The Delusion of Delusion
We know from brain science that the brain makes the bombardments of tissue that are sense impressions meaningful by turning them into codes. Semir Zeki in A Vision of the Brain shows us how visual stimuli are encoded in V1, re-encoded again and separated into different categories in V2 and then processed in V3, 4, 5 and 6 in separate departments of movement, colour and position all over the brain, before being integrated into a seamless experience. We don’t see red + oblong + a hundred metres away but that red bus over there. He thinks the brain is holistic in its operations. Its processes are sequential, even though the sequences are in terms of fractions of a second, yet V3-6 are already modifying the messages emanating from V1 even before it has despatched them.
The coding function of the brain leads Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow, to argue that we don’t directly sense the real world at all but ‘virtual replicas’ created by our brains. The brain is like a virtual reality machine, in an example he gives, that gives you the illusion you are walking through the Parthenon painted in all the colours that it originally was. Yet we feel we are knowing the real world. ‘Well any virtual reality machine that is any good would make you fee that’ he comments. It is an extreme dualism. There is a real world out there known only to science. Our experiences of it are cognitive fictions. Beauty is a private emotion. Religious experience a delusional fantasy.
Is there an alternative to thinking like this?
I puzzle a lot over the elements. We know that they are differentiated from each other by the number of protons in the nuclei of their atoms. But how can a merely numerical differentiation account for their extremely different qualities, especially their wondrously pure and intense colours? Molecules are formed by the atoms of two elements each seeking to restore equilibrium to its outer shell of electrons. But how can a purely mathematical engagement account for the qualities of water? We can only define water materially as two atoms of hydrogen joining one of oxygen. But water is more than this. I’m wondering whether that ‘more’ is therefore immaterial. At every level of nature we find lower entities combining to form higher unities that cannot be wholly explained in terms of the material components that compose them.
Another source of inspiration for me has been Adrian Woolfson’s book Life Without Genes. In it Woolfson makes an illuminating analysis of the difference between analogue and digital codes. In analogue coding, as the name suggests, there is an analogy between the code and the material it encodes. Thus the same modifications of the air made by a singing voice are reproduced in a different form in a different medium in the track of an LP. But digital coding is in no way analogous. In a CD an initiating intelligence at one end breaks up the message into bites and assigns an arbitrary meaning to a digit of the code. A machine programmed to read these digits turns them back into units of meaning which are understood as a whole message by a receiving intelligence.
Dawkins’s understanding of the God he doesn’t believe in is wholly descendant from Paley, who thought that God is a separate being outside the universe who made it like a watch. But this is not how Aquinas understands God. God is not outside but within the universe, ‘God is within the universe and that innermostly’. God is not separate from everything that exists but is existence itself in which everything that exists shares. ‘God will be everything to everybody’ wrote St Paul in 1st Corinthians. You could say God is the universe in its deepest place, as a picture in its deepest place is the inspiring idea of the artist, indeed in some sense is, yet is still not, the artist. Cezanne’s pictures are full of his style, full of him. Mozart’s music is uniquely his. Indeed, we say ‘that’s a Picasso’. Perhaps in modern terms you could say God is the infinity of universes. Aquinas was very happy with the idea that the universe has always existed, because God is not so much the maker as the meaning of the universe. As atoms become subsumed into the unified compound of a molecule yet do not lose their own identity, so God is the higher unity of all higher unities. From a theological point of view contemporary physics is intensely exciting as it seems to suggest, just as mystics have always known, that there is a dimension of reality beyond that into which our reasons can penetrate in which everything is a unity. Wave/particle duality, sums over histories, nonlocality, backwards causality and, indeed, an infinity of universes.
Could it be that the protons and electrons of an element are in fact a digital code? Abitrary bites that carry a whole message, as water can be divided back into hydrogen and oxygen but wateriness transcends them and is indissoluble? As the music you hear can be divided up into the notes communicated by the bites of the CD code, but is itself outside time and space and transcends them. The ending of the symphony is already implicit in its beginning. The world is so beautiful not because beauty is a private emotion but because the things it contains reflect the beauty of God, just as the notes he writes – merely black marks on paper – reflect the beauty of Mozart’s mind.
Is God the initiating intelligence of the universe, our brains the translating machinery developed during evolution, and our minds the receiving intelligences that understands the messages the structures of matter communicate to us? Are material compounds, at their higher transcendent level, holistic in the way the brain is, which is why the brain has evolved holistically as its function is to read them?