IS THE BRAIN LIKE A SCHOOL OF FISH?
True experiences of epiphany as usually described are defined by being supernatural. It’s clear that people have intense experiences, life changing realizations, and unaccountable moments, but they aren’t generally considered to be real epiphanies unless they are supernatural. They are categorized as “mystical”, from another dimension, and thus “spiritual.”
Nevertheless, an epiphany is something that happens in what we interpret to be “the mind.” No one has an MRI record of what the actual brain cells are doing in an intense moment, “unreal” and therefore necessarily invisible to a “real” brain.. This can be a bit of a problem for an “embodiment” thinker. Here’s what the granddaddy of this kind of thought, William James, has to say in Lecture 3 of “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” It’s called “The Reality of the Unseen.”
Here’s the first sentence: “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
Surely some transmission that was actually from a different world would not likely be intelligible to us nor would we be able to adjust ourselves to it. More likely the epiphany is a call to a known and perceiving human but through developed understanding of our lives and somehow including an inner demand to pay attention to it. What is most clear is that these experiences are unique to individuals who cannot explain the intensity of them to others. Nevertheless , a vocabulary of assumed elements have developed, particularly in the context of Christian theologians accustomed to naming the imagined. So “contact” with a supernatural world comes down to the aroused state of the receiver, which somehow shifts that person to a higher ability to perceive.
If there were indeed a parallel “universe” never perceived by any instruments of science and yet perceptible to certain individuals, would that be a good thing? I mean, if angels are flying around telling people things in whatever language they spoke, wouldn’t that call into question all our assumptions? And how did they make the jump between worlds? One thinks of StarTrek’s machine that particlalizes people into bits and reassembles them in the new place.
People continue to have these amazing experiences. Another possibility besides a “super” experience is that of some realization coming to the surface from the enormous unconscious that our brains contain without letting us know what is in it or what it is doing. This links us to considering the unconscious, describing it as a source of creativity, though not a separate reality, which is how epiphanies are often described.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3115302/ (Source of quotes below.)
It appears that thought proceeds systematically by creating structures of connected neurons, but some of them are so unreal that they are considered madness. Why unreal religious epiphanies are not considered madness or hallucination is due to the surrounding culture. But also there seems to be a function in the brain that will label the unreal, so that we can tell dreams from waking. In the hypnogogic state between sleep and waking, sometimes the indication fails and we think we are seeing something real when in fact there is no unicorn in the garden. But that’s no reason to say the unreal vision might be a better version of the world if it could be made actual.
Hitchens and other encultured sceptics may say that visions of a religious nature most often come from illiterate women historically considered, low IQ people. But IQ is based on the assumption that a certain kind of person with a certain kind of intelligence is the best point of reference — namely a military recruit, which was the original use of the guide. An illiterate woman (or man or variation) might be answering to a different criterion, perhaps the intelligence of stories as indicators of a good life. Not all forms of intelligence can be made into paper tests.
“Chaos theory, also known as complexity theory, is the study of dynamic and nonlinear processes and of self-organising systems (Gleick, 1987). Self-organising systems can be seen all around us, once we begin to look for them. We see them in the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish and the changing global ecosystem. All these things produce a form of organisation in which the control is not centralised, but rather is distributed throughout the entire system. The system is dynamic, and changes arise spontaneously and frequently produce something new. Seen within this context, the human brain is the ultimate self-organising system, and creativity is one of its most important emergent properties.”
It pleases me to think that brain systems are like a school of fish, a flock of birds, as spontaneous and yet reactive as the original spiraling of electrochemistry that created DNA. But we need not rule out people who are not illiterate and hysterical girls, because of this happy paragraph.
“The working hypothesis behind this study was that there was a relationship between creativity and psychosis, particularly schizophrenia. The empirical evidence driving this hypothesis consisted of several famous cases. James Joyce had a daughter with schizophrenia and had many schizotypal traits. Albert Einstein had a son with schizophrenia and was also somewhat schizotypal and eccentric. Bertrand Russell had many family members with schizophrenia or psychosis: his aunt, uncle, son and grand-daughter. There were also good theoretical reasons for expecting an association between creativity and schizophrenia. Psychotic individuals often display a capacity to see the world in a novel and original way, literally, to see things that others cannot. Might not the cognitive traits possessed by people with psychosis have something in common with those possessed by creative people, who also can sometimes see things that others cannot?”
So all really know is that sometimes people become conscious of new way of looking at the world that is not expected and possibly transformative. It might come from some other realm that humans don’t know about, or it might bubble up from inside someone who is willing to tell it to the rest of us.