Film Exam Questions: Week 1 (11632)

This assignment asked for a response to three questions tied to a set of four short films viewed in class regarding the origins of religion, each embedded below, followed by its corresponding question and my response.

Question 1:

What is M.E. or meaning equivalence? Using your own life as a template, give two or more examples from your own past where you found meaning in something that in itself may have no meaning to anyone else? Feel free to tell it in story form.

As I understand it, meaning equivalence refers to the phenomenon by which human beings extract from their life experience apparent meaning sufficient for the function of immediately fulfilling the (arbitrary and essentially meaningless) existential imperative (that is, the imperative to exist rather than not to exist) which forms the basis for being and life. From the subjective, first-person perspective, this apparent (but ultimately unreal, in the sense that it is non-objective) meaning is equivalent to meaning, that is, it suffices for the same purpose that actual/objective meaning would fulfill, were such a thing to exist.

To make a small digression: paradoxically, from the subjective point of view, the pursuit of meaning (or, objectively, meaning equivalence) appears to be the teleological precondition which justifies existence, while from the objective point of view, as I have explained, existence is the precondition which creates meaning in order to justify itself to itself (in the form of the conscious agents arising within it). In my mind, an ideal perspective incorporates both of these points of view as interdependently arising and essentially removed from the linear cause-effect framework under which the two apparently diverge.

One example of this from my own life would be one of my early attempts at smoking Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which resulted in a sub-“breakthrough” level (i.e., still relatively familiar, occurring in an apparently 3D space, temporally linear and not completely immersive) (but still very compelling) semi-vivid psychedelic vision of a utopian alien society I have since dubbed “Pinkworld” in my recollections of the experience for its notable bright pink, oscillating, jewelesent, self-transforming-machine-like sky (or perhaps sky-dome) as well as the general pink glow throughout the scene. My report of the experience, recorded about a week after, follows here in full:


At the urging of a friend I've decided to transcribe to the best of my ability my most recent DMT experience. Though not a breakthrough, this experience was very beautiful and valuable.

I visited a brightly colored, highly detailed world inhabited by constantly transforming shape-beings who lived together in an ideal civilization. All the details of the world were, like its inhabitants, in constant motion and transformation, and everything appeared to be somehow “singing,” or resonating with everything else at an incredibly pleasing audible frequency; I could feel the vibrations resonating in the center of my own being as well. All the shape people loved each other and loved me, accepting and loving all the things that made one another different. They all were free to express themselves in any way they wanted to without fear of judgment. Instead of traditional currency, their economy was based on love; in exchange for goods and services the shape-people would vibrate their bodies to produce an audible, visible tone which seemed to intuitively express the essence of love, and which would fill those who heard and felt it with a joy that was incentive enough for each to produce any and all of the needs of their fellows.

Everyone had a constant drive towards innovation and creativity, and would passionately produce magnificent works of aesthetic as well as functional art (in a world where love is the driving economic force, the line between the two is significantly blurred) in all forms, which they would immediately give away as a gift to whomever they felt would enjoy it most. “Animals” had been raised to the intelligence level of the dominant species (at this point in history dominant only in terms of population size) through I presume some form of genetic engineering, and enjoyed full social, economic and political equality.

These beings wanted me to know that I shouldn't worry so much about the apparent struggles and challenges I face in my world, and assured me that their world and infinite others like it are as real as mine, and I will be there with them one day.


This experience has since always served as one of my go-to memories for reassurance of life's meaning and purpose, not simply as a “heaven” image for me to justify the toil and suffering of earthly life with the promise of a superior future incarnation (other DMT and traditional psychedelic experiences have made me highly skeptical of the projection of linear logic beyond the veil of death, which by all my estimations appears to be something more fundamental and all-penetrating than simply a final destination or gateway of no return), but also as a model for the type of civilization I believe I am here to do my part in creating on earth.

Now, to an outside observer, this experience of mine may be easily written off as a psychological projection of my desires into an imaginary narrative I use to keep myself motivated. And they wouldn't be wrong, or at least not completely wrong. However, as the subject of this experience, having drawn real strength and direction from it in my life which might not have been otherwise conjurable, I recognize an undeniable (however relative) reality to it in terms of its success at rewiring my neural circuitry in just the same way as a “real world” experience might, and therefore regard questions as to whether I “really” visited an alien planet via mental travel/astral projection/telepathy or simply “dreamed” of such as mostly irrelevant when it comes to according meaning to the experience. Others may disregard my account as meaningless on the basis of their own perception of its non-objectivity, but to me, since it happened to me and served the psychospiritual purpose it served, it is the objectivity question that is truly meaningless. To speak in terms of the grounding topic of this essay, whether or not the experience had true meaning of its own, it did provide me with the equivalence of meaning.

If I had to answer the question of whether this experience is was “objectively real”, I would call it a paradox with multiple answers depending on which perspective asks the question; from here on earth there does not appear to be any physical evidence that the experience was manifested outside of my own chemically-altered neurology, however, my (admittedly rudimentary and largely secondhand) understanding of quantum physics (QP) seems to indicate that there exists an infinite number of alternate realities outside the purvey of our instruments in which all possibilities are realized in as much depth and weight as this one. In light of this understanding in conjunction with the other major revelations of QP regarding the relationship between observed and observer (ultimately, material reality and consciousness), I tend to believe that anything and everything we can imagine is in some sense “real,” that is, it has a physical counterpart elsewhere in the infinite multiverse, and whether or not that distant physical reality has an immediate impact on our physical experience, it cannot be argued that it has not an immediate impact on our psychological experience, making it “real” to us in this respect at the very least. Further, any psychological impact is certain to have a physical impact in terms of neurological transformation and subsequently affected action by the human organism in the physical world.

Another example from my own life of meaning equivalence arising from a subjective experience which mightn't have revealed the same meaning, or even any meaning at all, to someone with a different life history, perspective, etc. than my own, was my first experience of modern virtual reality technology at the VRLA Winter Expo in January 2016. There is not much need for narrative exposition here. If you've experienced virtual reality on the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive (or, to a lesser extent, the Samsung Gear VR), there isn't much to be said about the external, sensory aspect of the experience itself (as opposed to my own internal, mental, emotional, spiritual response to it), and if you haven't, no amount of explanation will truly suffice. It's mindblowing stuff; no previous media technology has ever granted human beings with this level of ability to approximate the full depth of a first-person subjective experience. I always tell people who haven't yet experienced VR to remember what it was like to watch television as a child and lose hirself entirely in the images unfolding on screen, momentarily forgetting hir home environment and earthly identity and becoming as entranced or even more entranced by the shapes and colors beheld within the magic box as/than s/he would be by directly beheld sensory stimuli. At least in my personal experience, VR allows for this level of deep immersion into the narrative presented by a media product to become a matter of immediate conscious choice (or in some cases, the technology may abduct the user into the experience presented above their will to resist) without the necessity for any type of consciousness training (i.e. meditation, yoga, hypnosis, etc.).

Shortly after experiencing VR for the first time at the 2016 VRLA Winter Expo, I began to view it in the context of Grant Morrison's projected technoccult future in the final issues of his epic psychedelic, mystical, occult graphic novel masterpiece “The Invisibles,” a future dominated by the fusion of highly advanced media technology with age-old as well as more modern consciousness-altering techniques in order to create an explosive, revolutionary new market in apps designed to alter the perceptions, the habits, and even the identity of the consumer. Having beheld it for myself I really started to understand how something like that could (and inevitably, will) work; reflecting on the experience the following night, my mind was flooded with potential applications of this technology in conjunction with other electromechanical as well as psychospiritual brain-change technologies such as hypnosis, neurolinguistic programming, brainwave entrainment (both indirectly through binaural beats and directly through transcranial [and eventually perhaps even invasive] neurostimulation), meditation, various breathing exercises, some forms of yoga, biofeedback (including neurofeedback), and of course, my favorite, psychedelic drugs.

To another without my psychedelic, occult, transhumanist perspective, to view the same apps as I did might not yield much more meaning than simple awe and perhaps a general optimism for the future (not that this is not meaningful alone). But to me, it meant realizing major specific ways in which the technology would alter human history, and feeling in this recognition a responsibility to take up an active role in pioneering these types of far-out uses, so that they might be used not primarily for escapist consumer entertainment and mass pacification, but instead for the liberation of humanity from neurosis and the subsequent destructive, inhumane and inefficient forms of social and economic organization which now threaten to make our planet uninhabitable for future generations. This responsibility has since become my driving purpose in life. Many might read these dreams as idealistic new-agey woo-woo nonsense I've projected onto what is ultimately just a shiny new toy, but because of the particular perspective I brought to the VR experience, the most significant perception I took from it was near-certain expectation of its integral role in the revolutionization of human consciousness, and following from this expectation a deep sense of individual purpose in bringing about such a change.

Question 2:

How can evolution help explain why religion is so popular across the globe?

The evolutionary perspective would indicate that religion serves to provide the human organism (in particular the brain's metaprogramming “I”-module) with subjective emotio-rational justification for the essentially irrational imperative at the core of of every DNA molecule's code to maintain its own existence at all costs. As I explained in the first part of my response to question #1, this justification for one's existence can be referred to as meaning equivalence.

As humanity evolved a larger brain capable of modeling futures and pasts in greater detail than any organism before, though we achieved greater evolutionary fitness in terms of being able to use our capacity for recollection and prediction to avoid dangerous situations and pursue those advantageous to our survival, we also entered into an unprecedented philosophical quandary, as our mortality and the relativity of our significance in the unfathomable expanse of space and time was for the first time laid bare, resulting in a dangerous sense of futility and meaninglessness. In order to compensate for this apparent lack of meaning so that the advantages of our newly sophisticated future- and past-modeling would not be overcome by its evolutionarily disadvantageous potential byproduct, the suicide urge, new and more complex structures of meaning based in subjective mythology and the primacy of narrative in the human experience rather than the previous animal meaning-structures of chemical, sensory, and instinctual attraction and repulsion had to be established (though these basic meaning-structures were by no means abolished or even significantly undercut in this process; the neurological circuits for creating these more complex structures of meaning were built on top of the existing foundation of animal neurology and are essentially, at least up to this point in human evolution, supported by it).

In this process of inventing new structures of meaning to run on the higher, past- and future-modeling neurological circuits, a new evolutionary arena thus arose in which would occur competition not among genes but among memes: ideas and idea-complexes whose measure of fitness was not in a capability to procure the means of biological sustenance and reproduction while avoiding biological and reproductive dangers (as genes would) but rather in their capacity to provide sufficient subjectively plausible meaning (or meaning equivalence, if you prefer) for the carrying out of the human biological life processes in the context of self-awareness of our mortality and apparent cosmic insignificance.

Out of this memetic competition arose religions, complex arrangements of compelling personal yet purportedly universal myths which placed human existence into a greater cosmic context beyond the mundane perceptions of earthly life experience. While several particular religions have risen to the forefront of this competition and conquered vast swathes of the human psychic landscape, instilling in their adherents a deep sense of their immutability, objective truth, and ultimate authority, the competition rages on to this day, with new memes and memeplexes regularly cohering out of strange mashups and reinterpretations of old ones in the light of unprecedented historical phenomena, struggling to encompass in their meaning-structures the utterly and increasingly novel human experiences of recent centuries.

Question 3:

In what ways does the Star Trek metaphor explain why some are drawn to atheism or agnosticism and others are drawn to religion? Give examples, if possible, from those you know.

The Star Trek metaphor for the triune brain theory explains how the emotional needs of an individual (Capt. Kirk), seated roughly in the limbic system of the brain, ultimately direct hir self-development and identity formation while hir rational self (Spock) aids and advises from the neocortex, with the entire process fueled (but not directed) by hir base animal self (Engineer Scotty), located in the reptilian lower brain.

Viewing human belief systems as a function of the dynamic between these three sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting interests which compose the human mind, we see it working something like this: the limbic system or emotional self runs the show, doing what it believes for whatever reason to be the most likely course to satisfying its emotional needs, and developing a belief system in the furtherance of this goal. In the process, it must (a) employ the aid of the neocortex or rational self to judge beliefs for plausibility and organize them into a cohesive system, and (b) rely on the reptilian brain or animal self for the energy to carry it out, meaning that whatever belief system the emotional self should adopt must basically satisfy in some way or another the needs of the animal self.

One may then speculate roughly that those inclined towards atheism and agnosticism have a limbic system which has done one of the following: (a) placed ultimate faith in the judgements of the neocortex in informing their self-development and identity formation process (often to the point of making rationality an ends in itself, to the deprivation of the emotional fulfillment to which it ought to be a means), or perhaps on the contrary, (b) placed ultimate faith in their animalistic instincts, and therefore have discarded religious indoctrination (in particular religious ethics) as an obstacle to their hedonistic pleasure-seeking urges, or (c) placed ultimate faith in what is most immediately emotionally satisfying to itself, and derives psychoemotional satisfaction from the sense of superiority gained by being a member of an intellectually elite group set off from mainstream society (i.e., generic white guy of average or below-average intelligence who watched a lot of YouTube videos of Richard Dawkins or thunderf00t or TheAmazingAtheist totally OWNING religious people).

I fell mostly into a mixture of camps (a) and (c) during my immature New Atheist phase from about ages 11-15, and I like to think that the agnostic part of my present belief system derives from camp (a), though I'm sure I've still got a bit of (c) in me too, and at my least proud moments I've definitely displayed some (b) elements. I've had atheist friends who embodied a mix of all three, as well as some who were more a mix of the latter two. Those I've known who take this kind of perspective purely from a camp (a) stance tend to identify as agnostic rather than atheist, and such people seem few and far between in the New Atheist movement, at least judging by most internet comment threads.

Applying this logic to religious people, we might speculate that in their brains, the limbic system has likewise chosen one or more of three paths to religious belief: (a) to place ultimate faith in the power of the rational mind in the context of indoctrinated or discovered religious beliefs and in so doing to establish comprehensive rational justification for said beliefs, (b) to place ultimate faith in animal instincts and either to embrace religion as a powerful instrument of social control for the furtherance of their base needs, or instead to find justification in an egoistic religious path such as LaVeyan Satanism or a cult of violence or hedonistic sex, or finally (c) to place ultimate faith in itself, and therefore to form or adopt a belief system on the basis of what is most immediately satisfying to it emotionally in the context of psychological dispositions and social dynamics (i.e., satisfying Mommy and Daddy and keeping a good standing in the community by going to Church every Sunday and saying one's prayers before bed [even if the individual in hir heart doesn't really buy the whole rap], or on the other hand joining a new religious community in a time of crisis and/or lack of direction/support).

I would venture to posit that most religious people fall overwhelmingly into camp (c). I've met a special few who fall into both (a) and (c); a couple of particularly insightful and wise teachers at the Catholic high school I attended come to mind, as do many religious mystics and members of religious orders concerned with social justice, such as the Jesuits or the Buddhist Peace Fellowship for example. Speaking of my Catholic high school, its principal was a priest who most certainly fell into camp (b), an evil, power-hungry jerk who treated his students and faculty as pawns in his game of self-gratification and used his religious authority to get away with it. Read about his ongoing lawsuit for sexual and religious discrimination as well as creating a hostile work environment here. In general, those who fall into this camp tend to occupy the clergy, particularly in Western religions.

I would say that those who fall primarily into camp (a) in the modern world tend to either identify as “spiritual” rather than religious, hold a more syncretic perspective or abstain from labels altogether (although there are certainly plenty of “I'm not religious, I'm spiritual” folks in camps (b) and (c) as well). I like to think the religious/spiritual/mystical/occult part of my present belief system falls into camp (a), though I may have some (c) elements in me as well. As far as my previous religious selves, I had a slight interest in LaVeyan Satanism (b) at one point during the faith-crisis opening of my New Atheist phase, and at another point during that same period developed my own personal neo-Catholicism in which I displayed elements of both (a) and (c), speaking casually to Jesus in my mind in the same swear-laden vernacular I would use with my friends at school. Before I began to seriously question my faith (though I'd always thought it was kind of funny how all this crazy divine-intervention miracle-working shit that sounded like something out of a fantasy movie only used to happen thousands of years ago and then just stopped altogether), I was entirely and only slightly uncomfortably in camp (c).

Ideally, humanity's future will involve Captain Kirk's total domestication (but appreciation and non-repression) of Scotty (the animalistic reptilian brain), along with his greater appreciation of Mr. Spock (the rational neocortex), in recognition that long-term emotional fulfillment (rather than simply immediate satisfaction) requires an integration of the rational mind-- but not to the point that its essential task as a servant to the emotional mind is eclipsed by an all-out worship of the fiction called “pure reason” (as we must remember that reason only developed out of and in support of the irrational imperative to exist, and therefore cannot exert itself upon anything but an arbitrary, subjectively comprehended qualitative abstraction of an inherently limited data set)-- in a way that allows for religiosity and agnosticism to coexist in a constant amiable dance through the minds of each individual and the larger culture in which s/he is situated and to which s/he contributes.