Science as Religion: A Dialectic Story

In 2016, both Arielle and Kurt wrote essays on themes related to psychedelia, Robert Anton Wilson and the nature of the universe. We’re publishing/re-publishing both essays to accompany our three-part series, “Owner’s Manual to the Human Brain.” Chris and Kurt also posted articles to accompany this series.

Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here involuntarily and uninvited for a short stay. Without knowing why.

—Albert Einstein

One night many years ago I stayed up ‘til morning to walk my friend across town, where he’d be boarding a train and moving away. We were twenty-one, an age where spending eight hours carrying all your possessions through the city streets at night seemed epic and exciting. By the time I got home it was morning. I collapsed face-down on my bed and fell asleep.

When I woke up I couldn’t move. I was lying on my stomach and something felt very wrong. I heard footsteps in the hallway, or rather, felt them vibrating in my chest. The door opened and I heard laughter. A wave of horror washed over me as I felt something climb onto my bed. I still couldn’t move, although I’d never wanted to so much before in my life. The creature was next to me, over me and I could see its foot. It was gray and wispy as though made of smoke. A word entered my consciousness, demon, and it fit. The creature started to run around me in circles, laughing. When it passed in front of my eyes I could see its feet, its gray, smokey, demon feet. The laughter circled around me and I grew dizzy, my heart pounding. In an act of sheer will and concentration, I forced my eyes open.

I woke up in my room, lying on my stomach. I could still feel the presence of the demon. The experience had felt unlike any dream I’d ever had, as different from a dream as dreams are from waking life. I wrapped myself in a blanket and walked through my apartment to make sure I was alone.
I recalled a term I’d heard in class: sleep paralysis. I opened my laptop and navigated to Wikipedia. I read the page on sleep paralysis and learned that demonic encounters are a common manifestation of the phenomenon. I navigated to the page on demons.

It occurred to me that there were two ways I could interpret my experience. One was that sleep paralysis was the result of a neurological error likely to occur when sleep is disrupted, as it had been for me.

The second is that demons visit half-sleeping and paralyzed humans.

At the time I viewed these explanations as competing hypotheses, as though I were performing a scientific experiment. There are a few problems with this. The scientific method only works if the experimenter (1) doesn’t look at the data before coming up with hypotheses, (2) determines a clear,
specific way to distinguish between hypotheses on the basis of the data, (3) is studying a phenomenon that can be replicated and (4) is able to control for confounding factors. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my situation didn’t resemble an experiment at all, nor could it be made to. My mistake was not uncommon. Science and religion are often viewed as competing hypotheses, but this perspective is misleading. Most supposedly supernatural phenomena are unpredictable, rare and therefore untestable by the scientific method. In this essay I’ll propose some alternative models for understanding the relationship between science and religion. I’ll use the term “spiritual tradition” to refer to models or interpretations of phenomena that include a supernatural or divine element. I’ll use the term “science” to refer to the current set of theories, paradigms and experimental results that constitute the current scientific cannon as of the time of writing (December 12th, 2016). I’ll use the term “materialism” to refer to the philosophy that rejects the use of supernatural or divine elements as interpretive tools. The overarching framework I’ll be using to draw these elements together is the Hegelian dialectic. My working definition of the term “religion” will emerge from the discussing of Hegel’s philosophy.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in 1770 in the German principality of Stuttgart. He grew up during a time of social upheaval which saw the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon. These events brought about great changes in the ways people thought, lived their lives and organized society. Instead of becoming a Lutheran pastor like his forefathers, Hegel became a philosopher of history and his most famous work, On the Phenomenology of Spirit, offers a model for understanding history and the process by which it evolves. In Hegel’s world ideas are the setting where historical change takes place. The process by which this change occurs is called the dialectic. The dialectic starts with an idea that has traction in the world at a particular moment. This idea, being in power, shapes how people live, think and understand the world around them. Over time this idea, called the thesis, is forced to reckon with its own contradictions in the form of an opposing idea which we refer to as its antithesis. These two ideas do battle and from the wreckage of their conflict comes a third idea, the synthesis, which contains elements from both the thesis and the antithesis but also transcends both. Hegel uses the German word Aufbaum to describe the relationship between the thesis and the synthesis. Aufbaum means to destroy, preserve and elevate all at once. Once the dust settles and the synthesis becomes dominant in society, it becomes the new thesis, destined to someday confront its antithesis.

Hegel’s dialectic isn’t a random process, but one with a goal. The goal or destiny of the dialectic is something Hegel called Geist which translates into English as Spirit or mind. The term is interesting in that it doesn’t distinguish between a supernatural God and the collective mind of humanity. Could it be that the hard distinction our society makes between cognitive and spiritual explanations is misleading? On the topic of religion Hegel writes, “The form or shape of religion does not contain the existence of spirit in the sense of its being nature detached and free from thought, nor in the sense of its being thought detached from existence.” This may sound impenetrable, but all he’s saying is that religion isn’t describing either an objective natural phenomenon or something that’s just in our heads. He goes on, “The shape assumed by religion is existence contained and preserved in thought as well as a something thought which is consciously existent. It is by the determinate character of this form, in which spirit knows itself, that one religion is distinguished from another.” (684) The natural world exists, but it’s beyond our full comprehension. Religion gives the natural world a shape in our thoughts so that we can experience it. Each religion provides a different shape through which we can understand reality. This shape may convey truth, beauty, and insight, but as with all religions, it is necessarily incomplete. I’ll be referring to this definition of religion, as that which give the natural world a shape within our thoughts, throughout the rest of this essay.

Applied to sleep paralysis, Hegel’s dialectic might imply that materialistic and spiritual explanations are two theses in different stages of the dialectic process. Before we address this possibility, let’s take a closer look at what the science has to say about sleep paralysis. Here are some observations and experimental results:

  • Sleep paralysis occurs in a transitional state between sleeping and wakefulness and is characterized by an inability to move one’s muscles. It’s commonly associated with feelings of dread and the subjective experience of a malevolent supernatural intruder.
  • Sleep paralysis is most likely to occur when the body is first shutting down for sleep or when it’s exiting REM sleep. REM is the stage of sleep where vivid dreams are most likely to occur.
  • Sleep paralysis is more likely to occur in people who have existing sleep disorders.
  • Sleep paralysis is a cross-cultural phenomenon, where the intruder tends to be interpreted according to the religion of the culture where it appears, but appears consistently as a malevolent supernatural being.
  • Episodes typically last between one and three minutes, but in rare cases can last for hours.
  • Scientists haven’t directly measured which brain regions are involved in sleep paralysis.

There are a few competing scientific models which attempt to explain sleep paralysis in materialist terms. According to some, the paralyzed body is the source of the fear reaction, which triggers the intruder hallucinations. Some say sleep paralysis activates the amygdala, one of the main emotional centers of the brain, which produces a fear reaction in the body which leads to hallucination. It’s important to note that these theories are not experimental results, but models which rely on a materialist philosophy and which use the language of science to render themselves intelligible. One could just as easily produce a spiritual model using scientific language. Let’s say that scientists determined through neuroimaging that during sleep paralysis the amygdala is activated. We still have no idea whether the amygdala activates because the sleep paralyzed person experienced something horrifying, like a literal demon, or if activation of the amygdala causes the conscious mind to confabulate the existence of a terrifying encounter. Either explanation is consistent with the data. This isn’t just an issue in this example, but in all of science; the scientific method is great at telling when two factors are correlated, but not so great at determining why they’re correlated, or at identifying causation.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn applied the Hegelian dialectic to the history of science by describing science as progressing through a series of paradigms. According to Kuhn, scientists aren’t in the business of discovering facts, but of building extended models he calls paradigms which provide a shape for the natural world within our thoughts. These models can be useful, interesting, insightful and even beautiful, but they are not and will never be reality itself, nor will any model be able to describe it perfectly. This definition of scientific paradigms is almost identical to Hegel’s definition of religion. Could it be that spiritual traditions and scientific paradigms play a similar role? Could each represent a different stage of the dialectic, specifically ones that allow us to think about the natural world? Could they both be described as a form of religion?

To clarify what Kuhn meant by a scientific paradigm, let’s take the example of wave-particle duality. In the 17th century Isaac Newton put forward the theory that light was made of particles, a paradigm I’ll refer to as the particle theory of light. In the centuries that followed, experiments demonstrated that light in fact behaves like a wave (this evidence was the antithesis to the thesis of the particle theory). This led to the development of wave theory, which states that light is a wave traveling through some unknown medium. By the 20th century particle theory was defeated and the scientific consensus was that wave theory was correct. The scientific community was so confident in wave theory that even when its contradictions were exposed in Max Planck’s Blackbody experiments, no one thought to question the theory itself. Instead they tried to resolve the contradictions by working around wave theory, coming up with increasingly awkward models and explanations. That is, until Albert
Einstein published a paper in 1905, where he demonstrated that Planck’s Blackbody experiments could be explained simply and elegantly with a model where light behaves like a particle.

The resulting chaos resolved itself in the new paradigm, or synthesis, of wave-particle duality. This theory states that light (and as it turns out, all matter and energy) behave sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves, depending on the circumstances. This paradigm reveals a truth that the older theories obscured: Light may behave like a particle or wave, but it isn’t literally either of them. Its structure may in some fundamental sense be unthinkable by the human mind.

The various theories of light recall Hegel’s definition of religion as that which allows reality to take shape within our thoughts. The various scientific theories of light gave shape to it first as a particle, then as a wave, and then as something which behaves like both but in a literal sense is neither, in each case allowing us to contemplate something we are unable to fully understand. If we accept Hegel’s definition of religion, we might say that the project of science is an accelerated process of creating religions. An important aspect of the dialectic is that the original thesis is destroyed but lives on in the dialectic generations that follow. Particle theory was destroyed by wave theory, but two hundred years later it proved crucial to constructing a model of light through which we could attain a
deeper level of insight. Wave-particle duality could only come into being by incorporating elements of the most recent paradigm with one believed to be discredited. In 1905 it took a genius to do so. I believe we’re in a similar situation today. In many corners of our society, particularly its intellectual
ones, science and spiritual traditions move in separate dialectics. Stephen Jay Gould, a proponent of this state of affairs, argues that science and spiritual traditions are “non-overlapping magisteria,” and that each represent different and non-overlapping areas of inquiry. In the academic world, the siloing of science and spirituality is rarely challenged. This truce is convenient for both scientists and many liberal spiritual denominations, as each gets to maintain their language and domains of power without
interference from the other.

But what happens when we experience something like sleep paralysis that can be interprete differently according to each magisteria? What of the mysteries that tread the line between the two? Hegel’s philosophy reminds us that the theory of “non-overlapping magisteria” is itself a religion, a
shape through which the natural world becomes intelligible to us. What religion would we end up with if we tore it down?

It was a summer afternoon and I was killing time at a music festival on a small island off the west coast of Canada. The party wouldn’t start until nightfall, and I needed something to do until then. As the afternoon wore on, festival-goers napped, crafted and browsed the vending tables that ringed the wide open green field. My friend had a table where she sold jewelry and clothing patches. I lay next to her stall, stealing shade and fashioning a kind of couch on her pile of blankets. I browsed through her
zine library and picked up a volume at random – its cover showed a human silhouette mapped with nerve endings. The zine contained one chapter from each of the writer’s favorite books, the first of which was the Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson. I started reading. Wilson recounts his life
story, describing how he went from being a young skeptical materialist to a spiritual questioner. One passage in particular stood out to me. Wilson writes of how he encountered, shortly after a peyote trip, “a small man with warty green skin and pointy ears, dancing.” (24) He dismissed the experience as a hallucination, until years later when he found a description of that exact figure in writings on Mexican Shamanism. The figure was called Mescalito, and was considered by shamans to be the spirit of the
peyote plant. Wilson had “hallucinated” this figure before ever hearing or reading of him. How could this be explained? Wilson flirts with the possibility that Mescalito is truly the spirit of the Peyote plant,
as the shamans say he is but he also considers whether Mescalito might be “an anthropomorphized human translation of persistent signals sent by the molecular intelligence of the vegetative world.” (26)

I found this possibility intriguing, though I didn’t fully understand it until later that night when I was high on acid. I was in a tent full of dancing people, but I retreated to a chair in the corner. I’d had an insight of great power and clarity which demanded my full attention. As was often the case on acid I could see patterns on the grass of concentric and interlocking circles. These shapes were specific – I could see them as clearly as I could see anything else with my own eyes. I’d once believed these shapes
to be individual hallucinations, beautiful aesthetic creations of my imagination. That is, until I’d come on this trip and been exposed to psychedelic culture – I’d begun to see these shapes all around me,
when sober, in the artwork and aesthetic of the festival scene. We were all seeing the same shapes – or at least some of us were. There were even names for them – they were described by the philosophy of sacred geometry, a religion according to Hegel’s definition, and the circular pattern was known as the flower of life. These shapes are common in nature, and are mathematically related to the physical structure of plants. Humans tend to see these shapes on acid. What did it mean? I thought back to Wilson’s discussion of Mescalito and it began to make sense – maybe LSD activates pathways in the human brain that are normally dormant, and we experience this subjectively as beautiful visual shapes. By why do they happen to be shapes which mathematically describe the natural world? Could we really be picking up on some signal or intelligence that’s being transmitted to us by plants? It’s one thing to imagine that humans may hallucinate similar kinds of geometric shapes, but what of multisensory,
cross-cultural hallucinations like Mescalito? Was did this imply about my sleep-paralysis demon?

On the walk back to my tent I stopped to look at the trees. The sky was beginning to turn purple behind them and I could see their silhouettes outlined against the sky. Their branches seemed to be morphing together and coming apart, like energy was flowing between them. I’d noticed before that while on mushrooms or acid I seemed to feel a deeper connection to plants. I paid more attention to them, responded to them emotionally, and sometimes could see the shapes of sacred geometry emanating from them. These experiences are commonly reported by people who take these substances. Could these drugs activate neurological pathways that cause us to project human attributes onto plants life specifically? Or, as Wilson suggests, are we picking up signals from plants that our brain translates into a form we can understand? Do these substances allow a form of rudimentary communication with beings we’re used to viewing as beneath communication, beneath consciousness, who we grudgingly accept as alive but treat like machines?

Recent experiments suggest there’s more going on with plants than meets the eye. Scientists now think that trees communicate with one another through mycorrhizal networks, an underground system of plant roots and fungi. Through studying this system they’ve come to believe that trees can
distinguish their close kin from other trees, and that dying trees pass on protective signals and nutrients to their neighbors. Is it so far-fetched to speculate that trees might be capable of sharing some form of communication with humans? And what would be the implications of this in the spiritual realm?

Hegel identifies a historical split between plant and animal religions. (689) In his view pantheistic religions, which acknowledge the divinity in all living things, are based on an understanding of the Spirit as undivided in the totality of nature. Religions that center animals divide the Spirit into a
profusion of individual egos, which can then make war on each other. Hegel based this analysis on an over-simplistic understanding of non-Western religions, but it does seem to hit at a fundamental difference between plants and animals. Or rather, plant and animal perspectives. Or perhaps, human projections of plants and animal perspectives. Hegel believes that the Spirit can only attain transcendence through the process of animal religion as the divine must possess an individualized ego
in order to look upon itself and achieve self-knowledge. But what if there were a way to integrate both styles of spiritual knowing?

My experience at the music festival presented a new possible interpretation of supernatural phenomena. Rather than being hallucinations born of our imaginations, or literal creatures, could supernatural beings be human anthropomorphizations of real external signals, patterns or even intelligencesthat we’re unable to perceive directly? If this is the case then the shapes of sacred geometry might represent a human translation of plant communications. This interpretation is compatible with a form of materialism, albeit an unconventional one beyond the reaches of current scientific evidence, and with the spiritual tradition of pantheism. But are these two interpretations really
distinct? Perhaps not, if we accept Hegel’s view that spirit and consciousness converge upon the same reality. But if this is the case, what spirit or intelligence in the world could my sleep paralysis demon be translating?

When I was eighteen I spent a lot of time in church. My best friend was Christian and, having nothing better to do, I’d often follow him to church for Sunday services. I learned a lot and it dispelled stereotypes I’d held, as a Jew, about Christians and Christianity. Its spiritual aspects, however, left me
cold. That is, until I followed my friend to a Christian meditation group. A young pastor led the guided meditation and as he read of rivers and trees and the Good Lord I found myself falling into a trance. I had a vision of walking through a forest filled with fog, a screeching monkey on my back. I
encountered a series of animals and mythical creatures, culminating with a vision of a tall man who pulled a half-eaten apple from my chest and made it whole.

The vision shook me more than any I’ve had since. At the time, my only model for evaluating different worldviews was that of competing hypotheses to be evaluated on the basis of the available evidence. This intense and symbolic vision seemed to compel belief in Christianity, a spiritual tradition I had no desire to convert to. As the immediacy of the visions wore off I was able to put them behind me and chalk them up to the context and my own suggestibility.

It’s been many years since my teenaged meditation visions, but I’ve come to believe that they may have been significant in ways I didn’t consider at the time. I’ve since learned of Julian Jaynes’ model of the bicameral mind, a system for understanding the role of spiritual experiences in a historical context. According to Jaynes, until about 3000 years ago the human mind was divided in two parts: one was experienced as a voice which makes decisions and gives commands and the other as the self which obeys. The thinking, deciding self was externalized as a God or Goddess while the self which obeys was experienced subjectively. The former is theorized as being located in the right brain hemisphere, and the latter in the left, the idea being that the right hemisphere acts volitionally and transmits its
conclusions to the left hemisphere through auditory hallucinations. Jaynes theorized that the key areas in the right brain which governs this process are located directly opposite to the language centers of the left brain. Recent evidence demonstrates that auditory hallucinations are indeed associated with such areas, providing indirect support to this aspect of the theory.

As war and civilization caused the conditions of life to become increasingly complex, the bicameral mentality broke down and was replaced by the conscious self (as Jaynes defines it) for whom the process of thinking, introspecting and deciding are internalized and experienced as occurring within one’s own mind. After the bicameral mind was replaced by the conscious mind people continued to believe in Gods and Goddesses, but for the most part the voices of deities disappeared from the world.

Hallucination, visions, prophesy and schizophrenia can be interpreted as remnants of the bicameral mindset in the modern world. Individuals who are unable to cope with their own mental processes externalize them as visions, voices or Gods. Could this be an explanation for my supernatural visions? Perhaps, unable to consciously process my own emotions, my mind created a God through which to communicate my deepest fears and desires to my conscious self. And perhaps my demonic encounter was really an encounter with the darker forces of my mind.

When I think about the things people see on psychedelic drugs I can’t help but wonder whether these substances might represent a new form of bicameral mentality. One where instead of externalizing the processes of thinking and deciding we externalize other processes of human cognition, processes that are unavailable to us in our ordinary states of mind. Could psychedelic drugs act as an evolutionary force, opening up new parts of ourselves that at present we can only experience as externalized deities and supernatural beings while under the influence of mind-expanding drugs?

I grew up believing that spiritual religions, Christianity in particular, had throughout history acted as an oppositional force to the unfolding truth of science. I was surprised when, in my early twenties, I learned that the Big Bang theory had been first proposed by George Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest. In 1931 and for decades after, the suggestion that the universe began with a single primeval atom from which everything emerged had too much of a theological ring for many scientists and public figures, who preferred the Steady State theory. According to this theory the universe has always and will always exist much as it currently does.

Our society now tends to view the Big Bang as a materialist theory, perhaps because the Big Bang is the current accepted scientific model for how the universe began and materialism is the dominant philosophy underpinning scientific study. But if we take a step back and examine both the biblical story and the Big Bang theory more metaphorically, we see that the story of the Big Bang is almost perfectly isomorphic to the story of biblical creation. By “isomorphic” I mean that they share a similar structure with different specific elements. Both begin with near nothingness, and then in one cataclysmic moment the universe springs into being. Its components enter into existence one by one. In the biblical account, God creates light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and land, weather and climate, non-human creatures and humankind, in that order. In the timeline of the Big Bang, light comes very early on, followed by the unification of the standard forces, the coalescing of quarks which become atoms, the formation of stars, and eventually our planet, whose surface separated into water and land, in which evolve the first organisms, who eventually evolve into humans. This similarity isn’t unique to the biblical creation story, but can be seen in many creation stories from around the world.

If the biblical account and the Big Bang theory are two religions, that is, if their main purpose is to allow us to transform the natural world into shapes that can exist within our thoughts, what might their relationship be within the Hegelian dialectic? The biblical account is the much older version, and
so must exist at an earlier stage of the dialectic. But as we learned through the example of the wave and particle theories of light, earlier dialectic stages may include elements which are crucial for arriving at a new synthesis. Once the Big Bang theory comes face to face with its own contradictions, will the spiritual elements of the biblical creation story prove necessary for the formation of a new synthesis? If so how will it manifest? Will we end up with a religion where the primeval atom is divine? Will the unfolding universe be shown to be governed by a mechanism which can be understood as possessing intelligence? Will the universe itself come to be seen as divine, displacing the anthropomorphized God of the bible? Or will we recognize some sense in which we ourselves act as heirs to God, perhaps through our ability to act as pieces of the universe looking back on itself?

Phenomena with a supernatural ring can be interpreted in many different ways. Sleep paralysis could be neurological glitching or demonic visitation. Trees might be intelligent beings with whom we can communicate or they might be incarnation of the divine. Spiritual visions could be literal encounters with Gods and Goddesses or they could be encounters with parts of our minds that we’re unable to face directly. There are several different ways to view the interactions between these religious alternatives. They could be viewed as competing hypotheses, but in this essay I’ve argued that the Hegelian dialectic allows for deeper and more interesting connections to be made. The choice of the Hegelian dialectic determined the shape of this essay, a shape which allows for some insights to be made while making others impossible. Perhaps the deeper truth, the synthesis of the handful of theses I’ve discussed, is that spiritual phenomena are best understood not according to any one model, but as an unknowables which behave in different ways under different circumstances, much like light, which sometimes makes sense to us as a particle and sometimes as a wave.

Works Cited
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, J. N. Findlay, and Johannes Hoffmeister. 1979.
Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press.
Wilson, Robert Anton. The Cosmic Trigger Volume I. Las Vegas, NV: New Falcon Publications, 1977.