Suppose I start with the very question of what to write and how to write. Every question is endlessly recursive and asks itself. From the dream-like reverie state of question-asking to the cold clear focus of conscious, deliberative thought (writing can function in either mode), there are endless questions about the questions about the questions that can be asked, and then of those can be asked, which should be asked, and then of should – what should means? And so on.
And of course the desire then comes to cut the inquiry short at a certain point and proceed to action but – when? Another question. So action must come from outside of questions, from beyond questions. Which means that action cannot, strictly speaking, come from the rational mind, though it may come from the willing mind, if the willing mind is connected to the rational mind so that the latter may cast the shadow of the former’s power and activity.
There have already been in my journeys innumerable considerations about genre, venue, future projects, and past considerations. I have, for example, the journey to which I keep returning: my intellectual journey from the spiritual precepts of eastern philosophy to the question of procrastination and the origin of desire to the solution of following desire rather than fighting it to the question of what steers desire in the first place to the question of love and repression and homosexuality and nostalgia and inner light and lakes of fire and orangina suns to the question of what creates love and what love, particularly romantic love, is, and what justifies the suffering that attends it, and finally, the question of what art is and how art and expression can justify suffering, explain love, explain psychology (in a way that normal, causal explanation cannot), explain desire, explain procrastination, move life forward, act as a self-therapy, act as a communication with the divinity, and finally put the practical last Jenga piece into the framework of Vedanta and Indian philosophy, culminating in a refreshed vision and practice of it for the modern day.
That journey I have considered over and over, reflecting on its meaning, wondering how far indeed I have actually gotten, and to whom my solution really applies, and is it really original, and in what context should it be situated intellectually, and to whom should I attempt to speak it – and how practical are the various attempts – and in what fora or venues, and how, and in what style, and in the first-person or the third-person, in a book-length or an article or essay-length, in fiction or non-fiction or both.
There are questions of money and fame and accessibility of various venue possibilities – all of which affect the questions of style, point-of-view and other literary issues – weighed against the pureness of my vision if such considerations were not an issue: though can one really know such a state? Can one really subtract those mercenary considerations from the rest and truly know what one’s decision would have been in their absence? I doubt it. On the other hand, partially, probably. It is worth the attempt.
I have well over half a million words of journal entries, numerous half-finished attempts at books that communicate my various spiritual questions and insights: some in self-help form, some in nonfiction essay form, some in more lyrical form, some in less lyrical form, some longer, some shorter, some with more authority, some in more tremulous prose, some in first person, some in third person, some fictional, some non-fictional. I carry an equipage of snippets of observations, aphorisms, and prose poetry, as well, a good 50,000 words of that conservatively. And then there are the various nonfiction and fiction pieces I have tried to submit to real publications, mostly unsuccessfully, though that is not surprising given that it’s the fate of most authors for most such submissions. I have a book proposal for the aforementioned autobiographical spiritual journey complete with questions and answers, but on which I have somehow soured, and more.
My computer folders are disorganized. I am anxious, sensing my virtual desk to be in disarray. Not that I do not know where all the projects are, but tucked within those many folders are documents within documents, files within files, and finally I do not know which files are where, what’s what, and I sense that mild edge of panic that is worry about missing crucial pieces of my life and possible oeuvre – missing beneath my very nose. Is this pretentious or merely neurotic?
This very form in which I am engaged in right now is itself another experiment. What does it mean to be artistically honest? Honesty is one thing, artistry another: to what extent are they diametrically opposed? Is not artistry an affectation? Though it is an affectation with the desire to communicate. Is it a desire to create something organized, regardless of its actual communicativeness, but with respect only to its potential to communicate? And then communicate to whom? To actual readers? To potential readers who exist in the actual world? To myself? And if so, to one of my past selves – and if so which one? Or else to a future self? Or to that future self I dub “posterity”? To a select group of elite or elect readers, perhaps, either now or in the future? Or else to some hypothesized ideal reader whose actual existence is as unlikely as the actual existence of any pure Platonic form but whose reality may nevertheless be approximated, if not now then at some time, who alone can judge me and in whose mind I will have paid the price of admission to join the pantheon of wise men, literary giants, makers of beauty?
To what extent is fluency appropriate, and to what extent planning? Should I feel guilty, anxious, shameful, inadequate, or worried that I did not plan this essay in meticulous detail beforehand, wonder about its contours, outline it, decide whether it was to be more objective or opinionated, didactic or entertaining, or else a mere record? Or am I to be congratulated on the seat-of-the-pants creation of this?
How long should an essay like this be, or how short? How should it begin and how it should end, and how much background should one give, and how much assume? And can answers be given to these questions without invoking their own recursive set of identical questions about how they should be phrased, and to whom, and how they should begin and end, and so on, ad nauseum?
There is only, it seems, in the mind, a rolling and interminable set of adventures and mysteries, questions and decisions, always outstripping by far the capacity of the mind to grasp the relevant factors and the factors that would render them relevant and so on, to acquire the relevant information in trustworthy form, and to apply it in timely fashion to the contemporaneous environment.
With the release a few months ago of Curtis White’s new book, The Science Delusion, another volley has been fired in what has come to be the holy war of our time. The war pits evangelists against non-believers—only this time the evangelists call their religion “science.” What they really proselytize is not science but scientism, a worldview, which, among increasing numbers of educated people, is so obvious that questioning it like doubting gravity: unthinkable, even mad. Scientism is the notion that science can and will explain everything, even the deepest questions of the human mind and spirit.
It is built on the idea that we are our brains and that since evolution can explain our brains, it can explain us. We do not fall in love; our brains do. Any belief in God is not just debatable, it is unscientific—though understandable given how our brains formed on the savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago. Scientism grinds away at every human virtue, trying to show how creativity, empathy, and morality are simply mechanical devices clothed in flesh instead of metal, honed over millennia because they aided survival. Because thinking is nothing more than a clever computer program, scientism looks forward with fear and excitement to the point when computers snowball in power and finally exceed human intelligence in an explosion groupies dub the “singularity.”
The hordes of the scientismists are voluble and their numbers increase daily. They include the four ‘horsemen’ of New Atheism: Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, along with their comrades-in-arms, evolutionary scientists like Steven Pinker, anti-philosophical physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, Singularity proponents like Ray Kurzweil, and the numberless enthusiastic heralds of neuroscience and evolution who fill bookstores, newspapers, and magazines with their scribblings. Together, they control the assumptions of mainstream intellectual life.
White’s book joins the sparse but courageous ranks of heretical philosophy books like Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies, Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind. Together these brave thinkers and others lead a ragtag disarray of skeptics, perhaps large in number, but dazed and uncoordinated. They differ greatly in their approaches, but they all feel stifled by scientism. They feel in their bones that we cannot ultimately be disassembled into sprockets and plugged into equations or algorithms, that there is something more, that we are not merely evolved robots.
Among this group’s weapons, the strongest concerns the status of consciousness. It’s a well-known question among academic philosophers, but not among the educated public.
In philosophy, the experiences we have – the redness of a rose, the smell of fresh coffee, the feeling of anger – are called “qualia.” If we are nothing but physical mechanisms, qualia must be explicable in physical terms.
They are not. To show you why, imagine that where you saw the color green, I saw the color blue, and vice-versa. Importantly, though, we both called things by the same names and acted towards them in the same way. In other words, we both called a cucumber “green” and the sky “blue,” ate one and flew kites in the other. Would we ever be able to tell that our colors were reversed in this way? No.
Because try as anyone might to examine our bodies or brains, they could never find out, by looking at cell activity, what color each of us saw in our private mental movie theater, what it is like for each of us to have a particular experience. There is a fundamental disconnect between what brain cells or chemicals look like and the colors we see. Where in the brain is the color red? Dissect away to your heart’s content: you will never find it. That redness takes place in our minds, our private domains.
And even if a machine existed that supposedly read from neurons what color another person was seeing and displayed it – how would anyone tell if it was accurate? Someone would have to observe the monitor. Their own colors might be reversed. No one could ever know if the monitor were calibrated correctly. No amount of physical observation with even the most sophisticated physical instruments would solve this problem. My mind allows me to experience things, but from that same nature bars me from knowing the experiences of others.
The fact of our perceiving switched colors would remain forever unknown. The thought experiment above is called the “inverted spectrum.” It shows that scientism, which holds that everything there is can be understood by examining the physical world, cannot explain what it is like to have an experience – which is the most fundamental, everyday thing there is!
The basic responses of the scientistic philosophers to these arguments fall into two categories. First, they claim that qualia are an illusion – that we literally do not experience them at all, but only talk as if we do. There is no “inner movie” playing in front of you right now; you do not see these words in some space in your mind. These are just misleading words. To call our most intimate experience illusory sounds like gibberish to me, but some people buy it.
Second, they argue that science has not yet but will someday show the physical basis for qualia, even though we cannot conceive how, because science solves everything. This is just blind faith, of course, since science has not solved everything. It has never said what is good and evil, for example. And it never will. It can tell us facts, but not what to value.
Similarly, it is not only currently impossible for science to explain qualia, it will remain forever so. Scientists will always have minds themselves, their own qualia machines, which will prevent them from ever knowing anyone else’s. That means the scientistic worldview is broken; not everything in human experience can be explained by examining the mechanisms of physical matter. Evolution cannot hope to fully explain conscious experience as an adaptation. Computer scientists are unlikely to produce awareness mechanically, since it is not merely a matter of assembling physical materials.
Why does all this matter? If consciousness can never be fully explained by science, it means that there is a realm of personal, private truth which must be investigated by other means. The way is cleared for art, meditation, spirituality, and introspection, devalued in recent years, as alternative and necessary paths to truth — not just personal growth, but truth.
Don’t get me wrong. Science should proceed and make what headway it can to understand the human condition. It only has no right to foreclose as irrational or archaic those private paths of truth-seeking that human kind always has, and always must, continue to pursue, each person ultimately looking within.
It is high time that the rebels strike back.