It is generally accepted today that the “proper” way to think is scientifically, that is, all truth is to be ascertained by observation and the testing of hypotheses. However, neither observation nor testing can illuminate anything that happens before conception nor after the physical death of a sentient organism. And, even during the period we call ‘life,’ observation is limited because all ideation happens in the human brain while experiences are gathered of necessity second-hand through sensory input. As one thinker put it, (I am paraphrasing), ‘If the mind processes something as experience, then it is experience. It is truth. Reality is perhaps more difficult to define.’ This means that there is a difference between experience (observation) and reality. We see this in conflicting eye witness reports. We see this in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle where observation affects location (reality). So were does this leave us if we choose rationalism only?
It leaves us wondering about differences between our individual perceptions of reality, and the ‘actual’ reality that surrounds us all. It leaves us wondering what exactly happens when a developing human brain in the womb suddenly (or perhaps, not so suddenly?) develops consciousness. It leaves us wondering about the meaning of life, whether life has meaning at all, whether to believe enshrined magical thinking called religion or philosophy, or whether to develop for ourselves something new to believe. Regardless of how we chose to process our perceptions, no one can argue that whether we accept or, alternatively, develop beliefs, belief is always a choice. It is not a fiat, not a philosophy imposed, but a choice – whether we choose to believe that which others have believed before us, whether we develop our own set of beliefs, or whether we decide/choose to believe nothing that cannot be verified scientifically.
And this is the great divide, or at least one of them, for people who are present/aware/questioning – will we think for ourselves or will we accept the thinking of others, as our truth? This is a decision made in political orientation, in our interactions with our friends, and in our most personal of views of the meaning of life. Will we choose to develop our own system of beliefs, will we find another, established belief system, that while fitting imperfectly, does provide the security of a community of similar believers, or will we decide to believe nothing that is not valid empirically?
I am a defender of Speculative Thinking, at least in this article. I maintain that it is important to speculate about what happens before birth, after death, and even during the process of life. With respect to the latter, Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” What he should have said, if he had really been thinking, is, “I sense (perceive through my five senses), therefore I am.” (Does an amoeba exist? Certainly. It senses, moves and feeds. It certainly doesn’t think.) But the ‘sensing’ of every individual is necessarily different from every other. Helen Keller’s experience of life was certainly different than mine is, because some of her senses were limited (sight, hearing) and others amplified (touch). Her experiences and truths were different. But the world and local realities in which she lived were the same as for her peers of the period even though her experiences were quite different from theirs. So, if we all have different ‘truths’, how do we go about making an informed choice about what to believe?
Simply, the informed choice it is what works for each of us as an individual living in a community. And of necessity that choice varies greatly among us. The one thing we can perhaps agree on, is that it is an act of aggression to impose our personal belief system on others through the political system, the justice system or via social/moral imperatives.
This latter point needs clarification – don’t we all benefit by accepting a set of social/moral standards? I believe we must differentiate between those imperatives that are crucial (such as ‘do not rape’ and ‘do not murder’) and those which may be personally offensive to some, but not to all of us (such as ‘do not go around unclothed’ and ‘do not say unpleasant truths’). In my view, what works as a universal social/moral standard for all people is a simple set: respect self and other sentients, and be kind to both. That is all. There is no need to go further.
Now, let’s move on to the real province of speculation – what comes before and after. The one ‘fact’ from our between state (‘life’) is that consciousness exists. It is also clear that the state of self-awareness cannot be duplicated mechanically, now nor, in my personal view, at any time in the imaginable future. Some argue that consciousness/self-awareness is a product of a quantum state that bursts into being at a certain point in human (and animal, e.g., elephant, dolphin, chimp?) gestational development, sort of a Big Bang theory of consciousness. If this is true (and why not choose to believe it?) then the continued existence of the quantum pattern after death becomes a possibility. And how might that pattern change and develop in the timeless state of death? The possibilities are literally infinite. And how might that pattern interact with the quantum patterns of all others who have ever lived? These are fertile grounds for the imagination. What seems to be true is that the quantum pattern after death does not interact with quantum patterns of the living in identifiable ways, although we are free to believe this, too, if we so choose.
Others argue that all the different quantum states existing simultaneously among us all at every moment, create endless different states of existence, branching out from every moment in time. This is another nice idea which we may choose to believe, particularly if we have ever suffered a crushing moment of personal defeat or life disaster, and haven’t we all? It is pleasant to imagine that all the grievous mistakes that we have made in this existence of which we are aware, were not made or made differently in innumerable other equally valid existences.
But how can we switch over to one of these more successful or happier states? In short, we can’t (or at least we are not aware of the success of another one of our personal life expressions in doing so, with our current life expression having been just left behind). We can’t do this consciously through effort or determination. What we can do, and this is a very big thing, is to sincerely regret the mistakes we have made and do all in our power to rectify and make amends for damage caused (even if that means to simply disappear from the life of another we have hurt). What we must do, as it becomes possible, is to forgive ourselves for the harm we have done. And of course we can imagine, and take solace, that in other versions of reality, self-caused and other disasters that have befallen us simply did not happen.
With respect to what comes after, the Christian view is that some few of us will experience an existence of pure love after death. This is of comfort to those who choose to believe this (and who choose to believe that they are among the select few). The Buddhist belief of nirvana as our path’s end might be imagined as a convergence of perfected quantum states into a final quantum whole, encompassing all of us in peace and kindness. It is thus not so different from the Christian view, especially as the Pope has now acknowledged that all God’s creatures, i.e., sentient, non-human life such as dogs, cats, dolphins, etc., go to heaven, i.e., achieve nirvana. Other interesting possibilities for speculation are the Happy Hunting Grounds of some Native American groups or the belief of some that everyone receives the after-death experience (or ‘nil’ experience) that he or she expects or believes in. So, with all these possibilities, why should we not choose to believe in a version of Speculative Thinking that makes us happy and positive toward life’s bounty?
And with respect to what comes before, we have no experiential evidence to suggest that the quantum states of you, who are reading this, existed prior to your conceptions, but no evidence to disprove it either, so many of us do choose to believe in reincarnation.
So, where are we left with our speculation? Exactly here. If we choose to believe nothing not provable through the interaction of our senses with our brains (science), we are left with what I view as a sterile view of the life experience, one that does not acknowledge the unquantifiable, that is feelings, emotions, imagination, hopes, and desires. If we choose to believe in Speculative Thinking, of our own devising or borrowed from tradition, we can invest life with meaning as we choose among our options. These options include censuring or killing those who disagree with us, ignoring them or casting them out, or accepting everyone’s experiences and truths as contributions that can help us imagine our own unique view of reality or inform the selection of a traditional one. I hope by writing about these things I have encouraged you to select the third option.