The Water’s Fine

Jim Ferry

A personal analogy: let primitive man, and his modern-day brethren who adopt rather fanciful postulates, be sea-creatures. This being a Christian society, let them be fish. Let atheists be land animals. Say mammals—mammals are warm and cuddly. I see myself as a dolphin. Crazy mammal who jumped back in the sea.

Oh, I accept materialism as being the ultimate explanation for all phenomena as surely as dolphins breathe air. But I’m greatly concerned about the reductionist tendencies of the intuition. Chemistry is mechanistic, and when we realize that we’re “just” an chemical/electrical pattern which has imposed itself on a heap of atoms, that can’t help but color our thinking. A strong inoculation of “the emergent behavior is often qualitatively and completely different from that of its constituents” is needed, lest our intuition constantly betray us.

Modern scientists (Dawkins, Dennett, chaos theorists, etc.) are well aware of this. Neuroscience certainly bears on consciousness studies, but only in the way that the equations of fluid dynamics bear on the study of turbulence. Many scientists doubt that turbulent phenomena will ever be boiled down to a convenient extract of theory. The science of turbulence may always contain a descriptive aspect. So may the science of the mind.

One can still be scientific about one’s mind, and how to live one’s life. The descriptive science is called psychology. (Smart-ass daemon pipes up, “And now we’re back to mysticism!”) But rising to such a high-level science (in the sense of “high-level computer language”) we bump up against self-reference. Our psyche colors our opinions about psychology; then we try to apply psychology to our own psyche. Studies are influenced by people knowing they’re being studied.

The problem with such self-reference is illustrated by the following extreme example. Suppose we were to spend all our efforts applying the scientific method to some physical problem. We’d probably do quite well. But if we spend all our efforts applying the scientific method to living our lives, we don’t end up living our lives. Imagine constantly analyzing our love for those we love. Talk about the experimenter polluting the experiment! We may gain some useful information, but we end up infusing love with doubt. Our feelings are influenced by our feelings knowing they’re being studied.

Yes, we’re smart enough to be meta with our scientific method. If using it intensely messes up our lives, we note that and lay off a bit. Maybe we apply it to sex at first, learn the requisite techniques, but then sex becomes the domain of some other side of ourselves, with the scientist called in to consult only on rare occasions. We live large parts of our lives not being scientists, parts which the scientist approaches as a black box, checking only that it is functioning appropriately within our lives as a whole.

Religion has a place in the scientific mind, as a black box into which the scientist does not intrude. He imposes certain interface requirements: naturally, religion’s fantastical claims must be understood as metaphor; its fantastical beings as real, but memetic. And, if one is to be part of a religious community, it can’t be one that has a Thought Police of Orthodoxy.

My atheist friends, I tell you this: these metaphors and memes can grow inside you, until, for example, Christ dwells within you as much as in a literal believer. And they have a certain depth and integrity that stitches people together into a community, and infuses life with meaning and beauty. Religions arise organically from human soil: this lends them a certain quasi-biological robustness. Maybe memetic engineering will outdo them someday, but for now they’re the only niche where—may I be metaphorical?—the soul feels at home.

If your life seems a little dry, come on in, take a swim. The water’s fine.