Can the Humanities find meaning in a meaningless universe?

Two Solitudes — one solitary man

I have to admit that the Chronicle of Higher Education is not my go-to choice for late night reading. I do enjoy the blog posts on language, but the tendency to publish articles on impressing the promotion committee or writing good proposals leaves me cold. And the taint of postmodern new-ageism in some of the feature articles is depressing. In spite of this experience, I was not prepared for the level of dismay that Visions of the Impossible invoked.

In Visions Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, (i) argues that dream precognition is real, (ii) says precognition is not studied because science is caught in dreary materialism, (iii) asserts an imaginary demise of the humanities. His bold solution to all these problems is to recast the humanities as a “study of consciousness coded in culture”. Kripal, you see, imagines that consciousness is beyond science and, just maybe, the humanities can ride to the rescue.

Dream Precognition

The essay starts with a stirring account of Mark Twain dreaming the death of his brother, down to minute details, weeks before it all comes to pass!

Most scholars have no idea what to do with such poignant, powerful stories, other than to dismiss them with lazy words like `anecdote’ or `coincidence’.

After realizing that he really meant it, I read on, all the while experiencing a growing sense of involuntarily taking part in a slow motion train wreck.

Let’s take a moment to deconstruct his assertion. Apparently referring to things that are coincidental and anecdotal as coincidental and anecdotal makes one “lazy”. Presumably the intent of the insult is to point out that all things, no matter how ludicrous or at odds with the opus of scientific knowledge, should be investigated with equal vigor. Postmodernism like this may sit well with creationists or vulgarizers of Jacques Derrida, but scientists tend to be busy and cannot afford to waste their time on nonsense.

But Kripal is prepared for scientific arrogance of this type. He notes, for example, that there are thousands of examples of precognition over many centuries. Its got to be true! Never mind that there are thousands of stories of elves, ghouls, goblins, and poltergeists over millennia — those are just anecdotes apparently. Kripal even has an explanation for why precognition and its cousins have not been discerned in the laboratory:

…the answer to why robust events like those of Twain … do not appear in the lab is simple: There is no trauma, love, or loss there. … The professional debunker’s insistence, then, that the phenomena play by his rules and appear for all to see in a safe and sterile laboratory is little more than a mark of his own ignorance of the nature of the phenomena in question.

That’s the problem with science! Its so clinical, with all those white overcoats, and fume hoods, and women with their hair in buns, and latex gloves, and logic.

What’s worse,

… we will not invest those resources in the study of anomalous states of cognition and consciousness, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind — materialist and mechanistic ones.

I have banal news for Dr. Kripal: science, by definition, deals with the totality of phenomena in the universe. If dream precognition were a real phenomenon people would study it. Although most scientists spend their days slogging away at some small corner of the modern scientific paradigm, all of them dream of discovering something truly new. What better than precognition? The person who conclusively demonstrated it would be bigger than Einstein. And yet, almost no one works on paranormal research. The reason is painfully clear: there is no way to study something that does not exist.

The irony is that if precognition were found and studied, it would enter the realm of materialism, and hence would fail to satisfy Dr. Kripal’s needs for `something else’. He would doubtless be forced to invent some new fantasy into which to pour his hopes. The god of the gaps is a feeble fellow indeed.

The Mystery of Consciousness

The good doctor is obsessed with paranormal happenings because he sees in them a portal to something even more mysterious: human consciousness. For Kripal, consciousness is a thing of itself, something distinct from life, yet bound to it. With a magical certitude that
consciousness is more than “cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubles in the synapses of the brain, or whatever”, Kripal opines

Many want to claim that … consciousness is not its own thing, is reducible to warm, wet tissue and brainhood. But no one has come close to showing how that might work. Probably because it doesn’t.

But isn’t it just as likely that this is a failure of imagination on the part of the author than of science? As a test, I offer a scientific explanation of consciousness:

Consciousness is an emergent property of complex biological systems.

I find this perfectly acceptable, in the same way that saying that memory is an emergent property of complex biological systems (presumably something Kripal would not argue with since explicit models of memory have existed since the days of Hopfield and his neural net). But I think Kripal would not accept this — he seeks something more, something deeper.

Let’s back up for a minute. It is easy to imagine that a virus is a collection of biomolecules that interacts with its environment in a predictable manner. Presumably a bacterium is not much different. The neurological structure of multicelled hydra is completely mapped and decent virtual hydra have been created on computers. Perhaps Dr. Kripal can believe that organisms as large as ants can be “explained” by biochemistry. Where does one draw the line between a biochemical description of life and consciousness and something magical? Surely not at homo sapiens, since it is clear that apes and other large mammals have emotions, can communicate, and feel empathy. Even my cat must be self-aware to some degree since it knows when it can safely attack small things and when it must run from large ones. Perhaps the line is between ants and cats? Surely a more rational thought would be that there is no line — there is no magical definition of life.

Those obsessed with teleological impulses long for meaning. The thought of a life as a mere collection of large molecules, as amphiphilic bags of self-replicating matter, as specks in a cold and hostile universe, leaves them afraid and yearning for something more. Homo timere seek a special place in the universe, and being alive, ascribe that specialness to life. Why do they never ask about the meaning of a piece of coal? Why does one clump of carbony matter deserve meaning while another does not?

The universe is filled with wonder and magic aplenty. If Kripal and his friends cannot manage to find meaning in the glorious higgledy-piggledy of it all, I am afraid that is their problem.

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