A World Ruled by Meaning

Colorful QuarksThose who know of my intense interest in near-death experiences and past-life memories might be surprised to discover that, not so long ago, I was an atheist. Four years ago, I didn’t believe in a higher power and I didn’t believe in life after death. I had given up all those “spiritual” beliefs around age twenty, when I abandoned the Christian faith I was brought up in. Instead, I embraced the world as it appeared to be: random. I took my own experience as my guide, not scripture.

Today, I still take experience as my guide, but in the last few years, experience has led me to some places I never anticipated. Places that have caused me to rethink the totality of my worldview.

Those changes in my worldview are the subject of two book-length memoirs of mine: both the one I’ve completed and am seeking a publisher for (When to Say Adieu) and the one I am still writing (I Am Not That God). I’m not going to be able to retell those very complex stories in this post, so instead, what I want to focus on is what I see as the content of that core shift that took place in my worldview.

I have always been a very systematic thinker. My Ph.D. in philosophy is a symptom of this. I like finding patterns and developing theories. I like figuring out how the world works, and I have always preferred reading nonfiction (whether science, philosophy, or memoir) to fiction. That’s my analytical personality.

Maybe partly because of that desire to systematize, I have never understood the dichotomy set up by so many philosophers between naturalism and non-naturalism. They define a non-naturalistic worldview as one that accepts the existence of “supernatural” elements. But what, I always wondered, made something supernatural as opposed to natural? Some philosophers would say that the supernatural is anything that defies the laws of nature. But it seemed to me that, if the laws of nature can be broken, then those aren’t the real laws at all. There is some deeper law that governs the supposedly “supernatural” interventions in the world. Isn’t “nature” simply all that exists? The supernatural–if it exists–is actually natural. That seemed to me true by definition.

So, although I didn’t believe in God or life after death, I believed that, were those things to exist, they would not be “supernatural” but natural. God would interact with us–both during our earthly lives and afterward–according to certain mechanisms that governed the spiritual realm. And now that I do believe in the continuance of spirit after bodily death, I do believe those things are “natural.” I believe even “otherworldly” things happen in an orderly, systematic fashion. And I think even very New-Agey folks have a similar belief. That’s why they’re so interested in figuring out, for example, how out-of-body experiences work. They believe there’s an orderly mechanism involved.

But what, then, makes me or these other folks different from the typical naturalist? Is it just that we believe in the spiritual realm? That we believe the universe is much more complicated than mainstream science has led us to believe?

It is that. But it’s not only that. It’s something bigger and more significant. It’s what the existence of the spiritual realm means. It’s the fact that it has meaning at all.

I think that the real difference between the typical naturalist and the typical spiritually-minded person is not in a belief about the universe’s operating in certain regular patterns. They both believe that, I think. The difference is in what they think regulates this pattern. The typical naturalist is a reductionist. He or she thinks that everything can be reduced to its component parts, and that what happens on a macro scale is simply a consequence of lots of events on the micro scale. Natural laws govern the workings of those micro events (if atom A moves at such and such a speed in such and such a direction, it will have such and such an effect on atom B, etc.), and what happens to us human beings and any other macro beings is simply a product of what’s going on “down there,” detectable only by an electron microscope or some other, more sensitive device.

What I realized a few years ago was that this view of the order of nature was not sufficient to explain my experience. I had some very specific experiences in which I experienced the physical world as being governed by an overarching intelligence. I felt the realization come over me that what ruled the universe was not the physics of atomic particles, everything else being just a consequence of that. No, there was regulation at a much higher level. The level of intention. The level of meaning. I realized that reductionists–myself included–were taking it as an article of faith that there was no grand design behind the macro events of the world. That everything was ultimately the result of random physical processes. And I realized that there was a completely opposite way of viewing the world. And good reason to think that that way of viewing it was more accurate.

And the more I looked into it–the more I was open to seeing the world in this way–the more evidence came across my path.

As a result, I don’t believe, as I once did, that if we had exhaustive information about everything happening at the micro level of the universe, we could predict every future state of the world. I don’t think subatomic particles determine the course of our lives. Or that atoms, or molecules, or even cells do. (And a lot of physicists would agree with me on this.) I believe that what happens in the world is determined by something much more meaningful. By a consciousness full of purpose and intention.

That’s not anti-scientific. And it’s not non-naturalistic. But it is life-changing. The idea that meaning could be the dominant force in the universe.


13 responses to “A World Ruled by Meaning”

  1. The power of the human mind is unfathomable. This post is a testament to that statement. Many words come to mind: beautiful, thought-provoking, inspiring, complex, and simple. Although a contradiction in terms, sometimes we need to wade through the complex cobwebs to arrive at the simple truth. Life-changing, indeed. Wonderful piece of writing, thank you sharing 😉

  2. […] I have just been reading an elegantly written exposition by Sharon Rawlette of what seems to me to be the most important issue confronting human consciousness in the so-called ‘developed’ Western world. Viewed with an open mind, experience suggests that the supernatural is natural. (But, to paraphrase John Hick, not of course so strongly as to compel belief in those who prefer not to accept that conclusion.) Below is an extract: for the full post see link. […]

  3. Very engaging piece. I am curious about your thoughts on a few things:

    – If the continuance of a spirit is natural, do you posit that it exists within our physical bodies or are they separate?
    – If the universe has meaning, is this meaning exclusive to life/living organisms?
    – I would like to note that the Quantum Physics of atoms and subatomic particles is different than the Newtonian Physics that you and I live in. And although cells do follow the same physics of us, understanding the individual cell does not predict human behavior. On the other hand, understanding how these things work in a system together can. Think about the last time you thought about doing a complicated task on an empty stomach, and then your attitude about the same task after eating. That’s a series of well-understood chemical reactions changing your outlook on life! I worry that too many people call science, “random,” and dismiss it. Science’s goal is not to explain away the mystery of life and predict future events, but to help understand why the universe operates the way it does for the betterment of society.
    – Lastly, have you read David Eageman’s collection of short stories, “Sum?” If not, it’s 40 tales of the afterlife, and a very interesting and emotionally stirring work. I highly recommend it.

    Sorry if you’ve already addressed these issues, but I’m new here! I’ll continue looking.

    • Hi, Derek! Thanks for the recommendation of David Eagleman’s book. Funny you should mention it now, because I was just reading B.J. Novak’s new collection of shorts, “One More Thing,” and there’s a story in there that sounds like it could have been taken from Eagleman’s book. In Novak’s afterlife, people spend a lot of time going to concerts. My favorite part is when Frank Sinatra covers Coldplay….

      Now let me give your questions a shot.

      – If the continuance of a spirit is natural, do you posit that it exists within our physical bodies or are they separate? Seems to me from the many accounts of near-death and out-of-body experiences I’ve read that they are separate, and that the spirit is primary. The body seems to be something generated (or at least directed) by the spirit and then eventually sloughed off.

      – If the universe has meaning, is this meaning exclusive to life/living organisms? Hm. I’m not sure that everything isn’t alive. If by “alive,” we mean has some level of consciousness.

      -There’s a lot going on in your paragraph about quantum physics and randomness in science. I’m not really sure what to respond to. But maybe I could just say that I see “physical” processes being guided by “spiritual” ends. It’s kind of like the body/spirit thing from the first question. Our conscious minds direct the physical processes of our bodies toward desired ends. Similarly, the Great Consciousness can direct the physical processes of the entire universe toward its desired ends. One way of understanding the interaction might be to think of the fact that, at the quantum level, there is no determinism in the physical universe. There are only probabilities. Certain things are more likely than other things. So how does one possibility get actualized instead of another? By virtue of an intention. A conscious being influences that actualization. So we get a universe that may, to some, appear random, but is intricately laced with purpose. At least that’s the way I’m starting to see things now.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

      • I plan on reading Novak’s book soon, I hear it’s great from everyone that’s read it. Thanks for the response, very interesting!

  4. I agree with you that there is probably an afterlife and is part of nature. What I have is not clear whether God exists or if there is a meaning that rules the world. For the latter would be interesting the downward causation, that is, high level systems determine or influence on low level systems.

    • For me, the existence of an afterlife makes meaning seem very probable. Meaning is a conscious thing, after all, something that only makes sense given consciousness. It’s consciousness that understands and even creates meaning. So the fact that consciousness is independent of the material world in an important way makes it much more probable, in my opinion, that meaning also is independent of that world, and maybe even directs it.

  5. This is all very interesting and thought-provoking. I look forward to reading your memoir(s). I’d like to see a more thorough discussion of your evidence, though you may already have done that elsewhere on your blog; like someone above said, I’m new here, and I’ll keep looking. And I’ll definitely keep reading your blog!

    But for now, to step out and take a stab at forming an initial reponse, here are a few other things I’m wondering:

    – What leads you to believe that the meaning, consciousness, intention, existence, spirit, etc. is external to you and not created by you, specifically by your powerful, complex human brain? I’ve read about many near-death experiences that have been explored have turned up with explanations of how the unconscious people found out the information they shouldn’t have been able to know, given the brain’s subconscious capacity for information intake.

    – On a deeper and more open-ended level, I’m wondering about the relationship between our beliefs, our internal experiences, and our externally acquired knowledge. Many people have conversion stories, from and to every religion and belief out there, and I gather that most of the reasons people give for converting from one thing to another (it doesn’t matter what, here) are experience-based, not evidence-based. And then there’s the fact that when we hold an opinion, we naturally begin to see supporting evidence for that opinion; it’s our cognitive bias. I’m not saying it’s wrong to believe something based on an experience as opposed to external evidence—not at all. For how would we first come to believe anything? I’m just exploring this question in my mind.

    Thanks again. It’s really good to be thinking about these things.

    • What wonderful (and difficult) questions! I haven’t actually put much on this blog about the evidence backing up this shift in my worldview, but the questions popping up here are making me think maybe I should. I started this blog to be about writing and general everyday philosophical stuff and have only recently started letting my current spiritual investigations leak into my posts. I think I was afraid to get into them too much because I thought some people might see them as a bit “wacky.” I was trying to stay a bit more mainstream than, at heart, I am. So this reply to your comment will be my first step in the direction of trying to explain the spiritual shift I’ve gone through and share some of the evidence I’ve come across.

      I began being more open to the possibility of meaning and purpose in the universe four years ago when I went through an episode of deep heartbreak. In my grief, I “hit bottom,” as they say. I was an atheist at the time, and I felt extremely alone. Walled off in my world of sorrow. And then, in that place, as I was going through the roughest patch, I had experiences–synchronicities, really–that I felt to be reassurances that I was not alone. The details are too involved to give here (that’s why I’ve got the memoirs!), and I don’t know that they would be “convincing” to anyone who didn’t live through them. I don’t think that they were meant to prove anything to anyone but me. And really not even prove anything to me. Just to comfort me in my grief. And get me started being open to the idea that there might be more to the world than I was allowing myself to consider. But the coincidences were striking ones. Striking enough that they got me interested in investigating what else might be out there.

      The great thing was that, when I began to suspect there was something or someone in the universe keeping me from being alone, I didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that I knew what it was. Years ago, when I was a Christian begging God to prove that he existed so I wouldn’t have to give up on my faith, I hadn’t gotten any answers from God, and I wonder now if that’s because, if I had, I would have automatically attributed anything I received to the kind of God I’d been brought up to believe in. It took me years to shed those limiting notions of divinity, but it happened. And when I had these experiences years later, I didn’t immediately assume I knew what was going on. In fact, I had no idea at all. I just knew that something unexpected was happening, and I wanted to learn more.

      During this time, I was also going through a real shift in my self-perception. I made a big career decision, and in the midst of that, I had a “mystical” sort of experience in which, for the very first time in my life, I felt that I was wholly and completely loved. The love felt so overwhelming that it felt divine, but at the same time, I knew that it was linked to my own love for myself, evidenced by my recent career decisions that were in line with my true passions. So I had this very moving experience, and again I wasn’t sure what was behind it, just that it was exactly what I’d been searching for in Christianity and never found. Internal to me? External to me? I don’t know. I just know that it was more than I had expected out of life. And it was not something I was consciously willing.

      Well, as these sorts of experiences started to accumulate, I started to have even more striking synchronicities happen to me. They weren’t necessarily spiritual at this point (that is, not linked to any deep emotion or life lesson on my part), but they were hard to ignore. For instance, one afternoon I was shopping for a Christmas present for the man who had been my fiancé but that I was now in the process of breaking up with. In a used bookstore, I found a book that I immediately thought, “This is it. He would love this.” I bought it and went to a coffee shop where I spent a couple of hours devouring it, the whole time thinking, “He’s going to love this. This is PERFECT for him.” I was so excited to give it to him. Well, he was in France at the time, and I was in the States. The next morning, he sends me a random email with a picture of a book he just bought that morning. The title is in French, and it takes me a minute to realize that it’s the French translation of the book I’d bought for him. I joked with him that, because the postal service was so slow, I’d sent him his Christmas present by telepathy. It was a joke, but at the same time it felt too striking to be a coincidence. Especially since the book was James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code, and Hillman is a modern-day Jungian, all about the synchronicities.

      Anyway, this reply is getting longer than a blog post, so suffice it to say that I kept having more and more of these weird experiences. Well, all this made it the case that, when I went to France the next time and was in a bookstore and saw a book for sale called “Les miracles de l’esprit”–Miracles of the Mind–I picked it up. It was a very philosophical book about the relationship between the way clairvoyants accessed information and the way we normally access our memories. I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy it, though. I wasn’t “into” that kind of stuff. But I flipped it open, and the first name I saw mentioned was a scientist at the University of Virginia. I’m from Virginia, and seeing that in a French book was quite surprising. I kept reading. The first footnote I encountered was number “33,” a figure very significant to my story with my ex-fiancé and to many previous coincidences I’d encountered. I looked down at the footnote to see what the note referred to. It gave the name of a book by that UVa scientist. For some reason, right then it entered my head that that book would probably be there in the French bookstore. I raised my head to look directly in front of where I was sitting, and the first book on which my eye fell was…exactly that book. And so I bought them both. And THOSE TWO BOOKS were the most crucial in definitively changing my worldview.

      So I guess if you’re interested in objective evidence, those books would be my recommendation for a place to start. The one by the UVa psychiatrist is Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation by Ian Stevenson. It is a long, detail-packed book. It is nothing if not carefully collected evidence. Les Miracles de l’Esprit by Bertrand Méheust I don’t think is available in English, but some of the most interesting evidence cited in it comes from the work of Daryl Bem of Cornell University. He has a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called “Feeling the future: experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect.” Dean Radin’s work has a similar flavor, and I’m sure you can find him with a Google search.

      These works are just the tip of the iceberg. The more I read, both from people sympathetic to a more expansive view of consciousness and those skeptical of it, the more it seems clear to me that the balance tips in favor of the former. That’s not to say that anyone has any definite idea of what’s going on. Just that it’s pretty clear that there’s more to the world than the scientific reductionists allow. Quite enough to make meaning a viable possibility.

      To paraphrase Pascal, I’m sorry I wrote you such a long reply, but I didn’t have time to write a short one. 🙂

      • Thank you for taking the time to share all this, Sharon. It’s really interesting.

        I am going to enter those books into my to-read list. Happily, I’ve been learning French for a while with the goal of eventually being able to read complex works in French, so I may get to the Méheust one eventually. We’ll see!

        (As an aside, the book I’ve been wanting to read in French from the beginning–that motivated me to learn French–is Les Miserables. Ah, I love that story.)

        I don’t have any further replies for now, possibly just because it’s the weekend and my brain is turned down. 🙂 But also I’m not sure there’s much more to be said on this here. I think the next steps are for you to write your memoir and get it published, and for me to read those books! Sounds like a great plan to me!

  6. Most intrigued by your ‘mystical experience’ as someone who has experienced not dissimilar ‘peak experience’…and similar slews of ‘coincidence’…having spent some years now digging around I find myself ‘philosophically’ in a very similar position to that which your wider writings suggest you may be in. I’d love to read your memoirs (I have another unpublished memoir of another extraordinary lady on my hard drive…also with similar experience…What a happy coincidence you chose to befriend me on FB!…sorry not to have explored your writings more thoroughly previously!

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