Coded gray.

Sunday 14 January 2007

Screenshot anime Today in Class 5-2

Pic of the day: Most of us can, for instance, not physically see auras around other people. Which may be just as well. Some claim they can, but it would be more convincing if they could agree on the colors... or just not mention them at all. But who of us have not met a person who we felt had a stronger presence than others? Or felt the atmosphere in a room suddenly change?

Senses and spirit

From the dawn of mankind, there has been no doubt that light existed, because we have eyes. Nor have we doubted the reality of sound, because we have ears, or smell, because we have a nose. In the same way there used to be no doubt that spirit existed, since we have minds.

What is wrong with this picture? Well, for one thing we could truthfully argue that smell does not exist... or rather, not in the same way that light does. For that matter, neither does sound. Light is an actual energy, electromagnetic radiation. It comes in tiny packages called photons, which are either particles or waves depending on how you observe them. They can be measured and counted, and their speed is known (and very high, which is why sight is such an awesome sense, giving us a real-time impression of everything around us). Light most assuredly exists; it even has a mass, albeit tiny. You can see this because light is bent by gravity, although it takes a lot of gravity to do that. There are a lot of fascinating things to say about light, but the important part here is that it exists as a separate entity. Even if we had not had eyes, light would still have existed. In fact, there is a lot of electromagnetic radiation we cannot see. We only see a tiny slice of it.

If sight was the only sense we had studied, and then suddenly started researching hearing, we would probably expect sound to be carried by "phonons", particles moving much slower than photons (since we see the lightning before we hear the thunder) but otherwise vaguely similar. The truth is that there are no "phonons" as such. There are certainly sound waves, but they propagate through existing materials as waves of compression. Sound waves cannot cross a vacuum, they have no mass, and they never act as particles. They are, in short, of a different nature. It can be argued that sound does not exist, since it does not have mass and is utterly dependent on a medium. But it certainly exists in practice, and it does contain energy.

Armed with this new knowledge, we might start to study smell. But our search for smell waves goes unrewarded. Smell cannot cross a vacuum either, but in addition there is much else it cannot cross, like airtight walls or even plastic wrappings. The speed of smell is not only slower than even sound, it is also variable. Smell is not reflected, but rather seems to just gradually spread, or move with the air. This turns out to be the right answer: Smell is caused by direct contact of tiny particles with a sense organ behind the nose. These particles really do drift on the air. Also there is not a continuum of frequencies like with light or sound. There are just a large number of different receptors, each of which responds to one or a few chemicals.

Now then, if we say that we experience spirit, we really have not established at all whether spirit exists. We have a pretty good hint that there is somethingbeing sensed, but we have no idea how this is being mediated to the consciousness.

Only in the very last few years has some science at all gone into trying to study the spiritual, and then at the only point in the physical world where we can see it: In the brain. Scanning live brains is finally possible with Positron Emission and Magnetic Resonance tomography. We can now see the brain at work during meditation and prayer. But these are certainly not the only situations in which we interface with the spiritual world. There may be a tradition for conflating the concepts of religion and spirituality, but spirituality is wider. The reverent awe a scientist feels for nature, for instance, is pretty clearly spiritual. Acts of creation, where the artist loses himself in the flow of creativity, are surely also spiritual. But they are harder to repeat on command with huge machines surrounding your head. Prayer comes very easily in such situations, in my experience...

It could be argued that spiritual realities are an important part of everyday life. There are properties we value in other people, for instance, that are not material. Human dignity is hardly a property of matter: Dogs will eat human flesh with no regret, as will many wild animals. Humans will not, because we recognize the inherent dignity in having lived as a human. This is not something we can find by analyzing the body. It is by nature non-material. If it is not in the spiritual realm, then there are at least two immaterial realms in addition to the physical one. But most likely it is the same: People who have a profound spiritual experience tend to treat others with more love and respect than they did before.

But if we were to compare spiritual senses to those of the material world, it seems to me that most people if not all would have a spiritual sense more similar to smell: Visceral, but imprecise and hard to describe in word. The mystic experience seems to be much the same in all religions (and outside them) on all continents and at all times, though it is then clothed in words and figures of speech from that particular tradition.

The elaborate theology, with gods and angels with impressive names, with afterlives described in loving detail (or hating detail, in the case of the bad ones), these generally seem to be speculations that have not been sensed in the invisible world, but rather grown in the background as people talk with each other about the otherworld, and someone's thoughts are being mistaken by others as part of the lore.

Perhaps this would be different in a society dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual happiness, much like ours is to the pursuit of material happiness. But perhaps it is a limitation of the current race of men. Or even by the naturally abstract nature of the spiritual objects we seem to perceive.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Final(?) slaughter of games
Two years ago: Mobile phone day
Three years ago: Split in two
Four years ago: Temporary pain
Five years ago: Worlds of light & darkness
Six years ago: Fluff
Seven years ago: Fluffy Friday
Eight years ago: Stories and shoes

Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.

Post a comment on the Chaos Node forum
I welcome e-mail. My handle is "itlandm" and I now use
Back to my home page.