God and Atoms
In ‘How to Know God’, Deepak Chopra claims that “(t)he same brain responses that enable you to see a tree as a tree, instead of as a ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms, also enable you to experience God” (Chopra 2000:17).
As I have suggested in previous postings, there are undoubtedly mechanisms within the neural labyrinths of the mind which take the raw data of the world and transform it into our imagination of that world. This data, filtered through the sensorimotor and central nervous systems, is cast together into the unified experience of conscious awareness. Not only is the ‘buzzing cloud of atoms’ transfigured into matter through this process but also the disparate elements that make up the physical tree are also brought into union. In neuroscience this is referred to as ‘binding’, but was known in medieval times as the ’sensus communis’; the common sense of singular being in which seeing this branch, this leaf, this twig, is transformed into the communion of ‘tree’.
Chopra is right to suggest that these binding and consilient sense-making processes are not limited to the construction of those parts of the imagined world which appears as physical reality. It is this ability to build coherent and singular patterns out of fragmentary data which also allows us to conceive of conceptual ‘objects’ which are experienced purely cognitively, and which appear to have the same imagined wholeness as trees and rocks. These are the mechanisms which lie behind our apprehension not only of God, but also of theories and archetypes, of quarks and leptons, black holes and big bangs, love, justice, time, and anger. Such phenomena are inherently abstract, leaving no direct impression on the senses in the way that buzzing clouds of atoms seem to. And yet the sensus communis which makes the sense of a tree out of the imagination of atoms also makes sense of these ephemeral, disembodied, and evansescent entities. All of these, trees, gods, and atoms, are recognisable patterns in one’s imagination of the world.
This does not mean however, that because all these entities are similarly produced within the individual imagination that all are necessarily equal, that all are equally ‘real’. What Chopra does not go on to say is that one’s individual imagination of a tree as represented in the dancing photons impacting one’s retina is also simultaneously available to the other senses. The imagination of the material tree is not only a visual image; evanescent entity of visual light, but is also an object with hardness that dramatizes its existence in the impact it would make on the body, should I be foolish enough to try to walk through it. In fact we have a name for entities which are purely visual; we call them ‘mirages’. The evidence of one’s eyes is not always sufficient to ensure epistemological certitude, but such certitude can be approached as objects engage multiple senses and begin to enter the sensus communis.
What Chopra also neglects to mention is that the tree that he indicates; this ‘ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms’, exists not only in the individual imagination but also within the imagination of anyone with eyes standing near where you are standing and looking where you are looking. The ghostly swarm of buzzing atoms (which is neither ghost nor swarm, and most certainly does not buzz), appears in the interpersonal imagination of the objectively described world.
This is similarly the case with at least some of the abstractions noted above; a good theory is one which appears robust not only in the imagination of a single individual but in the minds of many, and which maintains its robustness in the face of attack and competition, whether this be in the form of organised scientific attempts at falsification, or the more vernacular processes of scepticism and doubt. It is through these processes that such theories as natural selection, heliocentrism, and relativity come to exist not as follies, ideosyncratically located within the private garden of an individual mind, but as monumental metaphorical objects in the common ground of the shared imagination.
The U.S. constitution forbids the construction of religious icons on government land, and similarly there is no statue of God in the public park of interpersonal reality. Whilst it is likely that the God concept is a result of the same processes of binding and imagination that produce the image of the tree, there is little agreement regarding the nature, appearance, provenance, role, or substantive nature of this God. To the extent that he, she, or it appears within the interpersonal imagination at all it is often only as the ill-defined subject of sectarian discord and is only maintained through institutional dogmatism, wishful thinking, and theological hand-waving.
Chopra, D. (2000). How to know God: the soul’s journey into the mystery of mysteries. London, Rider.