Those 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.