One of the oft-discussed features of the mental disorder called schizophrenia is an extreme preoccupation with meaning. In a society increasingly suffering from the malaise of meaninglessness – a sense that something is missing exploited by a vast range of purveyors of books, DVDs, workshops, courses, retreats, spiritual tourism and more – the pathologising of failure to monetise a sense of meaning may itself be symptomatic of a collective disorder.
A sense of meaning tends to emerge when we see connections between things. Symbols and signs hold meaning only to the extent that they point to or represent something else. Some meanings, such as those represented by $$, remain constant compared to, say, the underrated significance of mass extinction.
With the rise of science, or rationalism, many old systems of meaning (e.g., astrology) have lost their former status. What once was plain to see (e.g., planetary line-ups, eclipses etc.) has been displaced by increasingly mediated, specialised, theoretical research. And with the explosion of data attending each new discovery, today’s info overload alongside heated debate about how to tackle global warming, and other such threats to life as we know it, has fostered an atmosphere of fragmentation.
It’s a case of TMI, whether from too many sources or from only one but strategically distorted, and often presented in simplistic terms or disconnected from context. Bombarded by input 24/7, we often struggle to discriminate between real and fake news, truth and spin. We’ve never had access to more facts and on such a massive scale, yet much of what we learn leads to confusion. We overdose on factoids then seek yet more distraction. In a consumerist age where such notions as an all-seeing God and an orderly cosmos are outmoded, we’re shoppers trying on a range of options for restoring meaning. Imagine the appeal of a package that promises to simplify and demystify how our universe works. What if Einstein got it all wrong?
But in a world where packaging counts for more than content, basic psychology might trump a PhD in physics if you want to sell an alternative cosmology. The meteoric development of science and high tech in recent decades has caused many to fear – or experience – redundancy. No wonder some turn to YouTube, where both experts and cranks can share their views and news, subject to their Google ranking. Online, for instance, flat-earthers and those compelled to convince them that Earth is round can engage in a virtual shouting match on a level playing field. Like democratic votes, hits decide whose theory rules.
In the early ’90s I read a book called Worlds in Collision (1950) by a Freudian shrink, Immanuel Velikovsky, whose highly creative synthesis of analytic theory and ancient myth put a new spin on the history of our solar system. Supposedly, catastrophic events described in the Old Testament and the myths of ancient cultures, Eastern and Western, had been repressed at the collective level. So the human race needed to face the truth – overcome our species’ amnesia – to avert nuclear doom and realise world peace. His ideas had such an impact on the ’60s and ’70s counterculture that some of his acolytes never outgrew them, but continued the work of their guru, disseminating their findings online, soliciting crowdfunding for research… So his vision lives on in The Thunderbolts Project, whose founders are senior citizens now. And what most struck me about a YouTube presentation by one, electric universe theorist, Wal Thornhill, was his pre-emptive introduction:
McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, sure looks more thoroughly researched than Thornhill’s ‘epic story’, though what follows Thornhill’s induction (forgive the electrical pun) went over my head. I can’t actually prove that Earth never orbited Saturn – but his loose logic arouses suspicion. (Take this random example of ‘what to a non-expert may seem obvious’: ‘In reality… the horizon will always be at eye level no matter how high you go! No curvature will be seen.’ Obvious until surveying instruments confuse the issue.) Nor could I make sense of Thornhill’s concluding warning:
Do such platitudes encourage one ‘to critically examine’ Thornhill’s ideas? And as Jung’s genius didn’t extend to physics, what does his warning, or Velikovsky’s, have to do with the price of fish? For all their brilliance, Thornhill’s heroes (shrinks, including McGilchrist) aren’t scientists – and Thornhill’s conclusion has nothing to do with the physical universe. He promises something less tangible than knowledge – salvation from fear, despair, aloneness and emptiness. In a society characterised by left-hemisphere dominance, such feelings are epidemic. But mightn’t the opposite blind us to category mistakes?
The height of Velikovsky’s fame came late. A celebrity in his 70s, he inspired students and outsiders all over America with his heresies. Accused by others of delusions of grandeur, he lacked the humility essential to the work of a historian – variations in translation, selective revisions over millennia and the subjectivity of memory, among other issues, render all historical accounts provisional. His faith in biblical history, though, led Velikovsky, trained as a shrink, to radically rethink other disciplines (e.g., physics and astronomy, a far cry from theories of the unconscious). And yet, unsatisfied with cult status as an anti-establishment hero, he never ceased chasing mainstream acceptance for his ideas.