Saturday, 30 July 2016

On the Supernatural

I want to dispute the value of the term 'supernatural' - the perceived non-natural that is not 'at hand', immediately and potentially useful or easily explicable, and not that material universe that is based on what we can reasonably know or trust to be so from those who do claim to know on the basis of science. The term, which seems not to have been used before the 1520s, has shunted a number of categories into one basket - a problem of accounting for aspects of the world if you insist on creating a meaning outside of it, some things that happen to people for which there is no immediate accounting and the various imaginative creations that have been projected onto the world or exist in that liminal zone where imagination creates functionally useful assets in society for profit, pleasure or social control.

The creation of the idea of the 'supernatural' has separated out a whole set of mind events from other mind events but also other events in the world from the world and packaged them as something 'other' yet culturally identifiable. It is part of the process by which we have failed to critique religion, human perceptual frailties and the imaginative economy alike but also failed to appreciate the complexity of humanity and so the value to it of absurd beliefs and sometimes radical imaginative creativity. Worst of all, the concept includes real events for which there is no current explanation and associates them negatively with absurd belief and the products of human imagination without anything other than a reliance on an equally dubious radical rationalism. It then puts all these in one box where everything in it can be safely dismissed as 'non-scientific', constructions of the human mind, of the hysterical or weak-minded in some quarters and so of little interest or value.

Far better, surely, to separate the three categories of the supernatural - faith, psi and creativity - and reintegrate them back into one world view that is fully 'natural' (that is, ultimately part of the same universe) and so part of the human condition. In other words, treat them critically but with some respect as all human-related. It may complicate matters to do so but would it not offer us the chance to be more true to human reality and help us walk away from attempts to manage what has been called supernatural through denial and alienatory strategies. We should adopt a radical naturalism that includes these phenomena. By restoring the 'supernatural' fully to the natural, bringing it back down to earth so to speak, the opportunity is created not only for a more open analysis of the function of religion, experience and creativity but this change also enables a more profound critique of the thinking systems that try to take the supernatural and create a system out of it that then seeks to command nature without cause or justice.

We think here of non-dualist philosophies and pan-psychism in particular, neither of which explain the world better than a naturalist materialism that takes into account the material basis of the human mind's possible abilities, not only to create a world for itself as observer but also to respond (possibly) to forces that, while mysterious in effects, still have a material basis even if we do not yet have the tools to understand how they operate. What for example may a demon be? A real entity created by God and now rejected? A psychological projection of inner turmoil? An imaginative creation functionally useful in controlling an ignorant person? Or a material external effect on vulnerable minds? At least one reputable psychiatrist seems to think there are really existing evil spirits out there and is about to release a book on it, already touted by the Washington Post.

Personally I tend to the second and third in this particular case but things get more complicated when we speak of ESP (extra-sensory perception) and PK (psychokinesis). These are experiences that sometimes have explanations that show fraud or delusion or coincidence effects but sometimes show patterns in some people at some times that are quite simply not so easily explicable. The demonic possession outlined by Gallagher might easily be transferred to this category of events. Shunting all these into the category of the supernatural, exiling them from the natural, is intellectual cowardice. However, equally, simply saying that they do not exist (scepticism) is no more valid than asserting that they definitely do exist (faith). They may exist but, in possibly existing, they should be seen as natural phenomena with no requirement for alien beings or gods or demons outside nature or materiality and every requirement for understanding better the way the human mind works in its relationship with its own material and social environment (which latter is ultimately just an emanation from the material world).

Mind arises from matter and creates (as information and through communication) a world of intangibles that would cease to exist if the material substrate was destroyed and yet this fluid world is different from inert matter. It could be argued that a more effective model than the split betwen the natural and the supernatural would be between inert and manipulative matter (which might include many of us humans most of the time) and consider something we might have called supermatter within the natural if we were lazy. This element within the material universe but 'super' the expression of the material world in terms of an inert substrate is represented by the mind of individual when it constructs the intangible and cross-communicates with other individuals to create social mind-stuff. Social mind-stuff (culture) is used to create not only the conditions for the manipulation of inert matter but also the conditions for the manipulation of itself, a situation complicated by the self-evidently material base for a new category of inert matter that mimics the mind-stuff of humanity, artificial intelligence, and which, in turn, is capable of entering intangibles into human minds and culture and eventually to manipulate matter just as humans can and do.

With artificial intelligence, it is as if inert matter is catching up with us as matter manipulators, thanks to our own mind manipulation of matter in creating matter that can manipulate matter (the binary code that is the basis for machine computation). Yet all of this is fundamentally materially based. Everything 'mind' is lodged in matter and cannot survive without the survival of the substrate of matter, no matter how manipulated by mind. And so, putting the invented God-things and the products of the imagination aside, we can return to 'unexplained phenomena' and reasonably assume that these two aspects of the case are products of matter directly (the mystery of things not explained which may simply mean that we do not yet understand matter fully) or indirectly as the product of mind in its relationship to matter (as in perceptual delusion) or, finally, as mind working on itself within its material substrate (as in the belief in the God-origin of miracles or the Hollywoodisation of the vampire or werewolf).

So, what I propose is that we abandon the separation of the natural and supernatural as an early modern invention (certainly not something the Ojibwa, say, would understand as a correct interpretation of the world) and re-think the world as one material world:-
  • which we do not entirely understand (leaving room for scepticism about scepticism when effects are unexplained) but which we know reasonably to have a material (natural) base so that all things are ultimately natural and 
  • where the material substrate permits the construction of mind that in turn invents itself, including the conceits of the 'supernatural' (now just a cultural phenomenon whether of God-things or werewolves) based on the frailties of perception and the genius of the imagined.

It is certainly plausible that dream states can create gods and demons. On the other hand, the emergent social mind now also creates tools that mimic the naturally emergent mind (artificial intelligence) and which are apparently immune from individual or social bias (assuming the inputs are logical) and of anything inexplicable. Once we have disposed of god-things and cultural artefacts, we are still left with a residue of the inexplicable whether related to our human minds or to events in the world. There is no mind event that is not emergent from our own minds. The conceptualisation by a mind of a mind event outside itself represents no more that this created mind is a real mind than the mind of an artificial intelligence (as one currently stands) represents a real mind. A material substrate, of which we may not yet know everything and may never know all we need to know to understand it, is still required for all human and silicon and even alien mind events. Even demons are likely to have a material substrate somewhere to justify their existence.

Psi (ESP and PK) and unusual mind events that may or may not exist but they do not need to scare us if they do exist. They are clearly relatively rare and arise from peculiar circumstances. As natural phenomena, they are worthy of study with an open mind even if the final conclusions are either that they are all delusions of emergent human minds or explicable in terms of micro-effects in nature that we had not previously understood - or are simply things in the world that cannot be explained. We have to accept that it is not the lot of humanity (even aided by machine intelligence) to know everything. Absolute knowledge of a system by something within that system is not attainable unless one falls back on the insane belief that Man can become God.

To reverse the formulation of Gyrus in his 'North', it is not 'the preciptation of the gross earthly realm out of the aetheric infinity embracing it' that we are dealing with but 'the precipitation of an aetheric breadth of possibility out of the inert material realm embracing it'. This allows us to position the natural and the supernatural in a different conceptual context - that of immanence and transcendence. The standard model for the supernatural it is to see nature as immanent (which parallels the idea that God is immanent in nature, in all that can be seen and experienced and measured) and the supernatural as transcendent (insofar as the mental model is of God being outside nature, transcending it, as well as immanent).

With God and all forms of prime mover and all forces external to nature removed from the equation, nature can remain immanent but as total materiality - that is, all that is in the universe and all that is in the universe is matter or energy in some form. Transcendence can be re-cast as what emerges out of nature that has to be within nature by the nature of things but which is different in quality - that is, it is self-reflexive consciousness or mind and its associated tools such as reasoning. This raises interesting questions because there is no easy binary here between matter and mind. Self-reflexive consciousness and reasoning as a tool arise not in some sudden spark of creation and binary difference but evolve very slowly over vast tracts of time. The difference between the thing that is self-reflexive and aware and the thing that is not is not 'created' in an instant by some external touch but evolves. Self-reflexiveness and ability to think also varies even within a community of individuals in society in real time and within one individual, often from second to second.

Nor should we fall into the trap of valorising the self-reflexive consciousness so that a mythic narrative emerges that automatically assumes that the more conscious the entity then the higher the value - this is the error of cod-existentialism that valorises untestable claims to 'authenticity'. No attribute is of intrinsic value except situationally - from the stance of the individual or 'society'. No external force ensures a positive valuation, certainly no force outside nature (the world and all that is the case within it). Neither consciousness not authenticity are things-in-themselves but are rather states of being that shift in time in a Heraclitean flux much as 'mind' emerges transcendentally over long periods of time and in fits and starts.

The point here is not to create another binary (always the instinct of the simple analyst of the universe, the raw and the cooked, the hot and the cold, the good and the bad) but to have a concept to hand - the transcendental - that can shift its meaning from something external and unknowable and outside reality (when the supernatural is actually just a sub-set of human imaginative invention) to something that transcends inert matter existentially, that is, that emerges from out of matter (transcends its substrate) to become something that forms and creates itself, not only as the individual mind and personality with its reasoning, conceptualisation, creative imaginings, inventions, discoveries and meanings but as the transcendent creation of cultures of all levels, societies of all types, collaborative artistic creation and scientific discovery, the academic project to increase the bounds of knowledge, the prosecution of projects (not excluding business and war) and so forth.

Thus, it is mind, culture and society that are at least potentially 'supernatural' (on a trajectory that seems to be increasingly disconnected from its material substrate over time) in this different interpretation of the terms although I would dispute that anything can ever be disconnected from materiality. What we traditionally think of as supernatural in two of its key categories (the invention of meaning and imaginative creation) is simply a sub-set of something that is not so much 'above nature' as the highest part of nature (summa autem natura?), at least as seen from the point of view of those who have the ability (the self-reflexive conscious mind) to observe 'nature'. 'Nature' itself does not observe itself but is a thing in which we are embedded and which we have reconstructed from our observations into an abstract.

Matter in itself is inert but there is a distinctly different quality in that which can observe itself and its own substrate and environment. Either there is nothing supernatural here or we might deal with the problem by recasting 'nature' to mean not all that there is in the universe but all that there is that is not self-consciously reflexive and aware of itself, I think this is intellectually lazy - an essentialism after instead of before the fact designed to over-privilege the human (and indeed the thinking machine, alien and demon by pushing them into the place where once we positioned God and a conscious Nature. It might be better here to speak of a radicalisation of a part of nature itself and so stay 'grounded' (literally). This conceit also forces us to consider at what point artificial intelligence elides from being part of the inert material substrate and joins us humans as 'summa autem natura'. It also begs the question of the possibility of independent self-reflexive entities emerging out of the material in the past, existent now or in the future from the material substrate - which opens the door to evidence-based acceptance of aliens, emergent god-things, spirits, angels and demons (to speak in human terms).

The actual evidence for these latter is flaky to say the least but it would be intellectually dangerous to assume that, if the material substrate had permitted 'summa autem natura' in relation to ourselves as human beings, that it might not permit the emergence of similar minds and entities or other minds and entities elsewhere in the universe and/or in time and that they might have a character and experience very different from ours. After all, we are on the path ourselves to creating potentially transcendent artificial intelligences that might well fit the bill for a form of independent self-reflexive and creative consciousness.

This leaves us with the last category of popular ideas of the supernatural, outside religion and popular and folk culture, the paranormal. Psi (ESP and PK and other events) are claimed to happen to people by people themselves (though not easily observable by third parties as true and reliable) and may or may not be entirely delusory events whether as a not understood coincidence or as misperception or as fraud by third parties (and so forth). The immanence-transcendence model here inverts itself because a deluded mind might be seen as a warped transcendence but, if there is anything in these events (and we have an open mind here), then they are still events within nature and not supernatural. They are part of the material substrate and so part of the natural. They are simply natural events that we either cannot or do not understand.

Psychological effects that are interpreted as 'paranormal' (a better term than cloaking these events with the term supernatural) and physical events involving a warping of our understanding of causation, time and space may not be automatically considered to be absolutely impossible so much as probably impossible with the information and reasoning at our disposal as transcendent minds at this time and in this space.

If the concept of the supernatural is something we have inherited from our own earlier stages of development, it works functionally as part of our cultural tool kit insofar as we value religion or create imaginatively for our own psychological needs. It is equally a rather sloppy way of moving forward as self-reflexive consciousnesses in our own right. It would be better to make a functional assumption of absolute materialism and then enclose all current definitions of the supernatural as properties of 'summa autem natura' (the highest form of nature from our own perspective), excepting the 'paranormal'. This latter should be separated out as either a delusion or, on further investigation, an unknown element of the totality of materiality.

The 'paranormal' becomes a potentiality for knowing rather than something known, mirroring our creation of artificial intelligence as a potentiality for consciousness rather than as something conscious in itself now. The first offers the potential for changing our perception of material reality without any necessity for 'spiritual' inventions while the latter offers the potential for changing our assumptions about the uniqueness of our own transcendence (whether later to be challenged further by the discovery of aliens or demons is probably something not within the capability of current science). Our working assumption can be that we do not have to worry over much about aliens and demons (except as cultural artefacts) but that we should be concerned about understanding artificial intelligence and we should continue to be sceptically interested in the paranormal without throwing too much resource at it.

Beyond this, we continue to transcend as much as we can because that is what we do subject to our all-too-obvious dependence on immanent matter (after all, we die!). We continue, driven by our own 'nature' at least amongst those so inclined, to employ our transcending minds in the manipulation and exploitation of the material universe, of 'nature', in order to assist our continuing process of transcendence - regardless of conservative attempts to try to give immanence/matter priority over our own transcendence. We think here of those retrograde elements in the green movement that go beyond sustainability in our own interest as transcendent-within-immanence beings into a preference for the invented rights of 'nature' over humanity or those 'spiritual' elements who insist on inverting the situation and trying to give an untenable transcendent quality to nature itself whether overtly as God or as some form of pantheism or pan-psychism.

The supernatural thus can quietly disappear from view except as cultural artefact (meeting psychological needs) or as an incorrect descriptive term for that which is not known or cannot be known. It is a term we no longer need philosophically if we have the concept of emergent consciousness as 'summa autem natura' (this is the best term I have to hand and welcome others' thoughts) from its own perspective as observer of its own condition when even Psi (ESP and PK), aliens, gods, angels and demons can only either be inventions of ourselves or a knowable (but not necessarily by us) part of nature.