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Science is notoriously bad at answering life’s big questions, but can the methods of science bring us closer to truth?

photo by: Marcello Maria Perongini

[NOTE: Laird Shaw has authored this terrific post synthesizing many contributions from Skeptiko-Forum participants. Please join us on the forum to continue this discussion.]

Sixteen years ago, I was immersed in a crisis of dark encounters that defied conventional explanation. The voices and negative entities that surrounded me became my reality… and my confusion. As disturbing as this experience was, it got me questioning the nature of existence. What was the truth of my situation, and of the greater metaphysical reality that I was encountering?

Even before these experiences, I had wanted to know the truth about reality. But after them, there was so much more that the truth had to account for. I am – and have been since as early as I can remember – a fan of rational thought as a means of approaching such questions: rational thought as a broadly “scientific” endeavour; as a generally critical, systematic and methodical approach, extending beyond just repeatable experiments, and – especially where physical experiments are not possible – into thought experiments, into asking critical questions, into probing for inconsistencies, and into comparing models with one another to see which best fits what we know about reality.

In this blog post, I adapt an aspect of this scientific approach to one of “the big questions.” I use model-fitting, identifying a set of data for which to account, identifying various models to which to fit that data, assessing both the internal consistency of each model as well as how well it fits the data, and then (which this blog post does not cover) adjusting the models as necessary, and seeing whether they make any new predictions that we can test.

The aim of this blog post is to sketch the approach so that others on the Skeptiko forum (and beyond) are inspired to get on board, and to collaborate on a “reality modelling and comparison” project.

skeptiko-Join-the-Discussion-3In this sketch, the “big question” under consideration is, roughly stated — Why are we incarnated in this world?

In this sketch, I consider only models for which I have the most information available from Skeptiko forum participants. I analyse the first three models in full, and the remainder only partially, because the proponents of those models typically didn’t provide enough details as to how they fit the data, and I have not presumed to guess. Also, it is important to acknowledge that even for the first three models, it is possible to propose variations which fit the data differently. I have simply based these models on the variations which are, in my experience, most popular. Finally, I have avoided assessment of any standard religious models, mostly because of their vast number. The models that I have chosen are mostly those which have been proposed on the Skeptiko forums. Here, then, are the models under consideration in this sketch:

  1. That incarnation occurs in a material/physical reality, which is all that there is (i.e. materialism/physicalism).
  2. That incarnation is a school.
  3. That incarnation is a dualistic battleground between two opposing forces (ditheistic moral dualism).
  4. That incarnation is a prison.
  5. That incarnation is God’s self-entertainment.
  6. That incarnation is the amoral art project of an amoral demiurge.
  7. That incarnation is a moral gymnasium.

These seven represent one roughly ambivalent/nihilistic (#1), three roughly positive/good-dominant (#s 2,5&7), two roughly negative/evil-dominant (#s 4&6), and one dualistic (neither good nor evil dominant) (#3) models of reality.

The key data about reality for which I have chosen each of these answers to account is as follows:

  1. The existence of evil in the fullest metaphysical/spiritual sense.
  2. The existence of “the veil”: that barrier which (generally) prevents us from knowing/recalling anything about existence prior to or outside of incarnation.
  3. The existence of psi – including telepathy, precognition, presentiment, clairvoyance, etc – as well as its (general) weakness in this realm.
  4. The evidence for reincarnation (regardless of whether or not one believes that evidence to be strong enough to prove that reincarnation is real).
  5. The many reports of encounters with UFOs and alien beings.
  6. The many reports of spiritual and paranormal experiences and phenomena that don’t fit under “psi” or “UFO/alien encounter”, including all forms of spiritually transformative experiences (STEs) – near-death experiences (NDEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), mystical experiences, etc – as well as mediumship and channelling, and the information gained through those means, and also such miscellaneous phenomena in this category as encounters with ghosts, answered prayers and faith healings.
  7. Both the order and apparent intelligence behind our reality (DNA, fine-tuning, etc), as well as the deviations from order (ghastly birth defects, cancer, natural disasters, etc).

Of course, I do not claim that this is a comprehensive list, only a reasonably representative one.

With that said, let’s consider the models underlying each answer individually, and assess both how internally consistent they are as well as how well they fit this data.

1. Incarnation as an all-encompassing material/physical reality.

Full analysis.

Synopsis: This is the materialist aka physicalist view of reality currently dominating the academic and cultural mainstream. It holds that all that exists in reality is, essentially, “matter interacting with matter”, or, since modern physics recognizes more than just matter, “physical stuff interacting with physical stuff.” In this view, consciousness “supervenes” upon matter: i.e. states of matter fully determine states of consciousness, and consciousness is essentially a “tack-on” to a physical universe. It is atheistic, and it denies the reality of psi, the paranormal, the supernaturnal, and higher/spiritual realities.

Data fitting:

This model dramatically fails to account for all but one and a half of the data points:

  1. It cannot even in principle account for metaphysical/spiritual evil, since it does not even recognize any metaphysical/spiritual reality beyond the physical. All it can posit is “hallucination” and “delusion”: an inadequate explanation given evidence of the causal efficacy of beings from this realm.
  2. The existence of “the veil” is the only full data point that it can meaningfully account for, but only trivially: “the veil” exists on this view because there is nothing prior to or outside of incarnation of which to be aware.
  3. Psi can only be explained away on this view: as a “coincidence” or as a mistaken conclusion of statistically or methodologically flawed research, neither of which are adequate explanations. In fairness, there are possible materialist explanations of psi involving quantum mechanics, but (1) they are not commonly accepted in materialist circles, and (2) they are anyway implausible.
  4. The evidence for reincarnation, too, can only be explained away, as flawed research: again, not an adequate explanation.
  5. The many reports of encounters with UFOs and alien beings, can only, you guessed it, be explained away, as “hallucinations”, or with “weather balloon” type dismissals – inadequate explanations given both the physical evidence of some such encounters, such as implantations and scars, and the stature of some of the witnesses to these phenomena, including high-ranking military personnel. In fairness again, it would be possible for materialism to countenance these accounts as genuine without compromising its essence, however, in practice, advocates of materialism do not accept these accounts as geniune.
  6. Spiritual and paranormal experiences are no different: materialists try to explain these away by various means, but ultimately, none of these means can account for the veridical aspects of these experiences, particularly NDEs, such as when a person clinically dead on an operating table later accurately reports the contents of a conversation occurring in another room which s/he could not have heard from the operating table even if s/he had been alive and conscious.
  7. The fine-tuning of the universe has no compelling explanation on a materialist account, and, whilst I have not completely made up my mind on this, I tend to think that materialist accounts for the existence of the sophistication of DNA are also inadequate. Deviations from order in reality (ghastly birth defects, cancer, natural disasters, etc) are explained on this view as bad luck or inherent in the physical laws of the universe – the only genuinely explicable part of a data point on a materialistic account other than the veil.

Discussion, including internal consistency:

This view of reality is internally inconsistent because the notion that consciousness supervenes upon matter (i.e that consciousness is an “epiphenomenon”) cannot account for self-reflective thought, as explained by Aedon Shevirah Cassiel in his blog post, Consciousness (IV) — The Case of the Lunatic Fish:

[O]n epiphenomenalism, our thoughts are produced by our physical brains. But our physical brains, in and of themselves, are just machines—our conscious experiences exist, as it were in effect, within another realm, where they are blocked off from having any causal influence on anything whatsoever (even including the other mental states existing within their realm, because it is some physical state which determines every single one of those). But this means that our conscious experiences can never make any sort of causal contact with the brains which produce all our conscious thoughts in the first place. And thus, our brains would have absolutely no capacity to formulate any conception whatsoever of their existence—and since all conscious thoughts are created by brains, we would never experience any conscious thoughts about consciousness.

The materialist alternatives to epiphenomenalism – panpsychism and panpsychist-like theories of consciousness such as Integrated Information Theory – suffer from fatal data-fitting flaws of their own: an inability to account for the separability a la NDEs/OBEs of consciousness from the matter/information-substrate in which consciousness is supposedly inherent.

Advantages: None.


  1. Fails to fit the data.
  2. Internally inconsistent with respect to its accounting for consciousness.

Open questions:

  1. How can the fundamental failings of this model be made more widely known?

2. Incarnation as a school.

Full analysis.

Synopsis: This is essentially the New Age / spiritualist view, and it is summed up nicely, along with its rational basis, by Jim_Smith:

Independent sources of information: reports by NDErs, the writings of spirits through evidential mediums, and transcripts of past life regressions, agree that the earth is a school where we develop character traits that make us fit for higher levels in the afterlife. When we achieve a sufficienly [sic] high level, we move beyond earth incarnations to new ways of development, but learning never stops throughout eternity.

Data fitting:

This model accounts for the data points as follows:

  1. Metaphysical/spiritual evil is said to be part of God’s plan, furthering our evolution.
  2. The existence of “the veil” is accounted for on this model as being necessary for our learning: supposedly, being fully aware of broader spiritual reality and our place in it would inhibit our learning. As Jim_Smith puts it:

    [I]f you remembered how loved you were and joyful you felt were [sic] before you were born you would spend you [sic] life pining for home and cursing yourself for agreeing to incarnate and rebelling against “the system”. You wouldn’t take the class seriously if you knew it was just a class.

  3. Psi is seen to be the natural means of spirit perception/communication, which is inhibited when a spirit’s consciousnes is “filtered” through a brain.
  4. Reincarnation is seen as a literal fact, as the means by which a being progresses through its learning, and achieves higher spiritual levels.
  5. Likewise, aliens, UFOs, and encounters with them are seen literally and straightforwardly: we are not alone in this universe, and sometimes aliens do visit us. They, too, are students in the school of incarnation, albeit at different levels than those at which we might be.
  6. Reports of spiritual and paranormal experiences are seen as evidence for an expanded spiritual reality which some of us are sometimes allowed a glimpse of, or which, through skill or practice, we have attained the ability to experience/manifest.
  7. The order and apparent intelligence behind our reality is seen straightforwardly as evidence for an intelligent, powerful Creator God, and the disorder is seen as resulting from free will choices.

Discussion, including internal consistency:

With such an apparently good accounting for the data, and so many converging lines of apparent evidence, it might seem that this is case closed: how could anybody argue against the veracity of this model in the face of all that? Yet there are some quite vigorous objections.

As foreshadowed above, these objections are largely based in a reaction to the existence and problem of evil. How, the objection runs, could we reasonably believe that a good, powerful God, who wants us to learn, would teach us through such violent means as occur in this world? It is unthinkable, runs the objection, that He could not have devised, nor that He could lack the power to implement, a more compassionate system of education.

It is interesting that the incarnation-as-school answer shares (to a first approximation) an understanding of God with monotheistic religions such as Christianity, in that He has the properties of omnipotence, omniscience, personality, goodness, and authorship of reality. Thus, the arguments and counter-arguments around the problem of evil as applied to Christianity apply similarly here, and, not surprisingly, a similar theodicy is offered: evil exists because without it, genuine free will would not be possible, and, since an absence of genuine free will would be worse than the existence of evil, the existence of evil (despite a good God) is justified. In the incarnation-as-school model, the fullness of the evil I and others have experienced is said to be part of the learning process: God allows or even encourages it to exist in order to facilitate our spiritual growth.

But can this view really account for the extremities of evil in this world? What “lesson” could be worth the Holocaust, or the years-long, gruesome torture of a victim of a psychopathic paedophile? Whilst the problem of evil is a huge subject on which much could be written, I will briefly highlight only three points which bring the above theodicy into serious question. First, that natural disasters which cause much suffering seem not to be related – at least directly – to free will choices, and second, that nor does the inherently cruel and violent systemic need for some creatures to have to kill others in order to survive seem to be directly related to free will choices. If either of these areindirectly related to free will choices, then this would seem to be an unnecessarily created relationship. Either way, they seem to be incompatible with a good, all-powerful God who desires to teach His creatures (how to) love: surely, such a being could come up with a less violent way to teach; surely, learning how to love is incompatible with having to kill others to survive (hardly a loving act). Third, that the possibility to choose evil does not seem to be necessary for genuine free will: God Himself presumably has free will, yet He is incapable of evil choices. Why, then, would He endow His creatures with a lesser nature? And if God does not have free will, then what need is there for free will in the first place? If an absence of free will works fine for God, then why not for us, as His creations?

And so, finally, what about the internal consistency of this model as a whole? We might wonder why an omnipotent God would put us through all of this learning in the first place. Presumably, it is to achieve an end goal (really a starting point): the state in which we have all learnt our lessons and can “get on with it”, whatever that is – presumably, living together in perfect peace, love, harmony and ever-evolving creativity. But if that is God’s end goal, and if He is all-powerful, then why not create us in that state to start with? Why create beings which require – often violent, and subject to the horrors of metaphysical evil – education in order to reach that point? Why not create us as peaceful, loving, harmonious and increasingly creative right from the beginning?

The objectors to the incarnation-as-school answer have, though, despite the arguable merit in their problem-of-evil and internal-inconsistency objections, an apparently formidable obstacle to overcome: all of those converging lines of evidence. How do objectors deal with this? They essentially argue that all is not as it seems; that one or more of the following hold: (1) to a large extent these experiences are influenced and mediated by our own psyches rather than being representative of an objective external (spiritual) reality, (2) that these experiences are constructed for us by powerful beings who seek to deceive us through them, and/or (3) that the evidence is not so clear-cut and consistent as proponents of this model might want to represent it as, in particular with respect to the relationship of metaphysical evil to God, and the (in)dependence of these from/upon one another. Too, objectors often claim that spiritual experiences vary based upon person, culture, and time, and especially that some of these variances are contradictory.

With respect to the third objection – that the evidence is not so clear cut – we might take as an example the origin story which the patients of board-certified American psychiatrist, Dr. Shakuntala Modi, conveyed to her under hypnotic regression, as summarised in her book, Memories of God and Creation, published in 2000. Dr. Modi relates that her patients, when hypnotically regressed to the very origins of the universe, each recalled a generally-similar story, of being as one in the expanding orb of God, during which at some point an external evil infiltrated that oneness as a sort of “virus”. This sort of evidence is apparently as “objective” as the other evidence, which supports the incarnation-as-school model’s view of evil as a part of God’s plan, yet its purport is very different: that evil came from outside; that it has nothing to do with God’s plan.


  1. Fits most of the data neatly.
  2. Largely consistent with separate lines of evidence.


  1. Does not fit all of the data.
  2. Does not account well for the existence of evil and suffering.
  3. Does not explain the need for a soul’s education in the first place i.e. why souls do not start from an educated place of lovingness rather than be forced to attain it through a painful process of evolution.

Open questions:

  1. Is there a better way to account for evil and suffering on this model than it being “part of God’s plan”, or “part of our learning”?
  2. Is there a way to explain why we “need” to learn in the painful way that we do under this model?
  3. Can we trust the evidence from spiritual encounters to be what it appears to be on its face? If not, how do we determine what is trustworthy and what is not?

3. Incarnation as a dualistic battleground between two opposing forces (ditheistic moral dualism).

Full analysis.

Synopsis: The idea behind this model is that both good (supreme in God) and evil (supreme in His counterpart) exist dualistically, and independently of one another. The means by which the duality arose is not stipulated, but we as conscious beings are inherently subject to it. To incarnate in this world/realm is to do battle for one or the other force. The battle is subtle, and has rules. How these rules arose is an open question. We are all spiritual beings, from one side of the duality or the other, and there exist non-incarnated, immaterial spirit beings (angels, demons, etc) who fight, too, in the battle.

Data fitting:

Because this is my own view, and one which I am still developing, I am less than definitive in fitting the data to it. I leave some possibilities open.

  1. The existence of evil in the fullest sense is explained as an independently existing metaphysical force. This is the key advantage of this explanation: an adequate justification for evil, not as part of any “divine plan”, but as that which has its own, contrary, plan.
  2. The existence of “the veil” might be explained in various ways. One possibility that I suggest is as that confusion which overwhelms us when we disobey the rules, and become psychically overwhelmed/overpowered by the other side. Another is that it is simply part of the rules that (certain) participants are not fully aware of greater reality during the battle.
  3. Psi can be explained as per the incarnation-as-school answer: that we are inherently spiritual beings who inherently communicate and experience through psi, until we are incarnated into a body/brain. Then, we need to use discipline to hide our thoughts from the other side, or to use our psi to wage war.
  4. Reincarnation might be explained as the process by which we “return to the battlefield” after regrouping in our spiritual homes.
  5. UFOs and alien beings might be explained as other participants in the universal battle, either from other literal physical worlds, or from some other dimension of reality, or some combination of the two.
  6. Spiritual and paranormal experiences and phenomena such as NDes are the most challenging to explain on this view: most of them as reported do not lead to a dualistic view; most of them as reported tend to lead to a view of a reality which is basically “OK”, in which a dominant force for good is in control, even if it has temporarily ceded, for whatever purpose (learning / entertainment / moral gymnastics) some power to (a dependent) evil. This is the Achilles heel of the dualistic interpretation, just as the problem of evil and the problem of positive experience are the Achilles heels of the incarnation-as-school and incarnation-as-prison interpretations.
  7. On this account, the order and apparent intelligence behind our reality (DNA, fine-tuning, etc), are explained in the same way as the deviations from order (ghastly birth defects, cancer, natural disasters, etc): intelligent forces for both good and evil have played a role in creating the battleground of this reality, with its rules and potential for both good and evil to express themselves. Why is our reality so relatively ordered when it is in a state of war, and when the adage “There are no rules in love and war” would seem to apply? That is another challenging question which is difficult to answer with respect to this interpretation.

Discussion, including internal consistency:

What is there to recommend in this answer? Both the generally-positive and generally-negative answers as to why we incarnate seem to be equally fraught with difficult to resolve problems: the problem of evil and the problem of positive experiences (see “incarnation as a prison” below), respectively. This could be because the true answer is one in which neither the positive nor the negative is dominant. It is possible, in other words, that reality is a battleground playing out a ditheistic moral dualism.

And what about the general internal consistency of this view? It might be objected that reality does not seem much like a battleground: how many battlegrounds afford all of the pleasures and luxuries which are afforded to so many of us in this world? Entertainment, sports, recreational drugs, sex, beaches, the natural world, etc etc. There are several different ways of answering this objection. Whether they succeed is a matter for further analysis. Two, for example, are:

  1. That that which feels pleasurable/luxurious is not as it seems; it is actually doing us harm; it is a trap laid by the other side to weaken us.
  2. That the battleground is more of an attack by the enemy into God’s “creation”, “outpost”, or “home territory”, and as such we “win” the war so far as we are able to defend the possibility of pleasure and luxury against the enemy’s attempt to turn this world into a uniform hell of suffering and torture enacted by enemy agents.


  1. Adequately accounts for the existence of evil in the full metaphysical/spiritual sense.
  2. Fits most of the data to a reasonable extent.


  1. Does not at least superficially fit that evidence from channelling, NDEs, and other spiritual encounters which presents a more “good-dominant”, “it’ll all be OK in the end”, “God’s in control” view.
  2. Does not at least superficially seem to account well for the pleasures/luxuries in life, as well as for the regulation in what is postulated to be a war.

Open questions:

  1. If incarnation is a battleground, then why is there so much luxury in it?
  2. If we can trust the adage that there are no rules in love and war, then why are there rules in this war?
  3. How can we reconcile more optimistic spiritual reports with this dualistic view?

4. Incarnation as a prison.

Partial analysis.

Synopsis: This is the central premise of generally Gnostic schools of thought, and comes in different variants. For simplicity, let’s focus on that variant put forward by manjit in his opening two posts in his Speculation on the Nature of Reality thread:

I feel no current system of mystical theology sufficiently explains the full spectrum of human experiences possible.


Basically, the idea [as an alternative to mystical theology including incarnation-as-a-school] is that ALL aspects of the supernatural, mystical, other-worldly, anomalous, visionary, including ALL aspects of NDEs, mediumship, channelling, visionary/spiritual experiences, UFO experiences, experience & evidence suggestive of reincarnation etc, and the narrative they either directly impart or at least suggest to us, is actually a vast manipulation/control mechanism. Whether that be a non-sentient, software-like control, or an intelligent demi-urge like control, is, imo, complete [sic] undeterminable from our position, as all mystical & visionary experience would be part of that control mechanism.

What is the evidence for this scenario? It is abundant, and scattered throughout the entire history of mankind.

Every single kind of these “paranormal” visionary experiences has hugely & directly influenced the course of history, in ways many people (especially today’s so-called “sceptics” and atheists) have no idea of.

Discussion, including internal consistency, and open questions:

It seems to be fairly obvious how this model accounts for some of our data points: spiritual experiences and alien/UFO experiences are manipulations designed to deceive us; “the veil”, likewise, hides from us how we are being controlled. Because manjit did not lay this out in detail, though, I will avoid a more extensive point-by-point analysis.

But what about its consistency with what else we know about reality? This answer seems to suffer from the opposite problem as that suffered by the incarnation-as-school answer given the problem of evil: we might call this “the problem of positive experiences”. In other words, proponents of incarnation as a system of control mount the case that apparently beneficial, “real” spiritual experiences are actually manipulations intended to herd us like sheep. Apparently, then, the “shepherds” are malevolent – but if so, then why do they merely “herd” us with at least superficially positive experiences: if they are genuinely malevolent then why do we not suffer constant torture? Is there some positive force restraining them from inflicting that fate upon us? And if so, what is it, and why does it not prevent them from controlling us in any way at all? Or is it rather the case that they have unlimited power over us but that they simply have no need nor desire to inflict that level of torment upon us? If so, and given that they are not benevolent, then why not? Finally, given that any experience whatsoever can be claimed to be “part of the system of control”, is there any way to falsify this model?

5. Incarnation as God’s self-entertainment.

Partial analysis.

Synopsis: The essence of this answer is that God, existing in a state of static perfection, became bored, and split into individual personalities, creating a reality in which for those personalities to entertain themselves. It is summed up by Vault313 as follows:

Think about haunted houses, horror movies, roller coasters, again skydiving, bungee jumping,etc. these are all situations we deliberately put ourselves in for the sheer thrill of it. We love scaring ourselves with the fear of death, only when we know it is impossible (or at the very least incredibly unlikely).

Our true reality is no different. We know we cannot die. We know this physical experience is temporary and in the end ALL IS WELL. Something NDEers say all the time.

We, from our purely human perspective say “how can this be so?” How can everyone be ok, when I can look around me and see that it is not.

Surely, if you were able to enter into the universe of the Halloween movies, none of the characters would tell you everything is all right. People are being killed by a crazy man in a mask!! But you would laugh and say, none of this is real! None of you are really going to die. It’s just a movie.

Discussion, including internal consistency, and open questions:

I will not presume to know how Vault313 would fit the data to this model, so let’s again stick to assessing the internal consistency of this answer, and also, since it is my focus, its ability to account for the fullness of evil. Regarding evil: we would have to believe, on this answer, that evil has limitations. After all, we would not be able to laugh off a “mere” horror movie if the evil villain could literally project himself out of the screen and torture us. It is only when that villain is limited in his ability to affect us that we can be “entertained”. But is this how it works in “the real world”? Are there really limitations on the extent to which evil can affect us? Sure, we have a police force, but let’s say that a psychopath manages to avoid the law – and you have the misfortune to be trapped in his basement. How “entertaining” would that be, to be tortured for as long as you remained alive? Would this really be better than “boring” perfection?

And this brings us to a key premise affecting the consistency of this view: that wholeness and perfection are boring. Why would this be the case, especially to the point that we (God) would feel the need to introduce evil and suffering into our (His) existence? If we are to go by the reports of near-death experiencers, perfection is a state of unconditional love which they would never want to leave. They do not want to return to a world of suffering. Who is to say that “perfection” is static anyway? Surely, “perfection” includes a “perfect” ability to create? Who could be dissatisfied with perfect creativity, endlessly evolving itself, without evil and suffering interfering?

6. Incarnation as the amoral art project of an amoral demiurge.

Partial analysis.

Synopsis: This answer is as suggested by hypermagda:

[O]ne of my worst nightmares [is] that ‘God’ is some kind of artist, and in particular one of those insensitive, ruthless artists for which art is so important that it can justify cruelty, like putting a gold fish in a blender and waiting to see what happens [the link is to a description of an exhibition where the artist placed goldfish in blenders and left it up to audience members to decide whether or not to turn on the blenders –Laird]

hypermagda had written elsewhere:

I have the impression that our existence was not designed to have meaning for US – I suppose it must have had some kind of purpose (entertainment?) for other “entities”, otherwise why go to the trouble of creating all this? “God” would indeed seem to be an alien :)….the “Veil of Maya” is also a veil of incommunicability. But one of the parties (the more powerful) could choose to communicate if it wanted. If it doesn’t…it’s because it might be something we wouldn’t want to hear, or it may simply be that it doesn’t even care whether we are informed or not. We are not that important.

I won’t attempt any discussion or analysis of this model, but would be encouraged if hypermagda were to offer further details.

7. Incarnation as a moral gymnasium.

Partial analysis.

Synopsis: This answer, including its origins, is nicely summarised by soulatman as follows:

Swami Vivekananda suggested that this world is neither prison, nor school, but a moral gymnasium for the soul. This is to be understood in relation to the deeper aspect of Soul (Atman) in its bigger aspect as Brahman. That we are all God, that the joys and horrors, and trials and tribulations are Atman really working up a sweat in the Gym of morality. […] We have chosen these experiences, they are not placed in front of us by an external examiner, nor by a vindictive prison guard, but we have climbed aboard the gym apparatus willingly, for some greater purpose we seem all to have purposefully forgotten.

Open questions:

Now, I know nothing more of this model than that which soulatman wrote as quoted above, and nobody responded to it in the thread in which it occurred, so I cannot assess how well it fits the data. What I can do is ask some critical questions of it.

We might ask: what need does a unified Oneness have for moral strength? Surely, moral strength is that discipline which is required to treat others well, but if One is all that exists, then there are no others to treat well. Why would One split Oneself apart to train for that which was unnecessary had One chosen not to split in the first place? What sense does this split make? Too, what of those split-off individualities from One which practice evil? What “moral gymnastics” are these? Apparently, the complete inverse of morality.

Other answers worth touching on.

In the course of drafting this post, various other answers have been suggested or encountered which I’ll briefly touch on here:

  1. Incarnation as a pluralistic battleground, in other words, that incarnation is a battleground not between dualistic forces for good and evil, but between a plurality of gods, perhaps split from a singular Source.
  2. Hermeticism, in which incarnation is an accidental fall from grace, and our aim is to reunite with the Transcendent, from which we accidentally parted ways.
  3. Incarnation as a farm: that humans (and potentially other life forms on this planet) are supplying some sort of energy to higher order beings, which we were either created to do or which these higher order beings purposed us into.

Closing thoughts and questions

And there you have it: seven answers to one of “the big questions” as raised on the Skeptiko forums, for three of which a full analysis is sketched out. I hope to have been fair: to have been as justifiably critical of my preferred answer as I have (justifiably, I hope) been of all of the others. This is by no means a conclusion; this is (hopefully) the start of a dialogue. I leave you with these questions:

  1. Can we approach the big questions in the scientific spirit of fitting the data to models? Should we?
  2. If so, is the specific approach sketched above a good one? How well has it highlighted the extent to which the various models under consideration fit the data, and achieve internal consistency, as well as their advantages, disadvantages and open questions?
  3. What rejoinders, if any, would you provide with respect to the criticisms and questions raised?
  4. How would you complete the incomplete assessments above, especially if you were quoted as the source of the answer?
  5. Which other data points would you like to see the models account for?
  6. How might you “tweak” these models to better fit the data and achieve internal consistency?
  7. Can you suggest models that better fit the data, with better internal consistency, greater advantages, fewer disadvantages, and fewer open questions?
  8. Extending the previous question: can these models be synthesised i.e. is it possibly not a case of “one or the other” model but rather that each points (or some point) to an aspect of the holistic truth? If so, what does (would) your synthesised model look like?
  9. What unique predictions, if any, can we make from each of these models?
  10. Are there other generally scientific or otherwise rational approaches than model-fitting that we could explore in answering “big questions”? If so, what are they?
  11. Is a scientific/rational approach to these questions even the best one? Why / why not / to what extent? If not, which is/are (a) better approach(es)?

And with that, I cede the floor, to readers of the Skeptiko-Forum

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