Suspended In Contemplation

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This week: Mind, Matter, Levitation

A LINE by Bertrand Russell gave me a jolt a couple of days back; it is from Analysis Of Mind (1921), where Russell criticises behaviourists for claiming that the workings of the mind can be reduced to the workings of the brain:

What has permanent value in the outlook of the behaviourists is the feeling that physics is the most fundamental science at present in existence. But this position cannot be called materialistic, if, as seems to be the case, physics does not assume the existence of matter.

Russell was pointing out a hundred years ago what I see only now with the help of his prompting: That in our current state of knowledge there can be no categorical quarrel about mind and brain between mentalists and materialists, because our ignorance about the nature of matter has caught up with our ignorance about the nature of consciousness.

Russell conjectures that there is no ultimate difference between tangible and intangible things. Brains, minds, tables, chairs, heat, light, energy and everything else in the universe are all in some sense composed of the same ultimate stuff. Not long ago I would have thought this theory absurd; now I am on board. The idea that my mental self is part and parcel of the universe is one that I find quite comforting, set against with the idea that my mind is present in the universe only as an exception or an interloper.

Reading Russell nudged me into looking again at Thomas Nagel's Mind And Cosmos (2012), in which Nagel argues for the absurdity of imagining the universe as a collection of matter into which life and thought and consciousness arrived as some sort of puzzling addendum. Nagel wants a theory of the world that puts mind and matter on an equal footing at least. He calls this position "postmaterialist", a word that would doubtless have appealed to Russell, and he sets out his stall thus:

The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.
A postmaterialist theory would have to offer a unified explanation of how the physical and the mental characteristics of organisms developed together, and it would have to do so not just by adding a clause to the effect that the mental comes along with the physical as a bonus.

Nagel is not trying to make space for God. He wants a better scientific explanation of the world. He is hoping for something at least on the scale of a quantum revolution, a scientific discovery that the world has deeper organising principles than we had hitherto imagined, and that this foundational level gives a central generative role to life, mind and consciousness.

Most scientists, I believe, and many philosophers, think that life, the mind and consciousness will be fully explained in what we still call "material" terms. The great populariser of this view is the philosopher Daniel Dennett: He argues that genetic mutation and natural selection gave rise at some relatively late stage in human development to a brain that was adaptable enough to start generating conscious thought in response to external stimuli.

Dennett provides in Consciousness Explained (1991) a schematic explanation for how external stimuli and natural selection could have given rise to the mental processes accounting for most of what our brains seem to do. But he sees nothing peculiar in consciousness, treating it as just another piece of complex in-brain behaviour, a process of organising, prioritising and communicating information about the world. By assigning no metaphysical or transcendental nature to consciousness, he solves the hard problem of consciousness by denying that there is a problem.

In Bacteria To Bach (2017), his most recent book, Dennett explicitly demotes the significance of consciousness to that of a mental appendage:

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective — a user-illusion — from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering (spread on the external world or on a private screen or stage) of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds, …) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

This view strikes me as seriously inadequate. If consciousness is a "user-illusion", who is the user? Who is this "we" who "misinterprets" reality? I have to assume that Dennett is writing-down to his general readers, and that he has some more careful and persuasive argument available for more advanced audiences; even so, I do not like being taken for a fool.

The fact that science has not yet explained consciousness does not of course mean that science is wrong about the many things which it has explained. Just as Newtonian laws proved to be a partial and approximate account of the consequences of quantum mechanics, so quantum mechanics may prove to be a partial and approximate account of the consequences of Nagel-type laws which describe mind as well as matter. Newtonian laws still work perfectly well for large objects, and quantum mechanics will still work perfectly well for the atomic world. People do not fly, nor can they be in two places at once.

With that as my credo, I have to say that I find myself admiring Carlos Eire's new history of levitation, They Flew: A History Of The Impossible, only in the way that Dr Johnson imagined one might admire a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”.

Eire's book is the first full-length account of levitation since Olivier Leroy's Levitation: An Examination Of The Evidence And Explanations (1928), and one might imagine that nothing much had changed in the interim, since most of Leroy's 200 or so cases of claimed levitators were drawn from the 16th and 17th centuries. Only 38 were from the 18th and 19th centuries. Levitation appeared as a minor if perplexing phenomenon rooted in a bygone age.

Eire counters that supposed levitators and bilocators have continued well into the 20th century, with Padre Pio and Sister Maria Teresa Carloni among them. He also contends that Leroy undercounted earlier generations of Christian levitators, and that their numbers may have run into the "thousands". He declares that history has left us "an overabundance of testimonies" about levitation which cannot, in his view, be dismissed. I doubt this: My own impression, from reading Eire's book, is that claims of levitation rely heavily on a few posthumous biographies of religious figures, all of them reporting hearsay.

Eire is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale; I rather assume from his book that he believes in God; and I can understand that if he had gone to Yale University Press and said, "I want to write a book arguing that Christian saints did in fact levitate, and therefore God exists, and therefore science is wrong", then Yale University Press might have politely redirected him to a different publisher.

So, rather than appealing directly to God, Eire tries to simulate a pragmatic approach by stopping short of explicit conclusions and by blurring the distinction between "it happened" and "people said it happened", proceeding as though these last and quite different propositions deserve equal weight and respect. Just count the number of tendentious claims in this single paragraph of They Flew:

Miracles take place in the realm of faith, and that realm, by definition, transcends ordinary experience, as do the testimonies of the eyewitnesses who avouch for their occurrence and the social facts that make those testimonies possible. Miracles, it could be said, are not just puzzling for historians but also immensely frustrating. The further one goes back in time, the more difficult it becomes not to bump into them, or into their preternatural demonic counterparts. The testimonies are simply there in the historical record, cluttering it up abundantly, and their existence cannot be denied. But ironically, it is ultimately impossible to prove that what is claimed in these testimonies happened exactly as recorded.

The pity is that, by trying to smuggle his convictions in by stealth, by claiming that where there is smoke there must be fire, Eire leaves unexamined the genuinely interesting questions which could have been at the centre of his book. Are there, for example, any reputable eye-witnesses of levitation, who recorded there and then what they claimed to have seen? Assuming these eye-witnesses did not witness human levitation, given the laws of physics, what did they actually see? Why did they report it as levitation?

And why, come to that, did levitation even come to be such a thing in the Christian church? The New Testament does not record Jesus or his Apostles as having levitated to demonstrate their holiness, unless you count the walking on water. Why did levitation become a mark of holiness in the late middle ages?

Perhaps the association of levitating with holiness in later Christian doctrine came from something as simple as the notion that God and heaven were "up there", so the truly pious soul would naturally be attracted in that direction, leaving the body no choice but to follow. Coupled, perhaps, with the idea that angels fly — and are not saints are a degree closer to angels than the rest of us?

Once levitation had been accepted, for whatever reason, as a marker of saintliness, it must have become almost the job of a hagiographer to find grounds for crediting "their" saint with levitating powers. I wonder if the claims about Francis of Assisi, the first great levitating saint, were any more than an opportunistic misreading of an otherwise innocent observation by Francis's contemporary and first biographer, Thomas of Celano, who wrote that the saint, while praying, was “was often suspended in contemplation".

Elsewhere in levitation, this paper from the Sceptical Research Society has an entertaining account of the Indian Rope Trick.

— Robert

Dept of Paperclip Maximisers:

When Wordsworth and Coleridge once passed a steam engine, Wordsworth observed that it was scarcely possible to divest oneself of the impression that it had life and volition. “Yes,” said Coleridge, “it is a giant with one idea”.

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