From within or without?

I had mentioned working on some 80s lyrics quizzes a few posts back, and this little exercise sparked the recognition of some interesting aspects of our thought processes, and how they are often misinterpreted. It’s examples like this that I hope can demonstrate the difference between “spiritual guidance” and meaningless neural activity.

First, in case someone is wondering what I mean by “80s lyrics quizzes,” this is where someone hopelessly stuck in their preferences for older music (like me) puts down a snippet of lyrics from a pop song, and some other lifeless wretch provides the song title and artist. It’s a fun past-time, in that lyrics without context, beat, or timing can stir our memories – we know what this song is, but have to put those factors in place in order to get the title that we’re after. Some are easy, some are notoriously difficult, and part of the challenge is to get them all (which I’ve never accomplished myself.) One of the two that I’ve been working on, off and on, can be found at http://www.stwing.upenn.edu/~pmarin/80s.html. What ends up happening is that you leave the quiz alone after a while, but it remains in the background of your mind to be worked on for the next several days or so.

One morning, I woke up absolutely convinced that one lyric sample was from a particular song – I could place it directly. But this was one of those “dawning realizations” that comes up as consciousness does, and as I got more fully awake, the song seemed to slip away and I couldn’t quite pin down the lyric in question, exactly like those world-changing ideas that some people wake up with. A little later on I was able to review the lyrics again, and determined that there was absolutely no way that I had a match, or even close. What had happened was, in my transitional stage of sleep, I had gotten the emotional impression of this “solution,” the eureka! feeling, without the actual solution. Plenty of people have tried recording their wonderful ideas upon waking, only to see them later on and find them completely meaningless. They didn’t forget the remarkable idea, they never had it in the first place – they only had the attendant emotional surge. No one has been able to determine what exactly is going on in such cases, and it’s assumed to be simply another aspect of free-association in the border between two sleep stages, similar to the sudden sensation of falling that we get sometimes.

This morning, however, I had a different response. I woke up with a song running through my head, and abruptly realized that I had a match for one of the lyrics – this time, I was exactly right. I hadn’t tumbled to the phrase at all, but my mind had subconsciously put it together and supplied the song, as if I’d heard it yesterday. Out of nowhere, I was supplied with an answer.

Now, if I told you that god had given me a sign, you’d think that I was, at the least, a bit overly dramatic, if not somewhat obsessed – it’s hard to believe that the sparse communications from a divine being would be used for such a frivolous past-time. Yet, people who pray for answers from god, for more meaningful questions than song lyrics (I hope, anyway,) become convinced that they have received their answers, that they have proof of god’s existence, from exactly the same thing happening. Where else could it have come from? The answer arrived full blown in my mind, from a song that I barely know and don’t like anyway. But that’s how the subconscious works: connections can be made on a level that’s not what we call conscious thought. It would be meaningful, perhaps, if I came up with a title and artist for a song that I did not know at all, but can this even be established? It’s been up to thirty years since some of these songs were popular – who could possibly say that I would not have encountered them somewhere in that time period, from any one of the thousands and thousands of sources that I’ve been exposed to?

This is where it become so hard to discuss such matters in critical ways. I have seen no revelations, no examples of near-death experience, no remarkable insights, that rule out such internal functions – no one has ever established, for instance, information that they could not possibly have had, or predictions of specific events that would come to pass (no, “a famous actor will die in a plane crash” is not specific.) Seeming dramatic to the person experiencing it is not enough – not when this occurs over such mundane, and completely incorrect, “answers.” Our minds can work in funny ways. What needs to be determined, before one can reasonably claim some outside influence, is that it really did come from outside, and not from some routine internal function. It’s not hard to convince someone that the nightmare they just had was a figment of their imagination. Yet when it’s taking place, the physiological effects on the body – the accelerated cardio-pulmonary rates, the adrenaline, the sweating, the abject fear – are all real enough, and very dramatic. We know our minds can create such things completely out of nowhere, and that they can have remarkable affect, but this provides no indication of external influence.

But if you investigate the details of someone’s experience, you’re often taken to be calling them a liar or questioning their perception or comprehension – the fact that we are all prone to such effects doesn’t register. “I know what I experienced,” is the most common response, and comparing that experience to nightmares and similar mundane occurrences never really takes place.

Someone is very likely to bring up situations such as the person that dreamed of a plane crash, the very same day that an airline flight went down – to say that this is coincidence is stretching credulity, is it not? But it’s not like we’re unaware that planes crash, and people dream of such things all the time. In a city of a mere 100,000 people, there’s that many chances that someone has a dream of a plane crash on any given night. It’s not meaningful when it doesn’t come to pass, only when it does? Statistically, you can’t count only the matches and ignore the rest, unless you’re intellectually dishonest.

There is a common saying among skeptics, so common I’m not even sure who originated it (Carl Sagan is often given credit, but like Mark Twain, this might simply be because he was most known for promoting skepticism): Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. My pointing out that “revelations” can come from mundane sources isn’t proof that they did, anymore than pointing out that ghost stories can often be explained easily denies the existence of ghosts. What it does mean, however, is that alternatives exist, and it is far easier to believe that the answer that I was actively seeking came from inside, and might even be a product of my desire to find it, than from outside. For it to come from outside, we’d have to have a source of this information in a coherent form, and a way of detecting it in the mind, as bare minimums – add in that some consciousness, like a god, wanted us to have this information, and you also need that god and the purpose of instilling that info as well.

Occam’s Razor is often introduced for such circumstances, but it is frequently misused. In common form, it’s a proverb which states that if you have multiple explanations for something, the simplest one is usually the correct one. I don’t really like the way that this has been turned into common use, however, because it’s a statistical example of probability in this form, which does not rule out statistically improbable things from occurring – indeed, it is then interpreted as implying (it does not) that such things do not happen, or should be ignored. What it really means is that the more complicated an explanation or solution, the more factors have to be in place to support it, and these would typically leave their own evidence. I have pointed out that, in order for some eyewitness account or radar track to be evidence of visiting aliens, there would also have to be advanced alien civilizations, extreme high speed travel, propulsion systems without noticeable traces, inertia-cancelling methods, and various other factors – when it’s not even possible to establish eyewitness verisimilitude, or rule out equipment error. On one side, you have a huge edifice built of things we only speculate about, and on the other, you have something that we’re abundantly familiar with. Hmmmmm…

That’s where critical thinking comes in. It causes us to examine alternatives, to put things in perspective, to remain aware that solutions are not just about finding positive evidence, but about eliminating any other options as well – the latter actually being far more important than the former. It’s the only way to avoid being fooled, really. My “revelations” regarding, literally, trivial matters demonstrates that subconscious thought processes are capable of producing sudden insights, both worthwhile and worthless.

Given all that, I should mention that the song I discovered this morning was, “Up Where We Belong.” Now, if that isn’t a sign from god, I don’t know what is!

Seriously, I don’t know what is. I mean, how would you tell?

A little free wisdom: There is no longer any purpose in quoting, playing, or even tolerating the continued existence of “Jack & Diane.” It is the most over-played song in the history of life on earth, and not even a good one. Kill it with fire, before another second passes and some asshole is tempted to play it again.

Comments are closed.