Mysticism Confronts Science:
A Panoply of False Assumptions about the Real World


L. Stephen Coles, M.D., Ph.D.,

Visiting Scholar

UCLA Molecular Biology Institute

Los Angeles, California


February 27, 2010


            How do fundamentalist religions from all over the world and throughout history, including all forms of superstition and magical thinking, challenge the basic foundations of science and logic and get away with it? Answer: by making a broad range of spurious theological assumptions about the nature of reality.  When linked together, these assumptions lead one down a proverbial garden path into a pathological swamp of mental quicksand. 


I. Assumptions

Assumption 1 (Teleological Assumption): This is one of the principal arguments for the existence of god. To wit, God, the Father, is a benevolent god (except when He's angry). He regularly checks up on us (theism presupposes an active god rather than deism, which assumes a passive god who may have turned-the-crank once-upon-a-time but is now otherwise preoccupied) who interdigitates Himself into the affairs of men or intervenes in all sorts of natural processes, answers prayers (when it suits His fancy), performs miracles (when He feels like it), punishes us when we're bad (or sinful), treats us generally like children, except when stewardship obligates us to establish dominion over all the plants and animals of the Earth, and finally communicates His will to designated prophets (or saints) who convey His agenda to ordinary parishioners through sacred scripture. As we were made in His image (Genesis); we have our work cut out for us (see duty below). Thus, everything has a purpose intentionality {predetermination, fate, destiny [karma], or reincarnation are separate questions}) and whatever happens must ultimately be according to His will (Thy will be done), even though this may not be evident to us at first, due to our clearly limited powers of understanding.

Contrary Opinion: The above argument begs the question of whether god really exists.  Humans are not very good at dealing with randomness.  They are always looking for a purposive explanation for either good or bad luck that transcends mere humanity.  But could God be using His mind to have power over matter? But there is no scientific evidence, despite decades of search by parapsychologists, for the power of mind over matter (psychokinesis, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, ESP, etc.) or despite centuries of search for an explanation for random events through Ouija Boards, Dousing Rods, Astrology, Crystal Balls, Tea Leaves, fortune cookies, bumps on the skull (Phrenology), Palmistry (Chiromancy), and Tarot Cards. Children correctly abandon their fairy-tale notions of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy when they grow up. Werewolves (Weretigers, if you live in India), vampires, zombies, mummies, and ghosts or goblins that go bump-in-the-night still scare us in Hollywood horror movies, but we know that they’re movies. Yet we resist, as adults, in giving up the idea of an active god who cares about the affairs of men and who roots for our side when we go to war against other human tribes. These are self-serving rationalizations or delusions based on wishful-thinking.

Assumption 2 (Ontological Assumption): The world is linearly decomposable (by partitioning) into mutually-exclusive and jointly-exhaustive subsets, any one of which can be further subpartitioned to an arbitrary degree of resolution (granularity).


Contrary Opinion: It may help us to explain the complexity of the world by using divide-and-conquer or trouble-shooting methodologies (heuristics) [like if an electric light bulb doesn't turn on when we try to switch it on (make it so)], in which all broken things ultimately get fixed or repaired or abandoned. [One can distinguish at least a half-dozen reasons why a light bulb won’t light (and several reasons may be present simultaneously) and making the proper diagnosis without premature closure on any particular hypothesis requires a decomposition of the problem-space, ruling out all sorts of false leads.  Was the bulb burned out? Was the lamp not plugged in? Was there power at the plug? Was the switch broken or maybe controls a different socket or was it not originally in the “on” position? Was the lamp broken?  Was the wire to the wall broken? And so on and so forth.]


     But, modern physics teaches us that there are non-linear interactions among subsets and there is no perfect partition that can be established. Furthermore, nothing can be smaller than the Planck Radius (~2x10^-35 m), so the universe is not infinitely decomposable. The mathematics of infinity (Aleph-Zero,1, 2, and higher-cardinality series from integers and rationals to reals (including transcendental like pi and e, the base of the Naperian logarithm), etc. leads us to many surprises, including the undecidability of 2nd-Order Predicate Calculus (Godel's Theorem/Russell’s Paradox).


     Furthermore, String Theory ([Mem] Brane Theory) teaches us that we live in a multidimensional multiverse (at least 11-dimensions) in order for all the gravitational/ electromagnetic/strong-/weak-force equations to balance, and our conventional 3-D world that we think we observe is merely an illusion. {Modulo the anthropomorphic assumption that there must be at least one universe in which humans exist, as we evidently do exist; most choices for parameters for the known laws of physics would preclude the existence of any form of life, let alone intelligent, literate creatures who can read without moving their lips.} The physics of “time” (Entropy increases [2nd Law of Thermodynamics]) is also up-for-grabs in the latest incarnation of modern physics, as the notion of a unidirectional clock is obsolete along with the speed-of-light being an upper limit to velocity [massless particles/waves that we call photons](now that we can toy with the notions of an infinite creation of dark matter/dark energy in a continuous expansion of the universe, along with the commonplace existence of black holes at the center of every galaxy).

Assumption 3 (Epistemological Assumption): Our powers of perception (the five senses) are necessary and sufficient to understand the world.


Contrary Opinion: Neurophysiology teaches us that there are many aspects of the world that are invisible to our senses, leading us to a classical problem in philosophy called The Mind/Body Problem.  Furthermore, modern physics teaches us that Heisenberg Uncertainty is intrinsic in the laws of physics that underpin our reality, so there are fundamental flaws in our quest to make the real world understandably by black-and-white decomposition.

Assumption 4 (Cosmological Assumption): The world, as we know it, was created in six days (Genesis). According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, 44 percent of US adults agreed with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years."  This is referred to as the Young Earth Creation Hypothesis (YECH).


Contrary Opinion: Recall that Genesis and other Old Testament Books of the Bible were based on an oral tradition that preceded the invention of writing. Modern astronomers teach us about the "big bang" from which the universe exploded more than 13.5 billion years ago.  The Earth was formed over 4.6 billion years ago, while Homo sapiens inhabited modern continents for more than 200,000 years.

Assumption 5 (Linguistic Assumption): Our natural language(s) (which serve as their own metalanguage) are adequate to comprehend the world.


Contrary Opinion: Prof. Benjamin Whorf, a cognitive psychologist and computational linguist taught us that language does indeed constrain our ability to comprehend abstract concepts (e.g., native American languages, like Hopi, employs cyclic verbs rather than linear verbs presupposing a time-and-date-stamp series of sequential events linked by a linear vector of time that can be decomposed by cause-and-effect to an arbitrary degree of resolution [recursive fractal geometry of Mandelbrot Sets or Julia/Fatou Sets].) It was the dream of Dr. Peter Mark Roget [1779–1869] who compiled the 15,000-word first-edition of Roget's Thesaurus to establish a noun-based decomposition of the physical/spiritual world (based on the philosophical foundations of Leibniz and Aristotle). Of course, the latest editions of these thesauri are no longer published in this style but are indexed alphabetically for the convenience of writers and editors, so Roget's original quest has now been largely abandoned and will fully perish if not revived soon.

Assumption 6 (Theodicy Assumption): When humans confront adversity in the real world, there must be a reason. Bad things don't just happen (by natural force). The universe is not simply stochastic; instead, it was designed (and it was designed ultimately for our benefit). So, when evil or suffering appears in the world, it must have a virtuous explanation.


Contrary Opinion: Arguments for the plausibility of this assumption are in the form of "proof by intimidation." "I told you not to do x or y or z.  For example, don't try to play God or you will make Him angry, and He will surely visit great pain upon your house." Cautionary tales proliferate from Greek Mythology to Frankenstein, as it gives the fantasy/satire writer a great deal of sanctimonious, self-satisfaction of the "See, I told you so; but you didn’t listen." variety.

Assumption 7 (Eschatology Assumption): Heaven (paradise with plenty of virgins) awaits those in the afterlife who have been good (righteous or moral, scrupulous followers of His [ten] commandments); while the other place (Hades or Hell, or a perpetual Lake-of-Fire as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation along with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death]) awaits those who were "bad" in this life (systematically committed wrong and/or illegal acts without demonstrating appropriate remorse and could not escape from the charges with an “innocent by reason of insanity” plea).


Contrary Opinion: Despite some eye-witness reports of near death experiences by patients who managed to survive clinical death, no one, not even Houdini, has ever come back to tell us about what happens after death.  The jury is still out.  Acting as though the penalty for disbelief is too great is not a convincing argument.


Assumption 8 (Deontological Assumption): We have a duty to be good and generous to our fellow man (The Golden Rule) (philanthropy/altruism) or we will suffer the consequences in the day of reckoning (the Egyptian god Anubis will weigh your heart on a scale [balance] in comparison with a feather, or, if you are lacking, the Greek god of death, Thanatos, won't let you cross the River Styx).  Conversely, greed and wanton exploitation of the environment are bad, but acceptable if you don't deliberately/intentionally/conspicuously hurt another person.  Thus, abortion is wrong under all circumstances, as personhood, by evangelical definition, begins at conception.


Contrary Opinion: If it fails to distinguish a potential person from an actual person, the definition of personhood itself is flawed. (This is also called the “acorn vs. oak-tree” paradox.) This fallacy is perpetrated by fundamentalists who argue that personhood begins at fertilization (when DNA presumably becomes unique) and not sometime after the blastocyst undergoes uterine implantation when organogenesis first begins and the presence of a central nervous system is indisputable.

II.  Now Use Deductive Reasoning to "Connect the Dots"

     If we were to move suddenly from a period of relative prosperity to a period of unexplained adversity (think heavy-duty tragedies: infectious disease, famine, drought, flood, hurricane, earthquake, explosive volcano, or whatever), according to Assumptions 1 and 6, we arrive at the following…


Conclusion: Adversity must be a message from God, as we have sinned against Him and He is now visiting His punishment upon us for our iniquity (divine retribution). So, it is our fault that we are suffering; and we had better repent from our evil ways or things will only get worse. [This was the argument used by the Vicar in his pulpit sermon to the congregation in the newly-released movie The Wolfman to explain why their town was “chosen” by God to be victimized by a horrible, lycanthropic creature who wantonly murdered their loved ones whenever the moon was full. Thus, for redemption, we must pray for forgiveness and atone for our sins while demonstrating credible remorse and obedience to the will of God.] Therefore, we must confess our sins and gladly accept further punishment, so that He will appreciate that we are really suffering and that we truly desire to return to the straight-and-narrow path toward Heaven (Assumption 7), and thus He will allow us to get back to normal as soon as we possibly can. (Praise the Lord; God is great).

Corollary 1: The clergy (Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Ministers, Vicars, Pastors, Rabbis, Mullahs, Imams, etc.) benefits (gains economic power) when their parishioners buy into (accept) these assumptions; likewise, the clergy has a vested interest in prophesies-of-doom so that the flock stays under their control and they will continue to receive their donations (tithes, sale of indulgences) uninterrupted. (Q: If God is absent, who’s in control? A: I’m in charge here.)


     But what if any of Assumptions 1-8 are wrong? What if there is no merciful (or jealous) god; what if bad things do happen (at random or by bad luck); what if there is no heaven (or hell)? Can we not take it upon ourselves to fill the void and seek to "play god" without fear of retribution? A: Yes, of course.

Corollary 2: The clergy invented a brand new vocabulary to deal with their atheistic/agnostic antagonists and keep their flock in line... terms like martyrdom, bigot, blasphemy, heresy, betrayal, sectarianism, violation of central dogma, apostasy, pagan, worshiper of idols, and holy war (as distinguished from a just war {whatever that is}), and its Islamic synonyms (Jihad and Intifada). 


     Entire infrastructures, like ecclesiastical courts at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, were formed to try heretics and burn them at the stake (Galileo escaped this fate, and fortunately he only got house arrest as his punishment from the Holy See; centuries later he was even exonerated. However, many were not so lucky and suffered their just fate).  Happily, at least in the USA and most other Westernized countries, we have institutionalized the separation of church and state, and no longer draw-and-quarter or stone the unfaithful to death.


            Nevertheless, the majority of Americans subscribe to Assumptions 1 – 8.  This has resulted in significant pain and suffering for a significant minority from inadequate health care for the indigent to a military/industrial complex that consumes disposable resources at a prodigious rate.  Can we continue to pay the price of this ignorance for the sake of our children and our legacy in history?  Our failure to educate our children means that broken governance will extend into the next generation and beyond.  The unintended consequences of absolute/fundamentalist religion and partisan political processes will haunt our grandchildren well into the next century.