The world beyond our five senses

Over at Normblog, Norm has a typically open-minded discussion about religion and its possible attractions for its adherents:

Both Howard [Jakobson] and Tim [Crane], then, neither of them speaking as a believer, sees religion as making the world, so to say, fuller for its adherents – with more of interest, of meaning, of things, even, beyond our grasp. This reminds me of the occasion I asked a religious friend about the basis of his belief and he cut the conversation short by saying simply that his life would be poorer without it.
All I can say is that this account of religion doesn’t work for me – I mean, to shift me – and for two reasons. The first is that the world seems like an intensely interesting place already, without any extra population of meanings and mysteries. Just look, read. There’s no end of it, never mind a fullness. The second is that I don’t feel free to add a further layer of things to those for which some evidence can be supplied, and if I did, I wouldn’t know where to stop. Why just those mysteries?

I think Norm, and the accounts he cites, miss something that is often important both to religious believers and to practitioners of religious activities (two overlapping but not identical groups, as I have explained before).    What is missing is that for many people in these two groups, their interest in religious ideas and practices arises from a contact they have had, or which they perceive they have had, with entities from a non-material realm. This contact usually involves none of their so-called five senses, but is experienced deeply nonetheless.  One can know something from merely being in the presence of somebody, as may happen, for example, when we experience the strong love of another person.
Of course, it may be that people who have had such spiritual experiences are deluded in thinking they had them, or even, that they delude themselves.  Experiments exciting certain parts of the brain with small electric currents can apparently induce very similar perceptions of religious experiences in people.   Even so, such experiments do not demonstrate, or even make likely, the absence of non-material entities; in precisely the same way, patients with tinnitus do not demonstrate that all sound is generated inside our own heads and we all live in a silent universe.
So it is perfectly possible that people who perceive they have had direct contact with non-material realms may indeed have had such contact.  This possibility exists even though Richard Dawkins and many another famous person seem not to have had such experiences.  Moreover, the lack of spiritual experiences for some people also tells us nothing about the existence or non-existence of spiritual realms and beings.   Not all of us are born able to hear, for example, but the fact that some people are born deaf is also not usually taken as a sign that the universe itself is silent.  It may thus, indeed, be those who believe that they have not had contacts with a non-material realm who are deluded, or who are deluding themselves.  In a situation of such widespread ignorance, with neither replicable evidence for the existence of spiritual entities nor any evidence against their existence, it behooves no one to be arrogant about his or her position.  (For the record, I do not count Norm in this combined category of arrogant atheists and arrogant religious believers.)
And to Norm’s larger point:   If a person has had such an experience, what does she find?  First, she finds that the experience is entirely discounted by science, since it cannot be replicated via experiment.  This arrogant disdain for phenomena that it cannot yet explain has sadly been a feature of western science since its inception.   Second, she finds that she cannot talk openly about this experience, at least not in a modern western office or university.    In the supremely rationalist environment of our business and education worlds, talking about spiritual experiences among colleagues is one sure way nowadays to receive laughter, scorn and derision.   That is very different from, say, the situation in the West in the middle of the 19th century, or the situation still today in Africa or in Australian Aboriginal society, societies where spiritual experiences are widely respected.   Having lived in both the West and in Africa, I know this difference very well.   Third, she would find no explanation or meaning for her experience in any academic discipline, apart from theology and poetry, and perhaps the arts and music.    She would, however, likely find great sympathy from pure mathematicians, who grapple daily with entities which seem to have existence and properties independent of the material realm, entities which are entirely imaginary, outside the world of our five senses, and yet which seem to exist in some fashion, often sublimely connected with one another.  (The square root of minus 1, for example, is entirely imaginary, yet its properties are not random, to be invented as we might wish from whole cloth, but are decidedly what they are.)
For Norm, the material world is rich and interesting enough as it is, and needs no further explanation.   If you have ever experienced something beyond the material, then I suggest that finding an explanation or interpretation of that experience which makes some sense of it for you is not nothing, and is a quest not to be ridiculed or derided, however quixotic that quest might prove.  Personally, I cannot understand how anyone who has encountered the Euler Equation  – which links an imaginary number with two important transcendental numbers, along with the respective identities for addition and multiplication – could possibly believe that the material world is all there is.

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