Confusion in the Atheist Universe! We Are the Paranormal Phenomenon That We Have Been Waiting for!

Remember how, during the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama said that we are the change we have been waiting for? Well, I was thinking about this in terms of paranormal phenomenon. So many people are looking beyond themselves, out into the world, for evidence of God, UFOs, monsters, and ghosts. They think that this kind of search would be a vindication of the idea that we are not alone and we are more than blind and determinate physics and chemistry shuffling in the void.

But then it occurred to me. The very first paranormal phenomenon in history appears to be, well, us. Think about it. How weird the first one of us was when he or she entered the scene just one hundred thousand years ago! Who would have believed it? One of us, at some point in history, had a barely conscious mother, an animal really, and yet we found ourselves to be thinking in ways unlike our mother. In fact, we found ourselves thinking like absolutely nobody before us had ever done before (at least insofar as we know). And then we reproduced and found that our kids were more like us than our animal grandparents. And then they reproduced, and there was suddenly a sort of alien invasion of self-conscious minds that had invaded the blind, atheist, and materialist universe. There were ghosts in the machines! Meat was making cave wall art! A world that might have seemed, at first look, to be exactly the kind of universe any atheist would expect to see (that is, one of matter acting like, well, matter), suddenly saw the intrusion of ghostly minds (with free will!) in a way akin to the shattering appearance of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In other words, we are the paranormal phenomenon that we have been waiting for! If you’re young and smart, and think there might be something to paranormal phenomena, and maybe want to even be a paranormal investigator, throw yourself into becoming a neurologist, because that’s where the action is! Absolutely nobody looking at the way things had gone for fourteen billion years previous to us would have believed that we were coming. But here we are. Our very existence is a disjuncture as huge and baffling as any landing of UFOs on the White House lawn or Jesus coming in the clouds would be. We need accounting for. In an atheist universe we don’t make sense.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to Confusion in the Atheist Universe! We Are the Paranormal Phenomenon That We Have Been Waiting for!

  1. Grad Student says:

    Santi,
    We might not be the only animals that are conscious and self aware. I highly recommend this new york times article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/magazine/12whales-t.html

    -Grad Student

  2. tonyisnt says:

    Think about it. How weird the first one of us was when he or she entered the scene just one hundred thousand years ago!
    It probably wouldn’t have been that weird since we, like every other species, you know, evolved over time guided by that omnipresent hand of natural selection. :D But I get your point. Humans are a bit of an anomaly.

    In a similar vein to the commenter above me, I finally got around to watching this (rather good) speech about how similar humans are to other animals, but also about where we are different.

  3. Matt says:

    I agree it would be amazing and paranormal if the rise of Homo Sapiens happened in two or three generations as you describe, but there’s no evidence that that’s the case.

    Each generation in our evolution was only minutely different from the previous. The change from one generation to the next was (and still is) so small as to be barely noticable. Only after many generations does change become apparent.

    This article was really interesting to me. Apart from the little detail of compressing the timescale, you’ve tapped into precisely why scientists find evolution and the operation of natural selection so exciting and wonderful.

  4. Heuristics says:

    In what way does evolution make consciousness less amazing/weird/whatever? Evolution does not in any way make a prediction that an inner experiential emotional life would be more valuable as an adaptation rather then a dead machinelike reaction. An emotionlessly dead machinelike reactionary blob of matter seams to be rather what one would predect from the laws of physics+evolution.

    • Matt says:

      There are all sorts of advantages in being conscious.
      A conscious being is able to find better food, protect itself, form advantageous community bonds, help protect its family and community … the list is endless.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics, Matt, and Grad Student:

    I think that Heuristics makes a good point. Wherever a simple, non-intelligent tool will do, why would you create a conscious one? But I think Matt also makes a good point that consciousness is clearly beneficial to social groups, and so came about via evolutionary pressure.

    My question would be: Is consciousness more like a rainbow (that is, an epiphenomenon of no consequence to what produced it) or more like a radio (something that picks up and filters signals from a “nonlocal” and “out of this world” source). If it is a radio, it would explain what “signal” natural selection might target and “pick up” that would be beneficial to some organisms. Thus whales, chimps, dolphins, and humans have evolved consciousness via an ever better ability to pick up on the “radio frequencies” of consciousness that have always been “out there” waiting for a radio to perceive them (as eyesight picks up light waves and has evolutionary advantage).

    My point is that a strictly materialist universe, were mind not already somehow in it from the beginning, would seem to have no target for consciousness to evolve towards (if the proper analogy for what the brain is doing is picking up “consciousness signals”).

    I like the radio analogy. You don’t find the Beatles or your grandma in your “headset”, but you do find the complex circuits for holding the Beatles and grandma in there (when turned on).

    I hope I’m not being too trippy.

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Another way to put it: to evolve, eyesight needs lightwaves, touch needs objects, hearing needs soundwaves, taste needs food, smell needs scents.

    What does consciousness need? If consciousness is all in the head, then that means that it makes both sides of its own theatre, doesn’t it? Perhaps social groups function as the outside stimulus. But maybe there is something more. Ants are social, but not (presumably) conscious. Dogs are social, but don’t show self-recognition in a mirror.

    —Santi

    • Matt says:

      I’m more inclined to go with the rainbow. Consciousness can easily be explained as an organisational structure for the highly complex sense organs that we have. And these, as you pointed out, evolved as they were influenced by external phenomena.
      To suggest that there’s an additional overall “consciousness” that we’re tapping into strikes me as begging the question.

  7. Grad Student says:

    Heuristics,

    “An emotionlessly dead machinelike reactionary blob of matter seams to be rather what one would predect from the laws of physics+evolution.”

    I don’t think that you can confidently say that “physics + evolution” only predicts “dead machinelike” humans rather than the conscious creatures that we are. It seems to me that our understanding of evolution is currently insufficient to know what it predicts regarding the mind.

    -Grad Student

  8. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    You make a good point. It is surprising though, that matter should produce minds. It’s hardly something you might expect to happen if you were told to take some blind matter and set it in motion for a dozen billion years.

    Lucky us atoms in a sufficienty complex gray bundle can, of themselves, “turn on” as Shakespeare or Einstein or Stephen Hawking (and with apparent free will to boot!). O brave new world that hath such creatures in it!

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    If consciousness is a rainbow—a “spandrel” or epiphenomenon of matter—how do you explain the mind’s influence on quantum experiments? If mind is an epiphenomenon of matter, how could it interfere with matter in the free will movement of your arm, or in the mere observation of a quantum experiment? You look, and your very look fucks up the universe, collapsing waves into particles and generating quantum entanglements that go on forever after, amen. You move your hand and you disrupt the course of nations fifty years hence. That’s quite a bad ass rainbow! Your every conscious move is like a giant cosmic Walt Whitman stomping to and fro over the Earth. “I am large / I contain worlds!”

    Some physicists suggest that the very looking at light from distant galaxies collapses their wave function—that in some sense, until the light reached our consciousness—those distant parts of the universe were in a ghostly superposition of states—there and not there. Can a rainbow do that?

    When you buy a telescope for $199 at Costco and point that sucker into the sky, and look into it, you become a kind of Vishnu—the destroyer and creator of worlds, collapsing quantum fields left and right. If Yahweh speaks things into existence, you see them into existence! Yikes!

    —Santi

    • Matt says:

      I don’t profess to know the mechanism behind quantum mechanics, but to propose some kind of universal “mind” behind it all doesn’t explain it.
      Consciousness is a powerful thing, certainly. Maybe your analogy of it being like a rainbow isn’t quite sufficient, implying as it does something pretty but ultimately without function.
      Consciousness evolved as a function. I believe that it’s not independent of matter, but rather a consequence of particular combinations of matter, rather like a song is made up of a combination of actions producing sound.
      Thinking about it that way, it’s easy to understand how consciousness influences matter … it’s part of it.

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