Newberg, Memetic Theory,
And Thought Contagion
Art Haykin

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Art Haykin"
Subject: Re: Call for Commentary: "Why God Won't Go Away" by Andrew Newberg
Date: Friday, April 20, 2001 5:37 AM

Please elaborate. Would the angle be useful for our purposes? If so, why? If not, then why does it bolster the doctor's claims that the historical thought in philosophy of the question, "What is real" is what seems most real to us as observers?

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Art Haykin"
Subject: Re: Call for Commentary: "Why God Won't Go Away" by Andrew Newberg
Date: Friday, April 20, 2001 11:03 AM

The case that Newberg and d'Aquili make is that for the mystic, God (or Ultimate Reality) has not only been breathed into the individual, but has been personally experienced. After such an experience, one can never return to the previous state of "innocence."

Granted: this experience is rare, even among those individuals who have learned to attain it at will. And rare is the individual who has either learned how to reach this state, or has experienced it by accident (such as myself). If you don't see it as a trick or a function of the brain, then for all intents and purposes, this experience is as tangible as any waking experience.

In fact, those who have been there often assert that the mystical "reality" is "more real" than the waking reality we all share. I never thought of my experience as anything other than a trick of my brain, but it did prompt me spend a significant chunk of my time and energy since then trying to understand just what we mean when we say, "reality." I didn't try to repeat the experience, because mine was accidental, and I never thought that one could learn how to repeat this experience at will. Only while reading Newberg's book did I recognize my experience in those mystical experiences he described.

Because this skepticism was my natural response I had to the experience, I probably more easily relate to Aleister Crowley's earnest warnings against attributing objective reality or philosophical validity to any experiences . But it was "real" enough to me that when I told people about it, I said, "I touched all points in time and space simultaneously." I did not say that it felt like I had done this, but that I had done this. I did this fully realizing that I was describing a subjective experience as objective reality, but felt that this exaggeration provided proper emphasis to how real it felt.

Still, this was a momentary experience from which I awoke. I chalked it up as a fluke of some sort, and life went on. Still, I can remember what it was like. This is not a memory of me having dreamt something, those memories are different; this is a memory of me having experienced something that was, at the time, very real -- as real to me at the time as were the fireworks in the sky and the young woman lying next to me on the lawn both before and after the crucial moment. The only difference is that this was not reality as I had ever experienced either before or since.

I attained a lesser but similar experience when I visited a museum which featured products, such as toys and furniture, that were manufactured in the year 1960, when I was 3 or 4 years old. Much of this time was spent being taken back to my childhood. But at one point I was taken way beyond reminiscing and shaking loose old memories that had been lost for decades: I lost track of time itself -- just for a flash, a moment. A similar thing happens to me sometimes when I look at the moon, but neither of these are as profound as the fireworks experience.
 

Newberg is trying to justify suggesting that this experience is really real, almost (if not actually) equating it with sensory perception. He is suggesting that this function or trick of the mind has evolved for the purpose of perceiving this "reality."

Just as the visual and auditory systems evolved for the purpose of detecting and interpreting patterns in light and sound, this function evolved so that humans can detect and experience this other "reality." At least this is what I'm getting out of the book thus far; I am almost finished with the final chapter, which has taken me as long to read as did the rest of the book.

With both its implications and with the way the author addressed what those implications mean, I am shaking myself down to the core of my understanding, and having to take another hard look at how I see things. The main reason why I think this finding is so important to atheistic activists is that I feel we do well to at least try to understand that religious people have, or think they have, valid reasons for believing the way they do. This is why I will never attack personal religious experience of any kind, and have no response to the Argument from Personal Experience. If you think God exists because Nature is so beautiful, and if you think I ought to agree with you on this, then you and I are probably going to have a little talk. But if you think God exists because you think you have personally experienced His presence, I consider it improper to even offer a response.

I think the sense that memes enter into the picture is when a student listens to a mystic, but doesn't actually attain the mystical experience. The mystic often draws certain conclusions from having reached this state of mind, and will sometimes describe those conclusions to others, who will take the mystic at her word, without having any experiential reasons for thinking of reality as being the way the mystic described it. The mystic simply describes reality as he sees it through his mystical experiences, and knows no other reality -- unconvinced or unaware that the experience is probably a trick or function of the mind. The mystic might be trying to set the stage for others to be able to trigger this state of mind, but perhaps something gets lost in the process when certain followers fail to reach the unitary state. These disciples then solidify the mystic's description of reality into a dogma after the mystic dies or moves on.

We saw this with Plato: he emphasized the process of discussing over the content of any particular discussion. But he (or his disciples) recorded many of his discussions in written form, and students for generations afterward tried to emphasize his words, completely losing track of his point that it was the act of discussion and debate which he saw as the bottom line in philosophy. In a similar way, mystics (I think) tend to point to the experience: "Go there and see for yourself!" But many students satisfy themselves with asking the mystic to describe the experience, and proceed only on the mystic's description rather than from first-hand experience. At this point, I think memes enter into the picture, but I cannot, at this time, see how memes would relate directly to the mystical experience itself. True, memes such as music, chanting, and particularly specific world-views play a crucial role both in attaining deep mystical experiences and in achieving less intense states which are somewhere between the deep experience and waking reality.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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