Mystery, Wonder, Sacrifice & “The Diabolical Trinity”
This article is a continuation of my response to Gotham Chopra, but expands into more general territory, partially inspired by some of his statements.
Ever looked up at the night sky in wonder?
Of course you have! It’s beautiful, awe inspiring, overwhelming in scope.
Ever contemplated the mysteries of existence: What are we, how did the universe begin, how does inert matter become animated and how does consciousness emerge out of biology?
Of course you have. Human beings have been wondering about these questions for millennia. When we do not know and cannot conceive of answers to our questions, we make up stories.
The earliest evidence we have for myth and ritual comes from about 110,000 years ago in the Drachenloch caves of the Swiss Alps. Here Neanderthals practiced rituals to what we surmise was a kind of Great Bear Spirit. They lived by hunting and killing bears. We can imagine that their primitive brains were capable of empathizing with the bears and therefore feeling guilt and fear of retribution from the great bear that surely must be the parent of all bears.
Bear skulls arranged on altars with bear thighbones thrust through an eye or cheek socket attest to some kind of ritual activity arranged around a mythological explanation of how the world around these early humans functioned.
During our hunter-gatherer phase of evolution, we formulated myths and rituals around the hunt. Later we conceived of ways that our agrarian cycle of life required animal and human sacrifice to feminine earth goddesses, whose fertility we imagined allowed the crops to grow. Spilling blood on the earth was seen as a way to repay her generosity.
We can of course trace a line to the early nation states and great temples of Greece and Rome, from which animal sacrifice made the gutters run red with blood. Next, Jesus Christ becomes the lamb, the uber-sacrifice that renders other sacrifices unnecessary—as long as you believe his blood washes away your sins and welcomes you into an afterlife alongside his Father God.
Evolving Imagination & Scientific Method
All of this creative mythic/religious activity springs forth from asking questions we cannot answer, then seeking explanations using our imagination. Science is NOT different in that it too creates imaginative hypotheses. But science IS different in that it enacts a method for testing these hypotheses, seeking to find out what is really true in a demonstrable, replicable way. Is there really a causal relationship between ripping the hearts from virgins atop a South American pyramid and the stars continuing to move through the night sky? As it turns out, not so much.
So, with the advent of science, we started to critically evaluate our hypotheses and ask, “If this were true, what would we expect to see?”
Science is as enthralled with the mystery as an ancient Bedouin in the desert gazing up at the constellations. Science is as filled with wonder as the child holding an iguana for the first time, feeling its breath moving its ribs, its rotating eyes appraising her presence. Science just takes a step further than postulating Great Bear Spirits, cutting the throats of goats and lambs, or believing feverishly in the Son of Man as a doorway to eternal life.
Whenever I point out to a fellow yogi or friend involved in the spiritual community that certain beliefs about the nature of reality are unfounded and that, indeed, one can have a rich and meaningful spirituality without supernatural belief or superstitious explanations, the response is predictable:
“Oh, so because science can’t prove it, it’s not real? You’re so arrogant. What about the mystery, what about being humble about what we don’t know and maintaining a sense of child-like wonder?”
This is often combined with some combination of either accusing me of being a servant of the patriarchy, a scientific materialist fundamentalist, too intellectual, or wanting to oppress others and take away their freedom to believe, and the comfort derived from believing, whatever they choose. Usually some comments about love, emotions or intuition are thrown in for good measure—because for some reason the facts that emotions are real, we all feel love and intuitions can be useful somehow makes unreasonable beliefs more plausible. I am not sure how.
“Anyway, science can’t tell us what happened before the Big Bang, or exactly how the brain supposedly creates consciousness, so it is an unscientific attitude for you to not be open to God or souls…”
This brings me to what I (jokingly) call “The Diabolical Trinity.” This is an interlocking set of three logical fallacies from philosophy that are key mistakes in reasoning in every single argument you will ever hear in favor of the supernatural.
They are the core underlying arguments used by Creationists, Muslims, faux-intellectual postmodernists, those in thrall to overly complex theology, philosophy grad students who have lost their way between epistemology and ontology, believers in psychics and quantum magic alike.
Regardless of the variation or seeming complexity, the appeals to humility, wonder, mystery, emotion, authority, diversity, reverie or anything else layered on top of these mistakes in reasoning, the mistakes are the same. Every. Single. Time.
If you can grasp and share the memes contained here, I think it could be a central piece of instigating growth toward a more integrated spirituality. (Feel free to use the term “Diabolical Trinity” and give me credit where you can.)
This usually takes the specific form: You don’t know A therefore B is true. * Important: no evidence is provided for B.
It might also be: Your claim A is not fully proven, therefore my claim B is plausible. Simply put: “You don’t know what happened before the Big Bang, therefore my belief that God did it is justified.”
Basically because no one knows it could be that religion is right. But this is the same as saying that no one knows so maybe it was an invisible sneezing unicorn. Doesn’t that seem just as likely as some set of cosmological events that can be reduced to physics?
Or: “Neuroscience can’t yet explain exactly how the brain creates subjective consciousness, so it is arrogant to rule out an immaterial soul.” If we imagine going back to the cave bear cult times: “You don’t know where the bears we hunt come from, so my belief that the Great Bear Spirit sends them and we should perform rituals to apologize for killing his children is sound.”
Or how about Ancient Greece: “You can’t explain the storms or earthquakes, so my prayers and sacrifices to Poseidon must have been what stopped them from happening the last 6 months.”
In contemporary spirituality: “No one really understands quantum physics, so my claim that it is the power of intention that collapses the wave form is true.” Similarly: “Science doesn’t know everything, so who are we to say that ghosts, paranormal powers or astrological predictions are not real?”
Think these examples through and you will see the reasoning is as poor as it is commonplace.
Central error: Thinking that lack of knowledge on one side of the equation counts as evidence on the other side. Also: Mistakenly equating reasonable explanations with unreasonable ones based on there being an unknown in the equation.
A version of argument from ignorance, this usually takes the form: There is a gap in our current understanding, therefore it is plausible to insert a supernatural explanation—because really how else can you explain it!?
Again: “Cosmologists don’t really know how the Big Bang happened, the only way to explain it is that God did it.” Or: “Neuroscience cannot explain how biology becomes self-aware, so the only explanation is that there must be an immortal soul that transcends biology.”
If we step back we might consider: “You can’t explain why there were no bears this week on the hunt, it must be that we didn’t do the bear skull ritual in the morning.” Or: “No one knows why one woman is more beautiful than another, therefore Aphrodite exists.”
In contemporary spirituality: “Meaningful coincidences don’t fit with my understanding of randomness, therefore it must be evidence of the synchronistic perfection of the universe.”
Many New Agers will correctly point out that science can never be complete and so the presence of mysteries always means that there is something beyond our grasp that then conveniently gets called “Spirit.” They usually fail to see that this is just a conceptual word game that postulates an unassailable, unknowable, invisible, mysterious being—just because…
Central Error: Thinking that one can insert any explanation one likes, without any evidence, anywhere there is a gap in current understanding. Think about it, we used to think evil spirits caused the flu and that a witch’s spell could be behind death by heart attack.
This last one takes the form of: You can’t prove that A is NOT true, therefore it IS true.
Usually this has to do with what Carl Sagan would call an “extraordinary claim” which of course requires “extraordinary evidence.”
So: ” You can’t prove that God didn’t make the Big Bang happen, therefore he did.”
“You can’t prove that my doing the bear skull ritual didn’t make the hunt successful yesterday, therefore it did.”
“You can’t prove that Dionysos wasn’t born out of the thigh of Zeus, therefore he was.”
Of course if you really think this one through, it becomes apparent that we could say absolutely anything here…
“You can’t prove that the universe wasn’t created by the sneeze of a unicorn visible only in the quantum potentiality of the extradimensional superstring which is really the lint in Shiva’s bellybutton, therefore it was!”
Central Error: Thinking that all claims are true or plausible unless proven otherwise, when in fact the “burden of proof” is on the one making the claim. I don’t have to disprove your claim of being able to levitate; you have to show me!
Most lovers of mystery, wonder and spiritual vagueness will not outright commit these fallacies, but pepper versions of them throughout appeals to humility, claims of deep personal experience and veiled accusations that it is a kind of dogmatism not to embrace what amounts to an openness to these fallacies pointing the way toward as yet undiscovered ultimate truths.
Often they will also fail to see something really important: Even if we don’t know certain answers, what we do know about the subject at hand will constrain and define the likelihood of answers that may emerge! One can be 100% open to immersive spiritual, meaningful, profound, emotive experiences without then leaping to interpret these in unreasonable supernatural ways.
For example: Not knowing how the brain produces subjective experience does not make it as likely that a supernatural answer will be found as a neurobiological answer, for the simple reason that so far, in every single case, there has never been a supernatural answer and always been a neurobiological one.
Similarly, not knowing certain answers in physics or cosmology does not change the fact that so far in every single case the answer has turned out to be natural and not supernatural. Science is always at the frontier of the unknown. It is neither arrogant nor dogmatic to honestly evaluate the likelihood of supernatural answers as incredibly, infinitesimally tiny based on what we have discovered so far, and based on the 100% absent of evidence for anything supernatural ever, period. This is not bias, it is common sense.
Here’s the thing, though: We can think clearly and critically, we can learn about scientific method, we can acknowledge what is not known at the moment AND we can engage in meaningful, emotive, experientially rich spirituality without confusing ourselves with fallacious reasoning.
We can be in love with mystery and wonder without sacrificing reason or blurring the line between Great Bear Spirits and hypotheses that are testable. In fact it is recommended!