Proof from Transcendence (1)

In the span of your life, you’ve probably experienced a lot of highs and lows. Sometimes, things are going so well that you completely forget yourself; sometimes, things are so bad that you are desperate for any sort of help.

Did you ever stop to think where those feelings were coming from? Perhaps they are little hints from a deity, wee stone markers placed on a giant mountain that whisper “I’m here.” Just like a pebble hitting the top of an unsteady slope, these little nudges could trigger much greater changes within you. Maybe it can pick you up when you’re down, or even save your life:

Travis Barker’s ex-wife, Shanna Moakler, told US Weekly that she was supposed to be aboard the private jet that crashed in South Carolina on September 19, injuring Barker and DJ AM and killing four others, but she changed her plans at the last minute because she had “a bad feeling.”

“I was supposed to go with [Travis] to South Carolina, and at the last minute, I had this gnarly feeling and said, ‘I don’t think we should fly together anymore,’ ” she told the magazine in its October 17 issue, which hits stands Friday. “God forbid something ever happened … our kids wouldn’t have both parents. Instead of flying a commercial flight back home, they decided to take a private jet. He e-mailed me pictures of the plane and wrote, ‘It’s really small and scary.’ I had a bad feeling, but didn’t want to sound strange, so I said, ‘Be safe.’ “

(a news article for, by James Montgomery, dated October 16th, 2008.  )

It could explain why we’re so curious about deities. What if we all have a concept of the gods built into us, one that will only bubble up if we let it?

The most frequently mentioned barrier to a personal relationship with God is never having experienced God’s presence. “If only I felt something,” some Catholics have told me, “then it would be easier to pray.” “If only God made his presence known,” say seekers, “then I could start down the path of faith.” Even agnostics like my friend-as well as atheists-seeking intellectual proofs for God’s existence admit that if they saw a glimmer of God, maybe they’d consider believing.

(“More than a feeling: A desire for God,” by James Martin. U.S. Catholic, July 2010, Vol. 75, No. 7)

Older than Dirt

I suspect this proof is one of the oldest, if not the first. For one, it doesn’t need any sort of logic or language to make. Simply feeling a wonderful feeling is enough, and we have every reason to think emotions pre-date human beings. Fear, for instance, has been linked to our thalamus, one of the most “primitive” portions of the brain.[164] Paul Ekman has found that some facial expressions, our external signal of emotion, are nearly universal across all human cultures and thus likely pre-date humans.[165]

For two, we know human beings have been searching for feelings of transcendence for some time. Some tribes of North America sent their children on a vision quest, which usually consists of a multi-day fast and constant meditation in the wilderness, sometimes helped along by narcotics or sleep deprivation. The goal is to find their life’s purpose via the spirit world. Some people experienced actual visions, complete with a guardian animal; others just got a feeling of transcendence. The Bhagavad Gītā, a key holy text of the Hindu religion, discusses transcendence at some length.

[When] the yogī engages himself with sincere endeavor in making further progress, being washed of all contaminations, then ultimately, achieving perfection after many, many births of practice, he attains the supreme goal.

A yogī is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist and greater than the fruitive worker. Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances, be a yogī.

And of all yogīs, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me — he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.

(Chapters 6.40-6.47, translated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)

Notice that both accounts describe much more than feelings, though. Krishna is also talking about his Vishvarupa, or “Universal Form:”

Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes. It was all wondrous. The form was decorated with divine, dazzling ornaments and arrayed in many garbs. He was garlanded gloriously, and there were many scents smeared over His body. All was magnificent, all-expanding, unlimited. This was seen by Arjuna.

If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.

At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place although divided into many, many thousands.

Then, bewildered and astonished, his hair standing on end, Arjuna began to pray with folded hands, offering obeisances to the Supreme Lord.

Arjuna said: My dear Lord Krishna, I see assembled together in Your body all the demigods and various other living entities. I see Brahmā sitting on the lotus flower as well as Lord Śiva and many sages and divine serpents.

(Chapters 11.10-11.16, translated by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)

 That sounds suspiciously like proof by Witness. Prayers can also bring feelings of transcendence, yet are frequently tied to proof by Miracle as well:

Although everyone was puzzled about my condition, even me, I knew that the one thing for sure was that God, my Lord and savior was in control of my life. As I laid there in that hospital bed day and night, I prayed, meditated and spoke to God reflecting on my life, trials and tribulations.I believe I had an out of body experience with a peaceful bright light pure moment. I made up in my mind that I was going to let go and let God! I started making peace and preparation mentally to God that if it was my time to go in his plan, I will trust him.

That being said, I knew my life had purpose and that he wasn’t through with me yet. When I let God have total control, I started to make progress and improve. Giving God high praise for His grace and mercy for me. All the prayers from family, friends the medical staff and complete strangers helped throughout this ordeal.

I don’t know why I suddenly became so ill that year, and doctors not giving me a diagnosis, but I trust God’s plan because I never would have made it without him and his son Jesus! There’s a saying that “God works in mysterious ways and he’s a miracle worker”. I know because I’m a living testimonial miracle, thank you God, thank you Jesus!

(“C.R.” from Tennessee, retrieved June 6th 2011)

To clear up this tangle, I’ve set up borders around each proof:

  • Miracle proof: A deity makes a change to the universe for multiple people, directly through the senses.
  • Witness proof: A deity makes a change to the universe for one person, directly or indirectly through the senses.
  • Transcendence: A deity changes a person without involving the senses.

By the above definitions, “hearing voices” or “seeing visions” is the domain of the Witness proof, even if the person experiencing them claims they were entirely internal. I don’t limit the senses to the traditional five, either, so your ability to sense how your limbs are positioned or how hungry you are count just as much.

That doesn’t leave a lot left for Transcendence. We have logic, our method for exploring the external world and our internals via conscious effort, and emotions, which are a representation our internal unconscious state. The first part’s already been covered by the Logic proof, which leaves us to consider emotions.

Hooked on a Feeling

Emotions are… a lot of things.

They can bring us to action. For seven weeks in 1904, Upton Sinclair took several jobs at meatpacking plants. He wanted to write a novel that would explore the plight of new immigrants, by showing the harsh conditions they were forced to work under. Sinclair filled the book with vivid tales of con men and corruption, but it was the descriptions of those meatpacking plants that caught the public’s imagination. Bowing to the public’s feeling of disgust, the U.S. Government and Teddy Roosevelt passed the “Meat Inspection” and “Pure Food and Drug” Acts, which began regulating the food industry.

Emotions can paralyse us. Depression is a persistent feeling of sadness, by far the most common psychological problem in humans. Most of us will go through it at some point in our lives, and feel a little of its paralytic sting. An unlucky few have it to such an extreme that their paralysis is almost literal; they rarely get out of bed, spend most of the day sleeping, and need to be taken care of by others.

Emotions are somewhat independent of conscious thought. The brain structures are in quite different places, and the key emotional centres are close to the brain stem and other ancient structures. This makes a lot of sense: not all food is created equal, for instance. Fats contain more calories per unit than sugars. An organism that was better at seeking out fat would do better than one that did not in the long term. An organism that was given a reward for eating fat might do better still. And a happy feeling certainly counts as a reward.

Similar reasoning applies to running. A little while ago, we only ran to escape being eaten or to catch food. Afterwards, our bodies would begin to repair any damage received. As part of the process, it would dull the sensation of pain and inadvertently give us another high. Not only would that encourage us to run again in future, but we’d be far more likely to run while playing with others. This “exercise” would prepare them for a future encounter, increasing their odds of survival.

Having said that, consciousness can exert some control over emotion. In modern times, humans usually run for “fun.” More accurately, our reasons to exercise aren’t directly linked to survival; we jog to look more attractive to the opposite sex, or for the social atmosphere a group provides, or to enjoy the challenge of training, or to take advantage of the feelings exercise triggers within us. Exercising has become a more conscious decision, yet the boost to our mood remains.

We also control our feelings more directly. Cognitive behaviour theory holds that your thoughts about the world effect your emotions. By challenging the negative views you hold and substituting neutral or positive ones instead, CBT claims it can cure mild to moderate depression. The science seems to back that up; CBT is the most successful verbal therapy in the psychologist’s toolkit, and out-performs most medicine- or surgery-based therapies.[166]

I would place more credence in the transcendence argument if the only people who experienced it were from a specific religion. This isn’t the case; Jains and Buddhists both feel that divine touch, for instance. In particular, Jainism does not attribute that to a god, instead claiming it as proof that someone is getting in “touch” with the universe. I myself have experienced this feeling several times, and in each case it’s been triggered by the material world, with no sign of divine prompting.

So how can something that is normally linked to a god also appear in the god-less? It must be caused by something other than a deity.

Suppose you have a group of people chanting passionately and enjoying themselves. Human beings are social critters, so we try to read what other people are thinking. We’re hoping to exploit this, either directly by lying or indirectly by forging closer ties that might save our bacon later. Mirroring other people is a good way to get close to someone, since it shows they’re not alone. If they appear sad, we feel sad; if they’re happy, we feel happy as well. It also saves precious brain resources, by allowing some cells to do double-duty and respond to other’s emotions as well as our own.

If you’re within this group, then, their emotions will have a strong influence on your emotions. Lacking a connection to someone could lead you into conflict, in the worst case; having a conflict with a group can be somewhat unhealthy! So if there’s a state of euphoria or transcendence in the air, you’ll pick it up. The entire process is so basic that it’s been built into us by evolution, and is largely unconscious and automatic.

Now suppose you’ve been told those feelings are due to a god. Because this process is automatic, you might not realize why those feelings are bubbling up in the first place. Feelings are primitive, older than rational thought, so you can’t easily use the other to examine the one. With no clear cause to be found, it would be easy to convince yourself those feelings are due to a deity. If the god-transcendence connection is hammered into your head repeatedly, you become conditioned to think it automatically, to the point where you can consciously trigger those feelings by thinking of the deity.

And so, a desire for pleasure becomes a desire for pleasure through the gods.

[You] feel lifted up, or likewise, a sense of exaltation or happiness. Different from longing to know what it’s all about, you feel that you are very close to, or are about to meet, the object of your desire. You may even feel the warmth of being near God, though you may be reluctant or embarrassed to define it as such.

Each of these feelings, by the way, may overlap. And there’s no need to identify them precisely. Sometimes the feelings that are the most difficult to describe are those that are the most personal, the most tailored to your own situation. Here God may be speaking more clearly than anywhere else. Just because you can’t describe it doesn’t mean it’s not real.

(“More than a feeling: A desire for God,” by James Martin. U.S. Catholic, July 2010, Vol. 75, No. 7)

Likewise, a desire for learning becomes a desire for learning about a god.

A desire for fulfilment becomes a desire for fulfilment with gods.

A desire for security becomes a desire for security within the god.

Suppose instead this chanting group was at a concert or party. Again you’d feel transcendent, but the blame for that would fall elsewhere. It might transfer to the band, making you a fan. Listening to a recording of their work, or even thinking about that night would bring back those feelings. It might transfer to the friends by your side, which would strengthen your social ties further. It might get associated with what you’re drinking, or parties in general. Or it might be a combination of these, or none of them.

Those feelings have a non-spiritual origin, but can be associated with spirituality or anything else you like. Adding the supernatural does not change those feelings in any way, nor does it offer proof of the supernatural.

Because feelings are just another sense, only about your internal state instead of the external world. The fact that you can’t point to what triggered your sensation, unlike most other senses, doesn’t rule out a natural explanation.

[164]  Picture your brain as a lollipop, with your spine as the stick. The thalamus is right at the top of that stick, deep within the brain. We call it “primitive” because it’s in nearly every animal with a spine, so it must have evolved early in order to be so widespread.

[165]  “Constants across cultures in the face and emotion,” Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesen. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17 (2), 1971.

[166]  Antidepressant drugs, long thought to be about as effective as CBT, have been called into question for mild-to-moderate depression recently; for one example, see “Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity,” Jay C. Fournier et al, JAMA. 2010; 303(1):47-53. Electroconvulsive or shock therapy is on a comeback, but only for the most severe cases. Transcranial magnetic stimulation is used when shock therapy fails.