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Candle in the dark

Candles in the Dark

The metaphor of science as ‘a candle in the dark’ originated with Carl Sagan, as the subtitle to his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World (Amazon US). Since then, skeptics and atheists have adopted the line in force, from simply quoting Sagan through to naming conferences after it. In Chapter 2 of his book, Sagan outlines how he came to adopt the subtitle:

A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch-hunts then in progress as a scam ‘to delude the people’. Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the ‘witchmongers’ as arguing, ‘else how should these things be, or come to pass?’ For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.

Ady also warned of the danger that ‘the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge’. Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Given the wide usage of this (rather hyperbolic) metaphor by the skeptical community, I was rather amused to read the following passage in Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research (page 149), published in 1968, which (pre-emptively) presents a rather different, almost contradictory, usage:

Myers once said that the most important question one could ask was ‘Is the Universe Friendly?’ and with this view several of his colleagues would in one way or another have concurred. There had lately been much to suggest to them that the Universe was neither friendly to mankind nor yet unfriendly; it was just blankly indifferent. Psychical research seemed to offer a touch of warmth and hope in face of this chilling prospect. It was at least a candle in the darkness which was beginning to loom on every side.

So is science a candle in the dark, or is it the encroaching darkness?

  1. light or dark?
    I believe that one’s intentions while executing scientific practice will, for the most part, dictate whether it is the candle or the darkness.

    But, if the scientist’s intentions encompass an idea that our fairly naive and ignorant sciences can explain EVERYTHING, then that scientist will be left in the dark.

    And, I still cannot believe that some of us used to hunt “witches”.

    1. oh, the distant past…
      …And, I still cannot believe that some of us used to hunt “witches”.[/quote]

      What do you mean, “used to”?

      It’s being done every day. Sometimes figuratively, like blaming the other political party leaders, the scientists, the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Jews, the Blacks and the Spics,…

      Of course it is done literally today as well. If you’re an albino in some parts or Africa, your life is dangerous.

      1. Yes, thank you, Earthling
        You’re absolutely right. I was going to touch on that, specifically in entheogen-using shamanic practices, but I didn’t want to get myself going on another tangent.

        Plus, like you stated, there are still way too many people out there hunting down whoever is different.

  2. Candles in the Dark
    Great metaphor for our eternal search for truth and meaning in our lives and the nature of life. Clearly it can be used by any advocate to support their world view. Science is often the bully today much as the church was during the described witch hunts of the past, attacking anything outside its realm of explanation or understanding. Funny thing is as I grow older and hopefully wiser, I have the benefit of experience to balance my beliefs and I’ve seen science do an about face on many subjects during the last 20-30 years – nutrition science for example. Point is that I have a saying I’ve used for years that is worth repeating here however hokey it may sound: science only knows what it knows but often can’t see beyond its nose.

    Science is much like the candle in the dark – the arrogance and elitist attitude of many scientists and their fear of ridicule and being ostracized by their peers too often causes them to ignore, reject and even attack any anomalous, new, or competing theories outside the accepted norm of the moment (outside the light of their burning candle). Their community is too often similar to the ignorant witch hunters of the past so fearful of that which lies in the dark beyond the reach of their meager theories – which in the present always seem momentous yet as the future inexorably bears down always proves them in hindsight to have been woefully inadequate or downright wrong.

  3. Oops, wordcount says i typed for too long 🙂
    Hay All,

    So is science a candle in the dark, or is it the encroaching darkness?

    Great question.

    I thought i’d have a crack at it, especially since it is a common theme.

    I don’t think it is a difficult question to answer overall, but it requires that we break it down.

    ‘Science’ in this context is being used very broadly and in this nebulous and expanded sense is easy to criticise, but what are we actually criticising here? Are we really criticising ‘science’? and if so what are we using to do it and is it valid?

    Picking something at random.

    If you study geology you will spend many long hours staring through a microscope at sections of rock learning what the minerals look like. Each crystal will have its own shape, relief, and response to light. Under polarised light each will show vibrant colours and as you turn them each will shift through its own spectrum. The colours are so bright and reminiscent of some of nature’s finest macroscopic artworks. The criss-crossed pattern revealing internal crystal structure also acts as a guide through the mineralogical world.


    Each crystal tells a story and the many thousands of different crystals of different types (in the same rock) all add up to tell the same one. This cross-calibration of data adds up to both identify the rock (or mineral assemblage) and its history – what temperature and pressure it evolved under, and for what length of time, as well as what type of rock it is, be it igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary, and hence what environment it formed in and how.

    Back to the original point – what is it here we are criticising? If we are to criticise ‘science’ as a single entity then we are criticising the trillion things, such as mineral crystallography, that form its body of knowledge. Is anybody here really willing to get down to the nitty-gritty of attacking each of the tiny details that form bodies of knowledge outside of what it is fashionable to attack using broadstrokes or ideological differences? Put another way, does anybody here feel competent attacking each of the trillion different things, such as mineral crystallography, chemical weathering, arithmetic and logic processing in computing, semiconductor electronics, hydrocarbon permeation equations in differing reservoir potentials, etc etc etc If we are to attack ‘science’ as a body of knowledge as some people seem to conjure the image of doing then it is these types of facts that we are running headlong into criticising. Obviously it would take immense knowledge to do this in any real sense.

    So are we criticising the philosophy? Well, not really. Not unless we wish to criticise all those scientists trying to study such things as NDE’s, OBE’s, telepathy etc scientifically. If we are to criticise the scientific method as a philosophy then the likes of Sheldrake are likely to have something to say, and i would agree.

    It is also hard to criticise the philosophical method. Form a hypothesis, create a method of testing it, form a conclusion based purely on the results of the test, listen to the criticism of your peers.

    If the criticism is of this philosophy and not of how it is practised, or perceived to be practiced, then what would people insert? Perhaps we could have fun trying to create new lines to add to the formula? 🙂 – would these increase the certainty of conclusions or decrease them though? This is all we are really talking about within the confines of the method itself. Do additions to it render it more or less useful in of itself. It may be fine to say we cannot know with complete confidence, or that something may be unknowable, but these are already handled by assigning varying error margins to your results.

    I think it is worth trying to be very cautious of the insertion of ideology into the formula. It often seems that the benchmark for whether someone agrees with a conclusion is not based on the sum of available conclusions and their possible error margins, but simply whether they like the outcome. Are we being led by the evidence, or trying to lead the evidence where we would like it to go?

    Can a question such as that posed in the post really be framed in any way other than by something external? In fact if we are to criticise ‘science’ then by necessity mustn’t we have something external to ‘science’ to act as a yardstick by which we can assess the criticism? If so then what are we to use? Especially if we are trying to be cautious about using ideology or personal gut instinct.

    Looking at the whole subject of ‘is science a candle in the dark’ – what frame of reference are we going to use to judge whether it is? I put forward that it is likely to be ideological (and that this should be resisted by anyone in an honest pursuit of reality). For example, can we really use a strong suspicion that NDE’s or OBE’s prove life after death (instead of some type of quantum entanglement, quantum multiverse structure or perhaps just an ability to sense what happens elsewhere before you actually die and become nothing – or something we just don’t know that isn’t life after death as our ideologies would like it) or mediumship being communication with the dead (instead of subconscious communication of minds across space-time, or knowledge stored by the universe, but not consciousness, or mere imprints of personality etc) – can we really use these suspicions to disprove the methodology of mineral crystallography, or the myriad of scientific understanding.

    What about the philosophy of understanding itself? Often we see philosophical relativism and evidential relativism practiced as a means to an end. But is my idea that I was born from the breath of wind of a marmite adoring dream (I do like marmite after all) really equal to molecular evolution? To that end can any contrary formulation of language (love is beauty, love is imagination, God is nothing, Nothing is God, Blue triangle composites the night-time Goddess, The night-time Goddess composites all things, energy is love, love is energy, energy is god, god is energy, paradigms branch along the fingers of life) that in its use of opposed verbs or logical confusion appears profound be used as a support for a criticism of something like arithmetic and logic processor construction, gravitational ripple detection and prediction in the cosmic microwave background, fluid acidity measurements, thermal conductivity equations?

    So if we are not on an all out attack on each of the trillion items of scientific understanding (but are in conflict with some of them), and we are not on an attack of the philosophy in general (but are on the use of the philosophy in some circumstances) then what conclusion must we make about the nature of our criticism – and of the reasons for it?

    Firstly the points of conflict are ideological. Nobody cares about mineral crystallography (though now i’ve pointed it out 😉 ). We care here what science has to say about such things as life after death, a hugely popular subject. Now even though nobody actually knows what is going on, whether we do survive and we do it like in Islam, or Catholicism or some New Age way, or whether aliens are tricking mediums for some purpose or whether we are being tricked by information flow through time and perceptional differences outside of what we consider normal experience. All we seem able to say is that something is going on; but to use a something or a possibility to disprove other items that are well founded is not good practice and is guided by, and hence serves as an example of, ideological positioning.

    So can we use the fact that people inside and outside of science disagree with each others conclusions as evidence that there is a problem with the enterprise as a whole? Or perhaps that knowledge changes is evidence of a problem?

    I would argue not. I would say that this is evidence of our own positions in the history of our species. The fact that we are still learning and that some people are right and some wrong is no different now to what it was in the past. The scientific attempt to prune incorrect ideas is still valid. If anything this is only a call to intellectual maturity, not to dismiss entire enterprises that have served us well in so many ways.

    I praise people like Sheldrake for attempting to research using the scientific method, and deplore others for not using it and just espousing their gut feelings about the universe. They do not stand on the shoulders of giants, but on their own ego’s, else they are just having a pub conversation, but in public and are expecting us all to listen, which again would be egotistical.

    A subject like life after death is one of the hardest out there to objectively test (and to verify specifics) and science has been in conflict with one part or another for centuries, not just the evidences (which have varied over the centuries), but also the ideologies. We shouldn’t expect harmony, since science will not be moulded by opinion and the relationship between culture and science is not harmonious. Science naturally attempts to inform culture, which happens just by people like you and me reading as much by specific organisations in conflict over money, power or ideology. Equally, because science is really just people like you and me asking questions and trying to answer them culture can direct science, but the chances of science providing the answers we want is the chance of us being correct in every question we ask of it before we ‘know’ the answer.

    In short science is one of the things to be most optimistic about. Nobody has to agree with an answer, though it would be wise to learn something about what you are disagreeing with. Everything on the forefront is in motion, everything speculative is in motion.

    There is a problem that people will prefer to attack science as a whole rather than learn to adjust their beliefs in accordance with what is understood. Evolution, for example, does not forbid life after death, but it surely has something to say about life on this planet in relation to the current theories of the afterlife. Geology does not forbid a God, but it should, and does if you have an open mind, change the philosophical characteristics that we can attribute to any deity. If we are open to changing our beliefs in correct accordance with the error margins of specific theories then we can go a long way towards creating a science and culture that more parallel each other. If we step outside of this, perhaps choosing an idea that appears to have an error of 99.99999% such as young earth creationism, then we should at least be honest about what we are doing and we cannot honestly launch attacks on the entire scientific endeavour if this is what we have done.

    The paranormal, while being an aspect of life that people clearly care about and honestly wish we understood more, would be just another part of life’s tapestry of puzzles. Most of our understanding (those trillions of things we have learnt about the natural world) will not be changed if it is proven or disproved, though the context of our lives could be (though this is a personal thing for each individual). It would be a layer of understanding added to our many others, as important as crystallography, or plate tectonics, but unlikely to change them. Some behave as if it were the be all of all understanding and would transform everything, it would not; though it would no doubt change our perspective – there are however a trillion bits of understanding that it would not affect in any way.

    I guess this depends on whether death is just like going to another place. Not belittling this existence and as important as it. Another room we go to in our rich existences. In such a case there would be no need for nihilism with regard to understanding this world, no need to relegate it to second place in either its mechanics or purpose.

    Or perhaps this is the spiritual and material dump some religions would have us believe. With no real purpose to it other than to do as well in guaranteeing as much as is possible access to the better bits of the next one. That spending time trying to understand the apparently material (definition not withstanding) workings of this one really is pointless next to access to the bounties available in the next.

    I do not believe that though, who was it that said that the journey is more important than the destination? I don’t think it is pointless to try and understand this world, irrespective of the possibilities or not of the next. As such sciences breadth and depth so far exceeds the philosophical and ideological criticisms made of it that as a whole it is not in any realistic way going to be affected by them. We are after all only really talking about a few populist points of cultural conflict next to an ocean of endeavour reaching into every aspect of our lives, the majority of which will remain unaffected by the outcome of those points.

    If all we are really doing is discussing whether some people annoy us or whether we disagree with some people then the question is not really about whether science is a candle in the dark.

    1. Can truth constitute darkness?
      [quote=daydreamer]So are we criticising the philosophy? Well, not really. Not unless we wish to criticise all those scientists trying to study such things as NDE’s, OBE’s, telepathy etc scientifically. If we are to criticise the scientific method as a philosophy then the likes of Sheldrake are likely to have something to say, and i would agree.[/quote]

      That’s the important point, and exactly what I was going to mention in my original post until I realised that posing the question without answering it might provide for more interesting discussion. That is – in Gauld’s quote, it is psychical research that is the candle…and psychical research (as practiced by the top line of the SPR) was purely based on scientific method. So in both Sagan and Gauld’s quotes, the scientific method is the candle.

      Perhaps more interesting question though is: what then constitutes the darkness in Gauld’s quote. It is in fact the recent discoveries of Darwin, etc, which were turning the human being into a negligible organism within a vast indifferent cosmos. So the darkness is not science per se, but the recent scientific discoveries that seemed to be killing off any meaning or morals to human existence.

      To extend the metaphor, then – science may be a candle in the darkness, but maybe darkness is the better alternative if we’re just locked in a blank, desolate room with rotting corpses all about us. At least darkness allows for some imagination and hope (although it also could prompt fears and panic). On the other hand, if the candle of psychical research had illuminated a beautiful meadow, a cornucopia of goodness, and the everlasting spirits of all our deceased friends and family, then that’s probably something worth unveiling.

      In short, science is a candle, as it illuminates. But is humanity able to handle the illumination that science may cast on the Universe and on ourselves in the search for truth?

      1. Candle in the blackness,
        Science is controlled by the money, the money is controlled by the market, the market is controlled by the consumer, the consumer is controlled by the advertisement, the advertisement is controlled by the profit, the profit is controlled by the greed of share holders and elite who are controlled by EGO and SELF gratification.
        Science will not follow a path where there is no profit.
        So, lighting up our knowledge depends on the money trail.
        Science is neither our candle nor our blackness. What it really is is our dummy. It gives us a sense of security and knowing that allows us to move forward, day to day, with a feeling of accomplishment.
        We can live safe and securer knowing that science “has our back” protecting us from all we do not understand.
        In this way it is “the blackness” but in the other way it is the light.

        1. Psuedo-science and money as well
          [quote=thefloppy1]Science is controlled by the money, the money is controlled by the market, the market is controlled by the consumer, the consumer is controlled by the advertisement, the advertisement is controlled by the profit, the profit is controlled by the greed of share holders and elite who are controlled by EGO and SELF gratification.
          Science will not follow a path where there is no profit.
          So, lighting up our knowledge depends on the money trail.
          Science is neither our candle nor our blackness. What it really is is our dummy. It gives us a sense of security and knowing that allows us to move forward, day to day, with a feeling of accomplishment.
          We can live safe and securer knowing that science “has our back” protecting us from all we do not understand.
          In this way it is “the blackness” but in the other way it is the light.[/quote]

          This applies to private individuals as well. Sometimes they have habits to support.

      2. Indeed.

        There have been many excellent replies to the vein of this post, but if we are ready to say that the point is philosophical, which i agree is the realm of best fit for the proposition, then we should admit that each of the replies has difficulties that should be addressed – as always occurs in philosophy.

        Obviously we are dealing with a metaphor, the candle, which has connotations that we either accept, or dismiss. Philosophically there is no reason to elevate science as a candle over say love or friendship. We must agree on the terms. If we are to use understanding or truth then they also have their own problems. Truth is perhaps a noble goal, but science never claims to reach it to 100%, so might we need a definition of truth that perhaps features a benchmark of 99% certainty within the framework of current evidence – instead of simpler and perhaps more philosophically childish definitions of truth as absolute or guaranteed. Understanding is also a complicated philosophical idea, especially when the notion of wisdom, which often includes the concept of acceptance of lack of understanding as part of its initial condition.

        If you are right Greg and the philosophical point is the more interesting, profound, and best way to frame the question of sciences role as some type of ‘candle’, and i do not disagree that this view is important, then these philosophical issues need to be treated fairly.

        Another point is that the frame of reference for what the candle is is very personal. Whether you think science is, or psychical research is, very much depends on your frame of mind. This produces valuable opinion, but is absolutely the wrong way to perform philosophy if what you want to achieve at the end is more than opinion. Again this is occurring in the context of a metaphor, just to make things harder, with no way of objectively stating whether science, psychical research, love or friendship is the greater candle.

        To begin to say which is most valuable in any given role we must begin to move outside of philosophy. Science can be better at informing physical medicine, cancer research etc, psychology and spirituality for issues of the mind etc, psychical research for life after death maybe, yet to define which is the candle will depend on what answer you are looking for.

        The definition of the darkness is an interesting one and one where i think we will see quite marked differences between people. Again though we see that we are just dealing with personal feelings and reflection. It is not natures job to conform to our tastes, but ours to reflect on and find meaning in our own lives, irrespective of the reality.

        Science may well be presenting a view of life that some people find difficult, but there are enough people who have no problem with it to show that it is not intrinsic to science itself, but a reflection of personal philosophy.

        Therefore what a person might define as the candle and the respective darkness, be it science and psychical research, heaven and hell, God and Satan, good and evil, health and disability, love and hatred, very much reflects the personality and philosophy of the individual – our personal relationship with reality, whatever it might be.

        We are surrounded by friends and family, love and passion. I would suggest that any philosophy that considers this life, with all its possibilities, our loved ones and children, to be ultimately meaningless unless there is another room to go to with more pleasure and cool stuff after we die, that that philosophy is quite possibly darkness itself. In fact i wouldn’t be at all surprised if the greater meaning of this reality was to realise this – that over this life, then the next and the next, this reality, then the next, and the room after that and the next and the next, that meaning is not provided by these ‘spaces’ and transmissions, but by the meaning we each bring to it.

        This would seem more philosophically mature to me compared to the idea that meaning is provided by going somewhere ‘really nice’ next time. Especially since if we maintain any of our core in the next realm i will still want to look around, learn, understand how it all works, where it all came from. Especially if there is no ‘next’ to go to in the next realm. How did it come about? Where did it come from? Perhaps science will be the endeavor providing the candle in the next realm.

        [quote]In short, science is a candle, as it illuminates. But is humanity able to handle the illumination that science may cast on the Universe and on ourselves in the search for truth?[/quote]

        Hmmm. I think so. Whatever the answer will be. Our cultures lag behind our understanding though. There is always a resistance. Religions are a good example. It may be claimed that they are a core to our culture, unchanged over time, but they change slowly. The rate of change could be a way of studying how long it takes for challenging information to permeate through resistive institutions through what amounts to public acceptance prior to institutional acceptance, and ultimately majority cultural change.

        [quote]Science will not follow a path where there is no profit.[/quote]

        Though i have much sympathy for this as there are obvious correlations it either fails to explain the history of science, or is evidence that there is much profit in reality. I cannot completely decide which is true and i suspect a mixture of both, combined with pure academic interest. There are many examples of research projects that result in no/poor economic gain, in fact many that just result in a cost to the institution. I suspect a proper appraisal of Phd grant bodies and given research grants would serve to put this argument in its place. Certainly my ex girlfriends Phd in Tetrapod evolution did not seem to raise big business much money.

        [quote]The candle is symbolic for enlightenment and while a microscope can shed light on a thing in particular, it cannot illuminate the whole[/quote]

        This of course goes to that whole idea that there are other means of understanding. Perhaps. I remain far from convinced that what we have here are different ways of fully understanding as opposed to just things that science hasnt answered yet. I fully accept that there will be things that cannot be answered, but i am quite suspicious of anyone that claims to have an answer without being able to show how they achieved it. Perhaps they do, just like i might dream the future tonight and claim some utterly profound new reality on the grail tomorrow, but i do not think it is valid to accept what someone says just because they claim to be right. After all there are a million different theologies doing this, but philosophy is critical of them all (and i’m trying to stay in the philosophical realm for this reply).

        Perhaps what is unknowable should be at least in the majority defined as either what is unimaginable, or what is untestable. At least in that instance we would be able to agree on what was unknowable. At the moment though people claim both the unimaginable and the untestable as knowable. This is different to psychical research of course, which does claim that things are testable, at least in principle.

        [quote]It is when science is used as a synonym for “truth” that I start to have a problem.[/quote]

        Agreed, though i think we should stop using ‘science’ as some sort of target, unless we mean to. If you wish to target every claim then i disagree with you. I don’t think anything on the grail will help you go after plate tectonics for example, nor would i see the point of getting upset if i said there was so much evidence for it that i was 99.9999999% sure it was true so as a geologist i was willing to call it true. Other facts, such as you using the name ‘kamarling’ on the website ‘’ are also true. Other facts, such as my address, the names of my parents, my favorite beer, are facts addressable by science without the need to treat the use of the words ‘science’ and ‘truth’ as problematic.

        As such, and with our philosophical hats on, we should be more specific about what we mean and where the problems lie.

        Clearly the extension of sciences such as cosmology, quantum and relativistic physics, geology into the realms of philosophical meaning is a point of contention. Geologies affect on the meaning provided by biblical literalism was, generally, settled decades ago, a century ago even. That struggle is being paralleled by evolution today. New age ideas will naturally also face similar challenges.

        I try to be honest to what i understand, which is primarily geology and the sciences that input to it. Not to just declare them as annoying, but to try and understand them.

        How is meaning affected by an ancient naturally evolving earth, where life has evolved over billions of years into more complex forms, and in a naturally evolving universe that is itself nearly 14 billion years old, and unimaginably large and complex itself?

        I don’t get annoyed with science for claiming that all the cross referenced evidence suggests it is true, or even for speculating about things like multi-verses and string theory. I just try and keep up and ask what what we do understand means (like the timescales and natural orders of geology and physics) and what it would mean if the more speculative ideas were true (like multi-verses).

        1. Frames of Reference
          [quote=daydreamer]This of course goes to that whole idea that there are other means of understanding. Perhaps. I remain far from convinced that what we have here are different ways of fully understanding as opposed to just things that science hasnt answered yet. I fully accept that there will be things that cannot be answered, but i am quite suspicious of anyone that claims to have an answer without being able to show how they achieved it.[/quote]

          Hi DayDreamer,

          Thanks for your detailed and insightful posts. I think the point should be made that “answering” does not necessarily equal “understanding”. There are certainly “other means” of understanding, which science will never have an answer for – but only if one departs from a mechanistic, reductionist, physicalist view of the Universe. Holistic and religious understanding does not depend on factually answering a number of questions, data gathering as it were. But the materialist would argue that those things aren’t “real”, and therefore there is no answering or understanding anyhow. And yet, those that have this “understanding” incorporate it into their life experience, and are emotionally changed by it.

          I’ve said it before, but there’s a certain circular logic in a materialist view of truth and reality (ie. that the definition of what is ‘real’ is provided by a material definition of what is measurable…a new take on the old phrase “you create your own reality”). What is measurable though may not actually provide the ultimate truth – and I think that’s a core issue that scares materialists in a number of ways. Science and measuring provide security, and control of understanding…if they are not the basis of ultimate truth then they are suddenly adrift in an ocean on a raft with no paddle.

          In addition, I think the point of proof of an afterlife is not that we’ll all be in some happy, beautiful place – the point is that it would suggest there is meaning, there are morals, in this Universe. If we are just monkeys on an infinitesmal speck living a life of no (or only self-defined) meaning, that becomes the ‘darkness’ (every crime and tragedy, no matter how horrific, is simply a natural event; no matter what tremendous pain and hardship that is being suffered and inflicted all over the world, there is no relief or redemption.)

          If anyone were to truly comprehend the truth of the pain being suffered in the world at any moment, I think they would lose their mind. So truth and understanding are possibly not something we should seek in every area.

          1. Interesting.
            Ah, I think I’m understanding this better, though in my own way as how would anything else be possible.

            I have studied some neurological evolution, but mainly the general theme of increasing neurological sophistication through the emergence of differing life-forms in the fossil record from the Pre-Cambrian onwards, then more specifically the evolutionary increments related to increased sensory performance in sharks. One of my palaeontology lecturers at uni was a shark evolution expert, so we got a good dose of that.

            Unfortunately my understanding of primate brain evolution is not too good. Either way though I think I can wrap together an idea.

            Our brains consist of different systems that have evolved at different times. Some parts are common to us and our ancestors, other parts have appeared along the line, others have developed new function etc. In this sense I am less interested in the expansion and growth of the brain over the last few million years as the evolution as the differing modular components; things like hemispheric separation, the pineal gland, limbic system, temporal lobes, neo-cortex, parietal lobes etc

            Now, give or take, each of these systems is responsible for differing aspects of our minds abilities; there is plenty of evidence each is doing different things when we feel things, experience things, or experience different states of mind. I am not ruling out that we can leave this state of affairs, non of us can say what happens additionally to this, but there is also no need to deny what strokes, fMRI, anatomy, phylogeny etc are telling us. I’m not trying to start a discussion about the material function of the brain, I’m happy here to just think that some energy leaves after death etc, or just call it magical or unknown, and leave it to that.

            Even if we didn’t know about all this brain modularity and differing function we would still be able to say, though without biological backing, that our ‘minds’ can perform different tasks; that they can perform different states, different modes of experience. Such as our continuous stream of word thoughts, or our emotions, or a lack of these; or other states – the dimensionalisation of our surroundings or the perception of the flow of time etc

            Anyway, what I am thinking is that as far as the function and experience go it is no surprise. Perhaps it is not easy, but we do have some choice as to how our minds operate, and to this extent we can change how we perceive and experience the world. This seems to be the case whether the brain is everything, or is just some type of divided container with the conditions of the soul affected by the state of the soul’s receptor.

            Back to the point:

            Are we using different language? I am suspicious now that we are more talking about definitions. I think I understand what you mean, let me see.

            The differing functions of our mind mean we can experience things in different ways. When a scientist uses the word understanding he/she means something specific. He means how the thing works. Or at least this is the aspect of understanding likely to feature reductionism and materialism. Understanding of function is a little different. Reductionism and materialism can tell you what a bicycle is made of, and how it works, but not what it will feel like to ride it (though of course the weather forecast will try and tell you whether you will feel hot and dry, or cold and wet, and how windy it will be).

            The differing abilities of the various parts of our minds and psyche give us different ways of sensing and feeling things. I can focus and clear my mind of thought (which seems to be people’s way of saying, stop the word fountain and let something else have a go) and in this state ‘listen’ to how the other parts of my brain are perceiving an object (for example).

            The philosophical difference here is whether we learn something about the object, or something about ourselves, when we do this. I am not sure whether this is a good example of the age old difference between art and science occurring within the philosophy of perception.

            So, do we have a cultural battle here over the meaning of ‘understanding’ regarding which modular part of our mind gets to determine what ‘understanding’ is? Should ‘understanding’ be more holistic, not just the ability to say what something is from the ground up, but also what it is to our other capacities?

            Can you ‘understand’ what a volcano is solely by meditating on it, experiencing it, but not knowing what it is made of, how it formed, what its history is, and what its future will be? And conversely, is it ‘understanding’ to know the geology of a volcano, but not have meditated on its form and presence and its affect on you as an individual?

            Am I understanding this better?

            [quote] What is measurable though may not actually provide the ultimate truth – and I think that’s a core issue that scares materialists in a number of ways[/quote]

            I agree with this, but with a few additions. We must bare in mind that ‘scare’ has a meaning that is probably misplaced, it is not likely to be the same as walking through a dark forest on your own for example. There is perhaps also a conflict in the use of a now emotional argument (fear) when the typical argument regarding materialism and reductionism is an overuse of reason, and under-use of other experiential states, such as emotional understanding. Control is a good way of setting the stage for possible reactions by materialists, and I think you are right. I guess it will depend on the sophistication of the materialism. If you do not expect to understand everything then there is no conflict in the philosophy itself. Perhaps the only conflict occurs when you think you understand something like plate tectonics and someone says that you do not understand it ‘fully’ since there are other ways of ‘understanding’. I will not disagree with that, it goes to the heart of the definition of the word.

          2. holistic optimism
            Isn’t it sort of extremely optimistic to try to understand life, the universe and everything all in one piece?

            It seems to me the holistic approach is still stuck where it was serveral thousand years ago.

            As I said somewhere else in this thread, at least some of the hard sciences have mathematics as a language to talk about things that they don’t understand.

            It seems backwards to want to understand the whole before being able to talk about it.

    2. Personal perspective
      Speaking for myself, I think science is a measure of the heights of human acheivement – and those heights are indeed dizzy. I have no problem with science so long as it is recognosed for what it is … a stake in the ground to show how much humans have been able to explain within the strict parameters of the scientific method.

      It is when science is used as a synonym for “truth” that I start to have a problem. And beyond that, it is the attitude and, sometimes, arrogance of some scientists that rankle with me. Carl Sagan himself was very open minded about some things and very closed off to others. These were his opinions, not the truth of the matter. The candle is symbolic for enlightenment and while a microscope can shed light on a thing in particular, it cannot illuminate the whole.

      1. echo
        what you said kamarling was indeed well said but echos what a very large majority agree with and have said many times before.
        Objectivity is essential, although lacking, in all perspective views on all subjects. Like Sagan and many others, they are as palm fronds and tend to bend with wind.This follows the flow of popular consciousness
        Science is essential as is skepticism and obectivity.
        Science helps us make sence out of our material existence, but fails to answer that which is not material.
        If we were plunged in darkness we would certainly follow the candle of science if it were the only light.
        Metaphoricly speaking, science is only a spark in the void of darkness. For every question science answers there are more that it can’t. So in doing this alone it is opening the doors of the un known and allowing the darkness to be alluminated by the an expanding view of science and it’s real role in human achievement.
        Sheading the light really means a broad spectrum not a pin point of light.

  4. Continuing with the metaphor
    Daydreamer’s looooong comment was worth the read *pheew*.

    So, let this comment not be misunderstood as a disagreement; rather, an extrapolation of the original metaphor:

    The light of a candle can be comforting when you’re surrounded by darkness; but it’s reach is very limited.

    So… what if you dared to turn the candle out for a little while?

    Maybe you would learn your eyes can make a better sense of the beautiful surroundings, through the Moonlight alone; maybe we’d even learn the lurking menacing phantoms surrounding us were only illusions produced by the shadows the candle itself cast off 🙂

    1. Distressing the metaphor
      Nice continuation.

      As with any metaphor i have already read it in several different ways.

      Perhaps turning off all candles and being a singular being in an empty dimensionless and timeless void is something; or maybe it is the absence of everything, including our humanity.

      Turning candles back on, one by one, feeling by feeling, perception by perception; have we touched reality, or just ourselves?

      If both the candles and the darkness are reflections of oneself; does the metaphor have anywhere to go?

      We can communicate our perceptions of ourselves to others, we are not completely isolated in descartian realities where only we exist, but if you only see hope and meaning in life beyond the now and perception beyond perception and if i can derive meaning from anything then to what ultimate end should we expect this difference in the reflections of ourselves to have?

      If our interaction with reality is equal to our interaction with narrative, and as you say ‘the menacing phantoms surrounding us were only illusions’, then both the candle and the darkness, as well as everything that we mentally inhabit, are reflections of ourselves.

      Now i don’t doubt that all of that is true. In a real sense nothing exists (to us) except the perception of it. This is how we interact with the world. There is also no innate mechanism to differentiate between reality and narrative. As such stories of Gods causing thunder with hammers are equal to the mathmatical narrative of meteology in all ways except their utility, which for many people is hardly the point.

      Turning out candles? I could turn off practical materialism i suppose, though that is not a candle for me. Turn off science? Is science, even to those who would call it a candle, really the same type of candle as something like spirituality or religion? It illuminates ignorance for sure, though not in all places of course; to either expect it to or think that it could would be to say that it knew, or could know, everything. So, would i make better sense of my surroundings if i turned off mineral crystallography, followed by petrology in full, sedimentology, earth history, paleotology, geophysics, geochemistry, evolution, planetary formation, palaeontology, seismology, volconology, structural geology, petroleum geology, engineering geology, relativity, quantum mechanics, electronics, metallurgy; which science candle should we turn off? Or do we just turn off any that might interfere with what people see as paranormal or spiritual?

      1. Whence the demons came

        If our interaction with reality is equal to our interaction with narrative, and as you say ‘the menacing phantoms surrounding us were only illusions’, then both the candle and the darkness, as well as everything that we mentally inhabit, are reflections of ourselves.

        Nice. I think I can agree with that.

        My fooling around with the metaphor was maybe a way for me to express that, even if for someone like Sagan Science is a candle to illuminate us in a demon-haunted darkness, that maybe —just maybe— some of those demons are shadows originated by the same candle.

        But, like you say, the confusion of shadows for demons is not the candle’s fault; they are of our own making.

        1. Narratives
          Again, Indeed.

          I agree.

          When we talk about science illuminating i think we should be cautious (especially as philosophers) of saying it illuminates the truth.

          Experiments illuminate data, data forms narrative. We live, think, and converse using narrative. So instead of thinking that science illuminates truth, we should think of it is progressing narrative.

          Previous narratives about demons and witchcraft could be used to explain such things as storms, earthquakes and epilepsy, but now science has created new narratives. I would argue that those new narratives have greater utility and greater moral potential than accusations and persecutions for witchcraft. Narratives really do have important implications for how we live.

          Consider the narrative of general relativity over newtonian gravity. Newton was not wrong and there is reason to exclude the mathematics as a narrative – i would say it is the data. The concept/narrative of gravity as a curvature of a four dimensional spacetime will most likely be altered when quantum gravity is better understood, but you can bet that the mathematics in general relativity, just like in newtonian physics, will still remain correct, though will increase in complexity. The narrative changes.

          This difference between the ‘truth’ of data and mathematics in given situations and between the narratives built to explain the data in those situations is not something i have seen discussed on the grail, but it is an important distinction. Looking through the history of science the narratives are much less stable than the data, but they are still both part of the same system.

          How all this will affect the narratives of the paranormal no-one can say, but they are there and the same difference occurs between the data supporting the narrative and the narrative itself.

          1. contribution of mathematics
            Mathematics contributes at least two things to a narrative.

            One is that it forces the narrator to be internally consistent. This can be checked by others at any later time. Flaws in the narrative can be revealed, and these flaw can either be fixed, or the narrative can be revealed to be false in its entirety.

            Another is that a mathematical narrative can be abstracted from its cultural environment. This is a quality that is seriously lacking from most other kinds of narrative.

            Newton’s gravitational attractive force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two masses. Not kind-of-like squarish, not metaphorically like the square. And every day and every night, not just weekdays.

            In other, more philosophical narratives, all men are created equal. Well, most men. And not the women.

            The more spiritual views of the world lack a mechanism that describes things in such a reproducible and verifiable way. It gets worse – some spiritual views can supposedly only be understood by people who agree with that view. This is different from mathematics based descriptions. You don’t need to agree with a theory expressed with the help of mathematics to understand it.

            And dare I say it here? A mathematical formulation of your narrative forces a certain degree of honesty. If you are wrong, you will be found out. You cannot change your story.

          2. Very true.
            This thing,

            Very true.

            This thing, whatever it is, that makes mathematics special really is one of the beauties of life, and of our possibility of understanding any large part of it.

            Just out of interest i thought you might be interested to know (though you may already) that in general relativity the equation for gravity must always have one less dimension than the number of spacial dimensions.

            Hence the gravitational force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance becuase we have 3 spacial dimensions.

            If our universe had 4 spacial dimensions then the law would be inversely proportional to the cube of the distance, changing the strength of gravity on matter, the size of stars, whether fusion occurs, planet formation as well as orbits etc.

          3. squares
            Actually I didn’t know that, or else I forgot it 🙂

            My intuitive interpretation of the 1/(r^2) term in all the three dimensional field equations was that the field “strength” is divided equally among all equidistant points. The equidistant points get you a sphere, hence the 1/(r^2).

            Or maybe that is the same reason, when you play with more dimensions.

          4. Good reading…
            [quote=daydreamer]Previous narratives about demons and witchcraft could be used to explain such things as storms, earthquakes and epilepsy, but now science has created new narratives. I would argue that those new narratives have greater utility and greater moral potential than accusations and persecutions for witchcraft. Narratives really do have important implications for how we live.[/quote]

            No doubt. And again, much of the question of whether science is viewed as a candle or the darkness comes down to whether those narratives offer control and/or meaning to us. So, science finding cures for diseases, being able to be predictive of catastrophic events, etc – giving us more control, even in the face of possibly less meaning…(and by that term I do not mean knowledge). But science telling you that you will die, and no matter how hard you pray, believe etc there will be no post-death judgement or afterlife – that offers both less control and less meaning to an individual.

            Individuals will largely get by if they have either control or meaning in their lives, or both. Without either, things become a whole lot less fun. So the view of science will depend on whether it is giving control or meaning, or removing both, to each person on an individual basis.

            Or maybe I’m just waffling. 🙂

          5. tools versus problems
            Sometimes I think we are making a fundamental mistake when we look at these alternative approaches. We may be missing the nature of the problem entirely.

            Imaging a bunch of people trying to move a big rock someplace. They have decided that this rock is a sphere, so they want to roll it.

            The rock is big and heavy, and they can’t move it much. Some of the smarter ones say to push it collectively, on one of the flat sides. This will let many people push at the same time.

            Others are afraid to do anything at all, lest the big rock rolls over them – if it is so hard to start rolling, it will be hard to stop it too.

            They won’t get anywhere until they realize they are dealing with a cube.

          6. Good comment, but…
            Nah, not waffling.

            The balance between control and meaning may be a fine one. To me though it still looks personal. The universe could be any of a million things and some people will find meaning in it and some will not. If meaning is an aspect of mental health then i think there is an argument for personal responsibility no matter the shape of reality.

            I think i can put the crux of my argument a little better now i have had time to think about it.

            Meaning occurs somewhere in, or across, the brain. Like appetite, excitement, fight and flight, happiness. Somewhere there are structures in our brains that light up when we perceive, or experience, meaning. Whatever, for each individual, activates this circuit, will activate the sensation of meaning, begging the question of whether meaning has any meaning. Is meaning just another narrative; occurring, like everything else, because of body function.

            This is an important question even if there is an afterlife. We still require that a feeling of meaning be triggered and if one was to lack this then irrespective of immortality one would not feel meaning.

            There is plenty of evidence that the inputs to meaning can change over time (conversions, de-conversions etc), and that they can be anything. Can we be suspicious that like love or self esteem (or many other things) what will trigger meaning is commonly preconditioned through childhood? Are we just back to the environment that people are raised in as a crucial crucible of the preconditions of when and how an emotion is felt? If the mind grows to derive meaning from a certain narrative, then need we be surprised if other narratives fail to arouse it? Importantly though need this say anything of the truth value of that narrative?

            Have we evolved to gain greater meaning arousal from certain narrative structures, such as those that might appeal to the brains natural inability to see an end to it’s consciousness. Is the lack of an awareness of a termination to consciousness evidence that it does not end, as some would say?, or does it feel like our consciousnesses will continue forever because evolution had no need to do anything else?

            I have often argued that it is not being in one particular camp that diminishes meaning, but that looking across the divide forces a failure of the brain to apply meaning in a new context, something it cannot do as it is wired up in a certain way, and that in this failure the sensation of meaning disappears.

            Open-mindedness can create the neural plasticity required to cross the divide while maintaining meaning at all points across the philosophical transition.

            If any of this is the case then while the sensation of meaning will always be felt in some situation, short of brain damage, depression etc, meaning itself must be recognised as something existing just like anything else, not as an external condition or lense through which to judge everything else. Meaning would need to be downgraded from its pedestal, and recognised for what it is – an emotion occurring within the context of favoured ideas.


          7. Open to question
            Doesn’t this discussion exemplify the value of the internet as a forum? We can put our ideas out there as much to question ourselves as to attempt to influence the thinking of others. I certainly gain a lot form this kind of dialogue.

            As for the subject matter – the candle in the dark – I’d like to repeat the microscope metaphor. A scientist might take an object, break it down into its component parts and examine, label and catagorise each part. By doing so, he or she determines certain empirical facts and then assumes that by knowing all of these facts about all of the component parts, we then know all there is to know about that object.

            A philosopher (perhaps with a metaphysical bent), on the other hand, might say that a collection of facts does not equal the truth (I noticed that Daydreamer used the words “truth” and “facts” interchangeably). In other words, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This may seem counter-intuitive to the rationalist and reductionist scientist but it is common thinking outside of those disciplines. Indeed, within science this concept is recognised and given a name: emergence. Emergence is an integral part of chaos and complexity theories.

            By the way, I think the celebrated SF author Robert A. Heinlein might have had this kind of “whole greater than the sum” idea in mind when he invented the word “grok” (in the novel, Stranger in a Strange Land).


          8. Quote:
            I noticed that

            [quote]I noticed that Daydreamer used the words “truth” and “facts” interchangeably[/quote]

            I’ve tried not to here. Its hard; if you don’t watch every word it is easy to criss-cross the boundaries we try to set. I definitely wouldn’t want to over extend a meaning here, especially with my philosophical hat on. Even with it on though i can’t help noticing that there are definitive brackets in which the concepts become easier to justify – granite is harder than gypsum, water is better at hydrating than copper etc. Then i become suspicious as to the role of understanding. Is it just that we understand that granite is harder. If you truly understand something, why the speed of light cannot be broken for example, then might it not be just as easy and obvious? Are the standards better set by someone who understands the problem or someone who does not? Philosophy is fun hay!

            [quote]the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This may seem counter-intuitive[/quote]

            It most certainly does! I can see the point in a sense, but i think it would help if it was expanded on. What value judgement is used to qualify the statement? What system is used to judge? Emergence of new properties and behaviors is very common, you would not be able to build something from smaller things if new characteristics did not emerge. Everything is emergent from what is below – we are the macroscopic built on the microscopic – i am just not sure what is meant that it should seem counter-intuitive, in particular to scientists who surely spend a great deal of their time studying it on all levels.

            I am not sure about word play here either, if we get down to the nitty gritty. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts? Sum actually implies the addition of those parts, which if done fully should describe those parts in summation or totality; if done perfectly you should end up with a complete description of the sum, i.e. the object that is being summed. The whole is always greater than any single constituent part, but the sum? We could swashbuckle words here i think. I’m being picky here as i’m on the look out for those things that Dan Dennet calls Deepities, things that look profound, but aren’t.

            One thing that breaks the rule are black holes. The number of bits of information required to store the information of one person, or one planet is huge. To store the position of each atom. Yet when a planet or a person falls into a black hole something funny happens to the information. It is not lost per say, it is conserved, but as heat radiating though hawking radiation. The actual amount of information, the sum of the parts, required to describe the black hole once the person or planet falls in, i.e. the sum of the parts, does not increase.

            Crystals are a funny thing too – well perfect ones in this example. The amount of information required to describe a perfect pattern is actually very small. You could add all the atoms in the universe in a perfect pattern and the required information to describe it would be much smaller than the sum of its parts.

          9. misconceptions
            The whole is only equal to all the sum of its parts. Simple.
            Never fall into the trap of over compensation for simplicity has a way of determining the understood.
            What is is is, but can be discribed in one sentence or a whole book. Never use a cannon when a small stick is all thats required.

          10. Emergentsy
            [quote=thefloppy1]The whole is only equal to all the sum of its parts. Simple.[/quote]

            I think that the saying may well apply to emergent properties…if you have four quarter-brains and you put them together, it’s never going to equal one whole brain with emergent consciousness.

          11. and if…
            I had 2/3 of a holden moter and 1/3 of a ford motor, I would not have a whole motor. I would only ever have 2/3 of a holden and 1/3 of a ford.
            I rather not buy and cook small bony fish as the effort to gain the flesh is not worth the experience of the flesh.
            It’s all relative to the experience.
            The whole can only ever equal the some of it’s parts. The effort or experience to assemble or simulate the parts of the whole are never taken into consideration in the whole.
            Thats the materialists way.

          12. my turn to waffle,
            Science has given us explanation for many things that in the past would have been regarded as witchcraft. Science has given us the understanding of certain strange events that laymen can identify with and therefore the demons are no longer a threat. Our fear has been squelched by logic and understanding. Hence the illumination process by science.
            The snowball effect of science being the foundation of what we believe, or should believe, holds back other avenues of exploration. Eg; if it can not be explained by science, it doe’s not exist. This attitude will always stifle and suppress outer fringe theory’s.
            In the case of the “mind”, we have trouble separating this with the material brain. Science will continue to try and explain actions with brain function, as in chemical and electrical discharges. Science can measure this but has gained no ground in true understanding. When it comes to psychology we are still infants in the understanding of such.
            Mathematics exists because of a structured universe. Not the other way around. We invented math because it equalled the outcome. The outcome would be there regardless of math or science. All this has done is creating an understanding for us to relate to. Same goes for the mind and consciousness, they will exist regardless of any label or understanding we may impose on them.
            Basic science is really a round block in a round hole and a square block in a square hole. These are material outcomes that can not be denied. When the math can not add up and the jelly block fits all holes, the science needs to explain this. Here in enters “X”, as a constant of unknown potential. Now it add up! All is good with the world.
            But X is only an understandable label for an unknown so the problem is still there but masked behind a façade of understanding.
            The mind and body is still a mystery in many ways. How our thoughts are produced and understanding is reached maybe a millennium from our reach. While we insist in portraying all things as a material manifestation of material “clunking of the gears” we may never expand enough into the realms of non material to adequately understand many of the many unexplained.
            But, this is a necessary route to travel as the end result will show us. We could not have had space flight if the wheel was not discovered. Many inventions, like many discoveries have been discarded over time. But without them the very mechanism that discarded them would not have happened.
            The tipping point is now and we will see in the near future a great many of discoveries into the un seen, or touchable realm of mystery. As this happens, science will label and understanding will be sustained. The math will add up and everyone will be happy.

    2. Be at one with the darkness
      [quote=red pill junkie]Daydreamer’s looooong comment was worth the read *pheew*.[/quote]

      Yes, he’s not really cut out for Twitter. 😉

      [quote]So… what if you dared to turn the candle out for a little while?

      Maybe you would learn your eyes can make a better sense of the beautiful surroundings, through the Moonlight alone; maybe we’d even learn the lurking menacing phantoms surrounding us were only illusions produced by the shadows the candle itself cast off :)[/quote]

      Nice extension of the metaphor! And meditation in many ways involves blowing out the candle – shutting down the rational, logical mind, and just allowing the world to be.

      1. Oh, Oh
        My Bad!

        I think if i did twitter it would only be to swear at the limitations.

        What was it the Ents said?, they only say something if it is worth spending a long time saying?

        I feel sorry for the rational, logical mind. So often it seems to be told to stay out of the party. I wonder what our species would be like if we had not evolved left/right hemispheric partitioning. In fact, why did we evolve it? I shall have to read up on that.

        Our emotions naturally set the stage for our humanity, in many ways they are our humanity, but they often seem to hog it too. Perhaps as biological precursors to the prefrontal cortex they are deeper rooted into more of our mind, but i can’t help feeling that something in them is a trick. Like a drug saying ‘me, me, me’.

        I wonder whether they are the ability to feel nice, or whether they are actually the feeling of ‘nice’. If i clear my mind and feel calm and happy then what is happening in me? Aside from achieving calm and happiness, itself a good thing, what is actually going on?

        Actually, just out of interest, does anybody know whether shutting down the rational mind has any parrallels with sleep? To leave the subconscious running and the emotions ticking over, but to deactivate the string of running words continually ploughing the mind suddenly sounds alot like a loss of consciousness to me. Wouldn’t that be interesting? A turn around, that the rational mind formed the conerstone of what we call consciousness and without it we are much closer to just being asleep?

        Not exactly the same perhaps, but closer to it. Perhaps as close to sleep as we can be without complete changes in brain function associated with REM etc. People in meditation do describe loss of time similar to falling asleep and waking up later to realise 30 minutes has flown by. Would that be a startling way of looking at it? That the rational mind formed the cornerstone of consciousness?

        1. Daydreamer …
          I have meditated all my life – so much so that I can turn off the thinking part of me at will in any place (even noisy, busy places like airport lounges or bus terminals).

          I am not asleep whilst in this state, my inner self is totally conscious but not in the physical place where I happen to be – however – I can also virtually fall asleep on demand. My head hits the pillow, the alarm clock goes off and it’s time to wake up again – there is no “in between”. I do not dream (please no-one argue with me about this, I do not dream, end of story!).

          Whether this instant sleeping ability is somehow connected to my ability to instantly meditate or not, I don’t know. How you would relate this to the concept of consciousness eludes me, as while meditating I am conscious on a different level but whilst asleep I have no consciousness at all. I relate this for what it may be worth, maybe you can make sense of it.

          Regards, Kathrinn

          1. Hi Kathrinn, I find
            Hi Kathrinn,

            I find meditation to be quite hard. It is definitely something i would be interested in learning one day though. It is on my list, so to speak.

            This relationship between the continuous word spewage that seems so hard to stop and consciousness is interesting. I am not trying to over-simplify consciousness, clearly there is more to it. However I wonder what we would do if a person was born without the ability to form word thoughts. Would we refer to a baby or person in a continuously meditative state as being conscious/fully conscious? If we would not refer to them as fully conscious then shouldn’t this have implications for our definition?

            I guess it will help as we start to understand better what consciousness is. I may read up on the brain states, brain wave states etc and which parts of the brain are doing what during these states as this sounds very interesting and an interesting way to maybe gain an insight into consciousness – but as ever good intentions fall by the wayside against time constraints.

            I guess this thought occurred to me as I have always considered my thoughts to be such an integral part of my consciousness and can not imagine what ‘I’ would even be if I could no longer use word thoughts. If I just consisted of emotions and feeling, without any thoughts on top, then what would I be? Would I be me anymore? Would ‘I’ even exist? Without allowing another thought to voice it perhaps I would be incapable of anything other than some type of subtler realisation, sort of like I would know it, but there would be no more voice to think it.

            Can I ask a question? If you were to be in a permanent state of meditation, trapped in it- so to speak. What would you feel you had gained or lost? What further accomplishments could you make in your life? Would you be able to eat, or meet another person again? I ask these questions seriously as I have no idea. Would life still be meaningful? If you go through life without meditation how would it compare to going through without word thoughts? I don’t ask that to be confrontational, but just to see what consciousness is, which bits of it do what.

          2. Daydreamer ..
            I’ll have to do some thinking before I can attempt to answer your question, so please excuse me if I don’t post a reply until tomorrow. I will answer – promise.

            Regards, Kathrinn

          3. Daydreamer – answer of sorts, at last!
            After much thought I still find your question difficult to answer, but I’ll try!

            I don’t think it’s possible to become trapped in a meditative state – you sink into it and rise out of it again without conscious effort. Thus wondering what your life would be like if one were permanently in a meditative state becomes simply an exercise in speculation rather than a possibility to be dealt with.

            When not meditating the mind produces a constant chatter. I don’t think this can be eliminated without entering a meditative stae. There are, however, “active” forms of meditation such as becoming so engrossed in a pursuit or hobby that the mind is so totally focussed on the matter in hand that other stray thoughts are pushed away automatically, which also equates to stilling word thoughts.

            If you experience difficulty in meditating you are probably trying too hard! This is a common problem. Yes, initially, thoughts will come into your mind but instead of pulling yourself back to conscious awareness by mentally saying “I mustn’t think” and having to start again, just let the thought pass through without becoming attached to it. The passing thoughts will slow and eventually stop.

            When you need to come back to full conscious awareness it will happen all by itself. It is inadvisable to suddenly startle another person out of deep meditation as this can cause a serious shock to the body. If for some reason you must “wake” them, do it very gently.

            As to what consciousness is and what bits do what – I have no idea, you’d have to ask someone smarter than I am. Hope this helps a bit.

            Regards, Kathrinn

          4. The ‘I’
            Hi Kathrinn,

            Thanks for the reply.

            I’ve been struggling with this myself.

            What would I be without a voice? Would i be like a slave, forbidden to speak? Could it be even worse?

            I have spent quite a while now trying to understand what people mean by ‘other types of understanding’. By silencing the voice we can silence that part which uses language to construct concepts.

            My ‘understanding’ of an object (say a picture or a musical instrument, or maybe the universe) is constructed on many levels. I can say many levels of consciousness if i am willing to break consciousness up like that; perhaps complex constructs of verbs and adjectives on one level, then numerous complementary or conflictory emotions on another, perhaps memories, smells, perhaps anything we can name or experience can be used as a window on the world, and in this sense perhaps its own level of consciousness,and why not if each can provide its own perspective lense through which we can be affected.

            But still i come back to whether it is me imagining myself as something, or my ability to do so, that is the more important. If you lose an experience surely it is not as bad as losing the ability to have the experience.

            Similarly what is this voice in our heads and what is it to silence it? There doubtless is no risk of losing the voice, thank goodness, but if it was more fragile how would that change what we thought of it? And is it still me? If i was to go just one day without it, i feel the need to ask what my body would do, as if ‘I’ would not be the one controlling it. Actually, given my general resitance to mind/body duality it is a funny thought to me to think that even under more ‘material’ conditions I consider myself primarily the voice in my head, and without this voice I no longer know what i would be. It is a good job that it doesn’t disappear easily, but could this be becuase it ‘is’ me?

            Without the voice i would no doubt have lower blood pressure (do you silence images as well?) and be more relaxed, but is this what happens to my body without me driving it?

            Perhaps i should meditate on it 😉

            Thanks again for the reply.

          5. No need for the voice
            Many mystics have claimed that the whole point of illumination is to extinguish your ego to be part of a bigger consciousness. The metaphor of a moth consuming itself after finally embracing the candle is often used; obviously, to our Western minds, such idea is inherently abhorrent.

            But perhaps this idea of fear about losing your individuality might be lessened if we find real-life examples where that actually happens, to a small extenct.

            For instance, isn’t true that some spouses are so connected to one another that one can finish the sentence begun by the other? or that just a small locking of the eyes can convey an instant and complex meaning of your spouse’s frame of mind?

            And there are of course other instances of marital life where it’s very difficult to have an actual sense of your phisical extension 😉

            So maybe what is lost is minuscule compared to what might be gained.

          6. Yeah. Your example is apt. I
            Yeah. Your example is apt. I often consider that my soul is entwined, and clearly my fate is, to my partner. She is, without exageration, a large part of me. I have spent time considering that every emotion i feel is in some way affected by love and that every time i laugh or cry the emotions are enhanced in some way by these feelings. In a very real sense everything i now feel is in part due to her, since all my emotions are stronger now than before and i am happier at times i wouldn’t have been, have strength when i wouldn’t have done before and cry at films, stories, events when i wouldn’t have done in the past. – your example is well understood.

            I often get suspicious about mystics though. As we can be arrogant in humility we can also show ego through claims about the power of a lack of it. I guess denying the sensation of ego while claiming that it is superior is what raises my hackles. Especially with our relativistic philosophers hats on.

            I’m aware that i am in some part being unfair though.

            Good reply. I shall think on it.

        2. Different levels of consciousness
          I don’t meditate, and I’ve never used drugs —well, if you consider Tequila to be a drug then, I retract myself 😉

          So, from what I’ve read about non-ordinary levels of consciousness, to link them with the dream state is both accurate & unfair.

          If you interpret dream as a diminishing of consciousness then you infer that consciousness is linked with control. With awareness of self, and volition.

          But alternative forms of consciousness seem to suggest that you not only retain much of the awareness you experience in the “waking” state, but that oftentimes the awareness increases. You enter a state of ‘hyperreality’ as it were.

          So, what does that mean in terms of rationality and left-brain processes? I don’t know really; but I suspect that an enormous amount of sobriety (that being the specialty of the left brain) is needed in order to not be overwhelmed by the flood of data that you’re exposed to. Don Juan used to say to Carlos Castañeda (according to Carlos’ books) that a ‘man of knowledge’ (a sorcerer) needed to excel in sobriety in order to not loose himself in the amazing worlds he was able to visit.

          So, bottomline, not only do I think the left-brain is welcomed to the “party”, but that it’s one of the main hosts 😉

          1. outside moderation
            [quote]Don Juan used to say to Carlos Castañeda (according to Carlos’ books) that a ‘man of knowledge’ (a sorcerer) needed to excel in sobriety in order to not loose himself in the amazing worlds he was able to visit.
            Interesting way to say it.

            My view of these things is that we live in a world of virtual reality made up by our brain. When we engage in sober left brain activities, in close cooperation with the outside world, this virtual reality is continually adjusted to match what our senses tell us.

            When this continual readjustment does not take place for whatever reason, the virtual world goes for a ride on its own. This can be very entertaining, and can also lead to great insights.

            But these insights only make sense when brought back to the adjusted state of mind.

            We can observe parts of this virtual reality effect when people concentrate on a task and forget where they are. This is not uncommon, I do it myself.

            Many things that we observe to be very real don’t actually exist, at least not the way we observe them. Take as an example this web page – our educated mind tells us that it is stored someplace in Australia on a web server. It is not. It is newly created from many small parts every time we look at it, and not in a single place either. A sort of permanent version exists on your screen. The most permament version exists in your mind.

          2. Observe the world as it really is
            I can very well agree with that POV. Like Greg said, we ‘construct’ our own reality. Maybe we’ll keep doing that in the afterlife. Maybe, like in this life, there will still be some basic rules to follow.

            Or maybe the first step is to ‘filter out’ the things in the world that are only constructs of our mind, to strip away the illusions and see things as they truly are; Don Juan called that ‘stopping the world’; but, just as the bald kid in my favorite movie would say, in reality what you’re aiming at is stopping yourself 😉

          3. what’s with this “we” sh*t
            The virtual reality we live in is made by something like digital signal processing in our brains. It’s not digital, but the result is pretty similar. Perhaps better.

            There are people who say that this virtual reality all there is, there is no “we” who observes the virtual reality.

            But this answer is not very satisfactory – if consciousness is an illusion, who is being fooled?

            Maybe we should ask an octopus.

  5. Exxxxcccccellent
    Found this article when I was looking at Greg H’s posts and let me just say Carl Sagan is one of my heroes and this book on rational thinking is something that should be taught at age 12. If I had this book and The Kybalion in my lap at 12…. OMG. Wierd how I found this article though, I quoted Carl Sagan in an earlier post and named my Rolls Royce… Rational………..wierd 😀

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