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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

A Materialist’s 3/4 Search for Truth



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Only humans pursue truth. It is one of our exceptional attributes.

But we all find ways to somewhat hobble the quest. A bit ago, I wrote a piece at First Things noting that atheists/materialists claim the mantle of objective truth-seekers, but they are really not. While putting down some religionists’ naturalistic explanations myopia, they similarly refuse to acknowledge the potential mystical, and/or religious potentialities for the numberless inexplicable experiences people have reported over the ages. 

Even if they have an intense personal “encounter,” they often ”reason away” that which science can’t explain–in the words of Steven Pinker’s wife, Rebecca Goldstein–because doing otherwise could undermine their materialist mindset, or perhaps, corrode their self-perception as a proud rationalist. 

But just because something can’t be proved via the scientific method doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Thus, if rationalists want to be true truth/Truth seekers, it seems to me that they should acknowledge, to paraphrase Shakespeare, at least the possibility that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the philosophy of rigid materialism.  

This is why I was somewhat encouraged by atheist author Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece published in yesterday’s New York Times. She has written a book about a mystical–what some might have interpreted as religious–experience, which she did not pursue because of her and her family’s adamant atheism. From, “A Rationalist’s Mystial Moment:” 

But something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.

Some would call that a gift of grace, an invitation to explore salvific potentialities. But Ehrenreich wasn’t interested in Truth if that was the direction in which her experience might lead her:

Since I recognized no deities, and even the notion of an “altered state of consciousness” was unavailable at the time, I was left with only one explanation: I had had a mental breakdown, ultimately explainable as a matter of chemical imbalances, overloaded circuits or identifiable psychological forces. There had been some sort of brief equipment failure, that was all, and I determined to pull myself together and put it behind me, going on to finish my formal education as a cellular immunologist and become a responsible, productive citizen.

Yet, she was haunted her whole life by the vividness of her vision.  

Ehrenreich has finally received permission from recent changes in scientific trends to turn away from the glib denigration of such experiences as mental breaks or some form of psychosis. Rather, she is now open to more quasi-materialist possibilities–albeit, still not those that might contain theistic implications:

Without invoking anything supernatural, we may be ready to acknowledge that we are not, after all, alone in the universe. There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Except there is plenty of evidence of a loving and personal God of the same kind quality as Ehrenreich’s testimony of a potential larger material world. And if God exists, such experience are as “natural”–if unpredictable and unprovable–as Ehrenreich’s theorized invisible beings or altered mental states.

But good for Ehrenreich: Some phenomena will always remain a mystery, but it is progress that she is now willing to pursue what I think could be fairly described as a three-quarter search for Truth.

But there are risks: Seek and you just might find. Knock, and you never know what or Who will open the door onto you.



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