I have debated internally about whether to write about this. The past year has held profound significance for me. Many of the things I will write about here will likely surprise or even shock my readers. Some will attribute this to God, and even that is fine. Others will criticise me for becoming irrational. I don't mind what meaning you attach to it. I have my own interpretations too. What I hope to convey is more of a flavour of what I have discovered, and the wider framework and context in which I now approach life and reality.
Firstly let me state clearly, I am not religious. However I am far less antagonistic towards religion and religious people than I once was. In fact I hold no grudge against religion nor religious people at all. I measure people by their actions and their values, and many religious and non-religious people are good people by this standard. Many on both sides are not. I now find arguments about religion to be both boring and misinformed on both sides, and that includes 99% of my articles on this blog. I apologise to those who may have been offended by my writings. That was not my intent, although if that offence caused to you reflect more deeply, then perhaps some good arose from it. We all learn through our experiences, and I am no different.
This blog should be seen as one person's reaction to, and journey from, one particular religion, and specifically one particular life experience through that religion. My experience was valid. My reactions were also understandable. I still stand by some of the things I said. For example I still maintain that I was treated unfairly and there are many aspects of that religion that I still consider unhealthy. I will not excuse bad behaviour and I will not excuse the controlling and manipulative behaviour of a religion that I still believe meets the definition of a cult.
Throwing back the curtain
I had an experience that I won't go into but the result of it was an entirely new worldview. Or rather it forced me to re-evaluate my entire worldview to the point where my previous views no longer made sense. It felt like the curtain had been pulled back much further, revealing a lot of things I had previously been unaware of. Some of this might sound like a religious conversion experience, but this falls outside of religion, at least as it is commonly described.
It is difficult to describe the type of change I am talking about, but I will try. It's not a change of opinion, because my views just don't fit in my previous worldview. There is no way to translate between them.
Suppose you saw a ghost. A real, material being manifesting in front of you in what you thought was physical reality. If you didn't believe in ghosts before, you would be faced with two choices. Either you suddenly need to update your worldview to incorporate this new reality, or you need to deny the validity of the experience you just had. Now suppose you had a dozen experiences of this nature, leading you down several paths you never expected. And suppose you found many, perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands, of first-hand accounts of people experiencing similar things. Not exactly the same, but not entirely different either. What do you do with this information?
I have not seen a ghost nor anything like it. I used this example only to give a glimpse at the kind of worldview shift I am talking about. Something deep and profound, that I experienced first-hand, without any external evidence to show for it, and yet it changed me. There is a term for this. I may have disliked this term in the past, but now it is my reality. That term is "spiritual awakening". Not in a religious sense. It is closer to a new-age spirituality sense, but I don't want to attach any such terms to it. Many of the ideas I have been exploring are not new at all but have been part of the human story since the earliest writings.
What is reality?
When we talk about reality, or metaphysics, or religion, or science, we do so within a certain context. We make assumptions about what is real, and we try to build on that. But what if those assumptions are false? Or what if they are only part of the story? The trap we fall into (and I don't think anyone is immune to this) is that we believe our assumptions are the full story. We start to believe that we understand what reality is, and in the worst cases (see this blog) we start to believe we can confidently argue with people about what reality is, insisting that we are right and they are wrong. This is a problem for science, just as it is a problem for religion (especially the more fundamentalist kinds). The more we question our assumptions, the more we realise how little we really know.
I am now at the point where I don't know how to argue for or against religion. It's not that any particular argument is right or wrong. It's that the language and context probably doesn't even fit the greater reality around us. No matter what your view currently is, we're probably all reading from the wrong hymn sheet. There are no grounds on which to argue. We are still in Plato's cave. We still have much to learn. I hope I'm not being too presumptuous by using the term "we".
Our worldview can be deceptive. Even when we think we have questioned everything, sometimes we find out later that there are yet more assumptions laying beneath. It's a rabbit hole for sure. And I'd recommend not going too deep before you're ready to. It can be really destabilising to explore the depths of reality for too long. We should aim to keep ourselves grounded where possible, because our sanity is sometimes more fragile than we realise. I am confident that the most important thing in this life is to live it as best we can. And to do that we absolutely do NOT need to fully understand the deeper reality. So take this warning: If anything I talk about in this article sounds crazy or makes your head spin, feel free to disagree and click away. I claim no handle on truth. I am simply opening philosophical doors and exploring deeper. You have been warned.
Questioning the dominant paradigm
Most of us have grown up in a post-enlightenment scientific world. Even the most religious among us cannot escape this. How many times have you seen people arguing for the truth of religion by appealing to scientific evidence? The reverse is almost never the case. This tells us a lot about what people assign authority to in the modern age.
In this blog I have appealed to science with a rather extreme fanaticism, and now I am here to apply a healthy dose of caution to my former zeal. I no longer hold science as the ultimate authority. Why? Well, it comes down to assumptions about what reality is. If reality is only about particles, energy, forces, waves, and mathematics, then sure, science is the ultimate authority.
But what if reality isn't about that? Or what if that is only one small part of reality?
And even within that world, what about things that aren't repeatable? or things that aren't easily testable? There are limits on what can be known with certainty, but should we throw up our hands in despair? Or are there other philosophical approaches that might be useful, even if they cannot be proven true? Is scientific truth really the only yardstick? Who says?
I don't know what reality is, so please don't read this waiting to argue against what I say. Instead what I want to do is explore another paradigm that I believe changes everything, if it were true. It's not a new idea. I didn't come up with it. But I think it is worth considering. It is by no means the only alternative.
An alternative picture
What if consciousness is fundamental? Think about it. Everything we know about the physical world comes through our senses, and we only access those through our conscious experience. Even the best measurements by the best equipment is eventually interpreted by our eyes/ears etc. and then understood via our conscious awareness and experience. This leads me to conclude that any theory of reality should start with consciousness. Science doesn't.
René Descartes famously said, "I think, therefore I am". In other words, the only thing we can know with absolute certainty to be real is our consciousness. We could be mistaken about everything else, but it's impossible to be mistaken about the fact that we are conscious.
And yet no scientific experiment can ever prove that you are conscious. Think about that. The one fact you can know about your entire reality, cannot be verified by science. It's not a failure of science. It simply falls outside the domain of science. And yet we know it to be true. So there are things we can know about reality, that are outside the domain of science. Isn't that interesting?
So what is the domain of science?
Well, science is our best tool for understanding the physical world. But if consciousness is fundamental, perhaps the physical world is only a small part of the greater reality. And if so, perhaps we need to reconsider our methods for determining truths about reality. I'm not claiming this is the case, but the mere possibility that it could be the case should give us pause. It should make us far less hasty to reach for science and the scientific paradigm when attempting to explain "base" reality. Any arguments from science require a host of assumptions and caveats. It undoubtedly explains a lot within physical reality, but one cannot use science to argue that nothing exists beyond the physical. Appeals to a lack of physical evidence beyond the physical would be obviously circular and nonsensical.
So if science cannot test things beyond the physical, how can we know what is there? (I am using words like "there" that obviously have no meaning in a non-physical context but it's the best I have)
Well, if consciousness is fundamental, and if we are conscious and can know things about our conscious experience directly, then it follows that we may have direct experience to things beyond the physical world. This requires challenging some materialist assumptions. If many people claim to have the same or similar experience, then maybe the simplest explanation is that they are telling the truth. Demanding physical evidence doesn't make sense if conscious experience isn't physical to begin with.
I once believed that there was no evidence that NDEs (Near Death Experiences) were real. I thought they must all be hallucinations. But that was before I looked into it for myself. Having read a number of books and listened to many accounts on this topic, I think there is a genuine mystery here that science cannot simply dismiss. In fact many researchers have concluded that these experiences point to a much deeper reality than the materialist worldview would suggest.
To paint with a much broader brush, I would say that in general science has often been extremely dismissive of human experience and I now consider this to be a mistake. Yes, people do lie and they can be mistaken, but to assume this is the default does humanity a disservice. When we have thousands of reports of a phenomenon, it is no longer okay to dismiss them as fraudulent. We should study it. We should take human experience seriously. We should look deeper and not assume that it's false simply because it doesn't fit in a physicalist/materialist worldview. Reality doesn't care about our models or our worldview. We should assume that reality is always stranger than we think, and always be ready to consider new ideas if the evidence suggests it.
If the physical world is not fundamental, then a materialist bias feels unjustified. We say that things are objective if they can be independently verified in the physical world and subjective if it only exists within our own consciousness. But if that consciousness is primary, then the subjective becomes more important, at least in my opinion. Without any way to know, who decides?
Sticking with the theme of consciousness being fundamental, perhaps the biggest implication is that consciousness is not generated by the brain. And that means it is no longer obvious that it ceases when the brain stops. Indeed, NDE accounts are quite consistent in showing that conscious experience does not stay with the body when brain activity stops. In many cases, people experienced profound things precisely at the moment when there was no brain activity. And even if someone wants to argue about the timing and whether the experiences were simply generated upon resuscitation, there are still many cases where the patient "brought back" information they could not have otherwise known.
At this point it's still possible for skeptics to point to a lack of scientific data, and that's up to the individual. I'm not saying I believe every case at face value. But I do believe that we are well past the point that we can write it all off as "hallucination" or "lack of oxygen to the brain". The data simply do not support these hypotheses. In many cases the patient's brain had plenty of oxygen. We simply don't yet know how to explain it, and I now feel that the simplest explanation is that these people are telling the truth. And if they really did experience these things, maybe it's time we expand our definition of reality and dig deeper.
The same goes for many other phenomena that people report on a massive scale. I am now much more open to reports of the paranormal. It's not that I believe. Belief isn't the right word. I am simply open-minded and I don't place limits on what reality might be. If enough people experience something, it's worthy of investigation. We will either learn something about reality or we will learn something about human perception and experience. Either way, let's explore it and not dismiss it or ridicule it.
What about God?
Does this mean I now believe in God? Well, not exactly. I would say I'm no longer an atheist, because I can no longer assign meaning to that. I don't really even know what it means any more. I have more sympathy for those who insist that God defies definition. Is there a collective consciousness? Are we all connected to "the divine" (whatever that means)? I don't know, but I think about it often.
We can choose to only believe things for which there is evidence and that's a valid choice, but there isn't really any justification for it. Just like there is no justification to do otherwise. It's simply a choice either way. We could choose to believe in every kind of supernatural being or force. If it adds meaning to your life, and doesn't produce harm, I say go for it. There is no neutral ground.
I now have a much better understanding of the term "spiritual but not religious". I consider myself spiritual at this point, because I feel that there is something deeper to consciousness. Something I call the "universe within". Through meditation we can discover more about ourselves. We can experience connection to something deeper. Whether it is real or not, who can say? It depends on how we view it. I cannot prove any of it, but I don't need to. If it adds meaning to my life, why not explore it? To accept it is a choice. To dismiss it is also a choice. There is no neutral ground.
Are synchronicities real? Or are they just coincidences? Who can say? If I assign meaning to it, and it makes my conscious experience of life richer, isn't that worth something? I am free to choose. And so are you.
I still believe in following the evidence where it applies. But many things in life do not deal in evidence or in physical, tangible things. What about your dreams and goals? I will not believe in things I know to be false. But what about things that cannot be known with certainty? Previously I held back, thinking it was virtuous to only believe things for which there was evidence. But now I see no reason for that. I follow what is meaningful. I create my own worldview that is fluid and open. I allow myself to explore different worldviews even without physical evidence. I listen to human experience. I allow people to tell their own story without needing to prove or disprove it. Instead I want to know what it means to them. I want to know how it moves them and helps them to grow.
In my new worldview, everything I experience is in some sense "real". The physical world is only one part of that. My internal conscious experience is my primary reality. The physical world exists. But my experience of it is what means the most to me. If a tree falls in a forest and doesn't affect my experience in any way, then it carries no meaning for me. When I read a fictional story, the events are not real, but my experience of it is. Every conversation and connection has a subjective reality for me that goes deeper than the physical events. My connections to other conscious beings are the most important of all. If something adds meaning to my life, without harm to myself or others, then I am all for it.