the notion that “everything” and “nothing” are precisely the same. The idea of nothingness has confounded my brain since I was a small child as well.

  • Wayne Essel

    Ebonmuse:

    First of all, the study participant was a man, not a woman. Second, he didn’t get the target number right; in fact, he didn’t even claim to have seen it:

    You were close, but here is the study: http://www.paradigm-sys.com/ctt_articles2.cfm?id=31

    Miss Z was in fact female and she got all 5 digits correctly and in order. There were issues discussed in the study, but there certainly is fodder for more investigation.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Actually, Wayne, the study I linked to was the correct one for the citation you gave. But never mind that, let’s have a look.

    Reading this study, what I find most interesting was your original description of the results:

    A woman got all five digits in a remote target correct while in an OBE.

    There are several aspects of this statement I’d dispute, but especially your use of the term “remote”. This is how Tart describes the experimental setup:

    The subject slept on a comfortable bed just below the observation window. The leads from all electrodes were bound into a common cable running off the top of her head, and terminating in an electrode box on the head of the bed… Immediately above the observation window (about five and a half feet above the level of the subject’s head) was a small shelf (about ten inches by five inches)… This five-digit random number constituted the parapsychological target for the evening. I then slipped it into an opaque folder, entered the subject’s room, and slipped the piece of paper onto the shelf without at any time exposing it to the subject.

    So, to review: the number the subject was supposed to be psychically viewing was on a shelf five feet above her head throughout the night. She was neither recorded nor observed (there was an observation window looking into the room where she slept, but it was covered by a blind, and Tart, who was sitting in the next room, helpfully notes that he dozed off several times during the night).

    If this doesn’t suggest to you a non-supernatural means by which this result could have been obtained, you’re a far more trusting soul than I. The sole precaution mentioned in the study description is that she wouldn’t have been able to move far without disconnecting the electrodes she was wearing. I can think of several ways around that just off the top of my head.

    In point of fact, this is what always happens with supposed studies of ESP. Inevitably, either the claimed result is trivial, the judging is entirely subjective, or the experimental protocol is sloppily designed and has obvious deficiencies. If there was any good evidence for phenomena like this, the advocates of psi have had literally over a hundred years to come up with even one well-designed, repeatable experiment to demonstrate it. Instead, all we have is self-delusion and statistical noise. I’d love for any of these claims to be true, but their defenders are going to have to do a lot better than this.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    OMGF,

    Reading your conversation with Andrew, I just can’t help but to suggest – you’re a smart guy – but I think you and Andrew are sort of talking past each other because of the difference between the data our senses process, and the conclusions drawn from that data. I would argue that sans illness, abnormality or any other debilitating condition, our senses are always reliable. The way I see it, we didn’t believe in geocentrism because our senses were unreliable, we believed in it because nobody thought to question the assumptions when processing the reliable data received. I would say the Enlightenment was a revolution in thinking, not sensing.

    Do you (or anyone) see any validity to this distinction?

  • Andrew

    cl, I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head. I would say it wasnt our senses that told us the sun revolved around the earth, but our intuition. It’s intuititively obvious that the sun revolves around the center of the universe, but our intuition is wrong.

    The lesson here is that our intuition isnt always right, but science helps us get past THAT.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    I don’t know about you Andrew, but when I look up in the sky, I sense (“see”) the sun moving across the sky – thus I sense it is rotating about the Earth. I also do not sense that the Earth is moving or rotating. It has nothing to do with intuition. I don’t simply intuit that the Earth is the center of the universe, therefore the sun must move around it, and it is not “intuitively obvious that the sun revolves around the center of the universe.” My senses are simply wrong on both counts, as are yours.

    Or, take an example like this.

    You’ve already admitted that our senses are not 100% reliable, meaning they can be fooled. Are you now going to say that that is our intuition being fooled instead?

  • Wayne Essel

    If there was any good evidence for phenomena like this, the advocates of psi have had literally over a hundred years to come up with even one well-designed, repeatable experiment to demonstrate it. Instead, all we have is self-delusion and statistical noise.

    Ebonmuse,

    I agree that the experiments need to be a lot better. My point was that in my opinion there is enough possibility in this one to warrant a further look. Why is it that the scientific community does not perform these experiments? I don’t know for sure, but one idea that comes to mind is that there is a bias against these kinds of experiments because the outcome is “assured”, so only the “crackpots” do them.

    I would like to see double blind experiments and to hear of them done over if anything was comprimised.

  • Wayne Essel

    Actually, there is a dragon in the east that burps a fireball into the sky at about 6am every morning which travels through the heavens and comes to rest in the west. It is a new fireball every day. The dragon gets up later and retires earlier in the winter, because he doesn’t like the cold and his cave is nice and toasty.

    If you travel far enough east, you will probably find the dragon’s lair.

    If you travel far enough into the west, you probably can find where the fireballs land. It is a place of great desolation.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Wayne,
    Have a look at the Randi Foundation for a group that does debunking of paranormal claims (usually through double blind experiments).

    Also, your description of the dragon made my chuckle.

  • Andrew

    I don’t know about you Andrew, but when I look up in the sky, I sense (“see”) the sun moving across the sky – thus I sense it is rotating about the Earth. I also do not sense that the Earth is moving or rotating.

    Thats what I mean by its intuitively obvious.

    and it is not “intuitively obvious that the sun revolves around the center of the universe.” My senses are simply wrong on both counts, as are yours.

    Wrong, our senses, with long term observation, or specalized eqiupment are what tells us that we were wrong to think the sun revolved ’round the earth.

    Are you now going to say that that is our intuition being fooled instead?

    I would say ‘instead,’ but I would say, not just yes but HELL YES, its ridiculously easy to trick our intuition. Thats why we use science to double(and tripple and quadruple) check our conclusions.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Wayne, I would suggest that the reason most scientists don’t bother testing claims of psychic ability is that those claims have already been tested, and have failed, so many times, that most scientists doubt there’s anything to be discovered and would rather focus their time on more promising avenues of research. And I don’t blame them for that one bit.

    But no one is preventing any interested party from doing further research on these claims. You can go set up a test on your own, if you want.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    So, it’s “intuitively obvious” that the “sun revolves around the center of the universe” because we sense the sun moving across the sky and we don’t sense the movement of the Earth? This makes no sense.

    Further, you’re going to claim that we didn’t use our senses in order to be fooled that the sun moves around the Earth, but we did use our senses in order to see that the Earth moves around the sun? This makes no sense.

    Even according to your argument (once one adjusts out the nonsense of claiming that we used our senses in one situation but not the other) you’re claiming that we used our senses in both situations. One gave us erroneous conclusions, the other gave us correct conclusions. Now, please tell me how science can come to two different conclusions while assuming that our senses are accurate and also be wrong since our senses were not accurate in one situation, but were in use in both situations?

  • Andrew

    Further, you’re going to claim that we didn’t use our senses in order to be fooled that the sun moves around the Earth, but we did use our senses in order to see that the Earth moves around the sun? This makes no sense.

    Actually we used our senses and intuition in one case, and our sense and science in the other.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Oh, so we weren’t using science in making an observation, an hypothesis, testing, etc and coming to the wrong conclusion? Are you really going to contend that is the case?

  • Andrew

    I’m not sure what your asking. When we use science to observe, predict, test and draw conclusions we usually come to the correct ones, and even when we get it wrong, we usually find out at some point as further observations, predictions and tests are conducted.

    Would you agree its necessary to use our senses in the ‘observe’ and ‘test’ steps?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    I was pointing out your special pleading.

    The way you are talking about how we use our senses (in the idea of we have to receive input somehow) yes, we must use our senses. That still does not necessitate that we assume our senses are accurate in order to do science, and this example has shown that to be the case quite clearly, in that if we had assumed our senses were accurate (we did actually) we would still believe the sun orbits the Earth (or a dragon spits a fireball, thanks Wayne).

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    OMGF,

    That still does not necessitate that we assume our senses are accurate in order to do science,

    If we don’t assume our senses are reliable, how might we avoid the pitfalls of relativism and solipsism?

    .. if we had assumed our senses were accurate (we did actually) we would still believe the sun orbits the Earth

    Our senses were accurate. They gave us reliable data: The observance of a bright, fiery object arching across the sky was reliable. It was what our brains did with the reliable data given by our senses that caused the confusion.

    Don’t you think you might be confusing reliability of senses with reliability of conclusions? If not, why would it be absurd for a normal individual to deny the sun’s existence?

    Andrew,

    I would say it wasnt our senses that told us the sun revolved around the earth, but our intuition.

    Seems pretty straight-forward to me – but then again – maybe my unreliable senses are fooling me ;)

    Wayne / Ebonmuse,

    ..the advocates of psi have had literally over a hundred years to come up with even one well-designed, repeatable experiment to demonstrate it. Instead, all we have is self-delusion and statistical noise. (Ebonmuse)

    Sure, there’s lots of self-delusion and statistical noise, but the italicized statement above isn’t exactly true, and I think you should look deeper. Incidentally, Albert Einstein wrote the forward to Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio in 1930 and one of the first published reports on telepathy was the two-volume 1886 Phantasms of the Living by the Society for Psychical Research. In 1974, Puthoff and Targ published their Information Transfer Under Conditions of Sensory Shielding, and in 1995 researchers Utts and Hyman also published a series of significant peer-reviewed papers. Early experiments typically took place in Britain or the United States and dealt with a series of cards where the sender and percipient attempt to transfer mental images. Many early experiments were outright trash science – but like Wayne alludes to with his ESP anecdote above – others represented legitimate frontier studies worthy of further exploration.

    At least one telepathic experiment has been conducted from space with over 150,000 miles between sender and receiver. Perhaps the most significant contemporary work on the subject is the program on “Anomalous Mental Phenomena” carried out at SRI International (formerly the Stanford Research Institute) from 1973 through 1989, and continued at SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) from 1992 through 1994. While not conclusive proof – IMO – a fair and balanced analysis of the latter does permit the conservative statements that inexplicable statistical results greater than chance occur, and that the argument for psychic faculty is undeniably stronger than it has ever been. That 100 years has passed means nothing.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    My point was that in my opinion there is enough possibility in this one to warrant a further look. Why is it that the scientific community does not perform these experiments? I don’t know for sure, but one idea that comes to mind is that there is a bias against these kinds of experiments because the outcome is “assured”, so only the “crackpots” do them.

    Sam Parnia is coordinating an on-going study into NDEs.