The Evolution of Barbara Ehrenreich

A Skeptic’s Progress
by Ted Dace

After decades of concealing the mystical experience that wrenched open her mind at age 17, Barbara Ehrenreich was finally coming to grips with what happened that sunny morning in 1959. But now she faced a quandary. Long revered as a dedicated atheist, even accepting awards from organizations of “freethinkers,” a.k.a. skeptics, how could the noted author and theorist tell the world she’d once seen God – or if not God, at least the Other? By writing Living with a Wild God, Ehrenreich courageously broke ranks, demonstrating that the scientific mind need not be burdened by ideological “skepticism.”

Atheism ran deep in her family. Her dad, who’d escaped the mines of Butte, Montana by way of an education in metallurgy, liked to regale the wife and kids Sunday mornings with classic atheist tracts. So when 12-year old Barbara Alexander began to question the point of existence, the one place she would never go for answers was religion. This complicated her task enormously. Paraphrasing Pascal, “How shall we redeem this obscene slaughter called history,” ask Will and Ariel Durant, “except by believing, with or against the evidence, that God will right all wrongs in the end?”

Her granddad, whose health was ruined by Butte’s smelters, told her it all goes by so fast. He died a year after retiring from the mines. The message from her alcoholic parents seemed to be that life is suffering punctuated by occasional drunken splendor. What’s the source of our blind destructiveness? And what’s the point if it all ends in death? “The situation,” as she called it, demands explanation.

By 14, the only thing she knew for sure was that she existed, an insight she gleaned from Descartes. But it was his belief in God that saved Descartes from knowing nothing else in a universe that makes no sense. If God deposits souls in human brains, not only do I exist as a conscious being but so does everyone else. Barbara wasn’t so sure. For all she knew, everyone else was a physical object of a “cleverly animated sort.” Believing in the reality of other people, she concluded, was the first step down a slippery slope to theism.

In part her embrace of solipsism was a defense against materialism. She’d learned from Bertrand Russell that introspection is unreliable, that the mind, the subject of awareness, could be an illusion generated from the mechanical workings of the brain. She believed science had “confirmed that the universe was dead or at least made up of tiny dead things, mindless particles following their destinies.” According to biology, an amoeba moves not from choice but because it’s forced by a mechanism called chemotaxis. Though the purpose of science, as she understood it, was to obliterate any sign of autonomy or intention beyond the scientist himself, even the scientist’s self-existence must ultimately come into question.

Just before launching her quest for answers, she’d begun to dissociate. The first episode occurred after she strolled away from a horse show and stopped to stare at a tree. “And then it happened. Something peeled off the visible world, taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels, words.” Wondering if there was some sort of message behind these experiences, she asked her mother if something could be true but not explainable. “Of course not.” So she concluded they were simply breakdowns in perception, “ultimately explainable, like everything else, in terms of cellular and molecular interactions.”

What she didn’t know at the time was that her quest for ultimate answers in the context of a materialist worldview – and her resulting sense of total isolation in a world of dead atoms and clever biological contraptions – was driving her nuts. “If you beat your head against a wall for long enough,” she would observe years later, “either the wall or your head will crack.”

By age 17, her upwardly mobile family (not only materialist but materialistic) had relocated to southern California. In the spring of her senior year in high school, she and her brother and an acquaintance made plans to ski at a place called Mammoth Mountain. It was a long drive, and they spent the night at her uncle’s house in a nearby town. On the morning of the ski trip, she awoke from a dream in which she saw her brain projected onto a screen with a caption or voice-over saying, “This is what you are – a sac of tissue enclosed in membrane, a thing like anything else.”

Though the slope on Mammoth was steeper than any she’d previously skied, the day was uneventful, and the three of them embarked on the return trip to LA. For reasons she’s long since forgotten, they spent that night in the car on the side of the road instead of checking into a motel. After getting virtually no sleep, she left the car at daybreak. They had pulled over in a town called Lone Pine. As she strolled along the deserted main street, for no apparent reason and without warning “the world flamed to life.” Far beyond the realm of simple dissociation, she sensed a will that was not her own, an agent that seemed to be seeking her out. In retrospect she calls it a “furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” She describes it as ecstatic “but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.”

No voices in her head or visions of paradise, “just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured into it.” Her capacity for language, exceptional as it was, completely failed her since “you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it.”

While the experience obviously left a deep impression, it fell short of a breakthrough. For the time being, the conflict intensified between what she knew inside and what she felt she had to believe as a rational, scientific person. In the following weeks, her memory of “total perception” haunted her in comparison to “thin and vague” everyday awareness. Since her epiphany, things no longer cohered, the world increasingly hostile. “The clunky old reality machine would never work the same way again.” Her mind slipping into chaos, she put out cigarettes in her hand and considered suicide.

Only upon entering Reed College a few months later did she find relief. This was during the “great surge of scientific reductionism that had been unleashed by the ‘new biology.'” Six years after the structure of DNA came to light, the discovery of how “living things arose seamlessly out of dead chemicals” seemed just around the corner.

Resigned to the idea that her experience in Lone Pine had been nothing more than avalanches of neural activity, she gave herself wholly to the scientific project, its noble objective to “crush all forms of alien intention and replace them with predictable mechanisms.” For her senior project, she was assigned the seemingly simple task of measuring semiconductor effects on silicon for the emerging computer industry. But things didn’t work out as planned. No matter how many times she repeated the experiment, the outcome was always a “self-organized process” that her dad would have regarded as mystical. Though her work anticipated the rise of nonlinear dynamics, i.e. “chaos theory,” at the time she was ashamed of her failure to produce the expected results. Once again nature refused to manifest as reliable mechanism.

Setting aside her experiment as a fluke, she was determined “to become an actual scientist and to keep all that was uncanny or unspeakable stuffed out of sight.” Her youthful quest to explain the Situation had yielded to “humbly accepting as ‘givens’ the data, the theories… that other, more knowledgeable people had come up with.”

By 1965 she was a lowly servant in the “hierarchical world of science,” where “the young have little to offer except their obeisance.” Not just a cog in a machine, she was an atom in a cog in a machine, isolated in the “momentary juxtapositions of incongruent events” that comprised her consciousness. Looking back, she says she lacked a concept of a shared “now.” History would soon intrude into her “painstakingly constructed private moment.”

One night in a biology lab at Rockefeller University, a colleague expressed his hopelessness over being drafted and sent to Vietnam. “I could imagine a chain, a long concatenation of whorls and loops,” she writes, “suddenly connecting us to this little-known place, and all in the service of some global system of bullying – older men over younger men, white over black and brown, the well fed over the thin and desperate.”

Though student deferments were established soon thereafter, Ehrenreich’s passion for justice had been unleashed. “If something irrational was going on, something senseless and deadly, wasn’t it my job, as a young scientist, to point this out?” Allying with like-minded people from other labs and even beyond the scientific community, she lost her protective armor of solipsism. Joining the human race, however, came at a cost. The second-in-command of her lab warned her to stop associating with scientists from competing labs. When she ignored him, the head of the lab called her into his office and said if she continued her activism, her career would be over. “I’d been in Rockefeller’s atmosphere of boiling ambition long enough to see what was meant by a ‘career.’ It was a wind-up toy, a little drummer in uniform.”

She chose the life of community organizer and author, along the way getting married and rearing children. Still something was missing. No doubt she did a lot for working people, but she might have benefited from the words of Thomas Merton. “The frenzy of the activist,” he wrote, “neutralizes his work. It destroys his inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful.” Exhausted from years of hyper-activism, Ehrenreich slipped into depression. Only by returning to her youthful quest to understand the Situation did she finally break free.

What is the nature of the evil tearing away at us? In the 90s her quest took the form of an investigation into the roots of religion and war. She got the clue she needed from paleontologist CK Brain and his book, The Hunters or the Hunted? Researching human and animal skeletal remains from a South African cave, Brain discovered that the humans, far from feasting on their prey in that cave – as had long been assumed – were just another item on the menu of far more powerful predator beasts.

From time immemorial predators invaded human encampments to snatch away a bipedal morsel, often a child unable to flee quickly enough to safety. This episode repeated countless times over thousands of centuries. As the latest ice age began receding around 13,000 years ago, the combination of climate change and human hunting prowess decimated many of the vast herds that had long roamed Africa, Eurasia and North America. Predator populations plummeted alongside their primary source of food. Though no longer an everyday threat, predators retained their potency in human imagination.

In researching her book Blood Rites Ehrenreich learned that predators such as bears, lions, snakes and sharks were frequently objects of cultic worship. She speculated that human sacrifice, the defining feature of primitive religion, served to allay anxiety left over from predator attacks. Given that Paleolithic tribes experienced loss to predation on a regular basis, rising anxiety would have been broken only when the neighborhood beast dragged off its latest victim. In a sense, one person was killed so that others could live. Though no longer appearing in the flesh, with the onset of ritual human sacrifice the predator beast found a new identity as a bloodthirsty “god.” The price of inner peace for the community as a whole was death for the unlucky “chosen one.” By the time animal sacrifice displaced human sacrifice, war had already gained a foothold as the means by which the now invisible predator, the Other, carried on its age-old feast on human flesh.

Though our long history as a prey species has been repressed and forgotten, the trauma lingers. Every war of conquest submerges collective anxiety by recapitulating our transition from prey to predator. Science, you might say, is war by other means. The myth of nature as passive and mute receptor of man’s will remains alluringly addictive because the terror of helplessness in the face of the Other haunts us to this day.

From a “scientific” standpoint, none of this makes any sense. Our propensity for war is encoded in our genes and has always been with us. We go to war just as chimps go to war, probably due to the same gene.

But we absolutely have not always gone to war. Real science is about evidence, not ingrained assumption, and the evidence for war goes back only so far. Prior to about 13,000 years ago, there’s nothing to indicate large-scale systematic intra-human violence. Once the evidence starts appearing (in north Africa) it quickly crops up throughout the Near East and beyond. War began at a specific time for a specific reason, and that reason had nothing to do with genetics.

Violence is typically the product of trauma. In the case of war, the trauma is collective. Though originally the trauma stemmed from predation, war has kept it alive, renewing it with the blood of each generation. Far from a code written out in nucleic acids, the memory of trauma is a property of the human race as a whole and is propagated holistically. Each of us inherits the trauma by individuating the collective mind of the species. Materialist science can’t make sense of collective trauma because an effect lasting hundreds of generations would have to be encoded in our genes, and genes, we are told, are altered only through random mutation and not as a response to predators, whether animals or armies.

Yet the trauma remains. Indeed, the Other is always poised to leap from our unconscious depths with the appropriate sensory trigger. Trying to make sense of her encounter at Lone Pone, a teenage Ehrenreich made an impressive observation in her journal. “Proust was right that beauty occurs when present dim reality is mnemonically connected to some lost past experience.” And not just beauty. Years later she remarks that nature is a Presence not necessarily benevolent. When the Other strikes, it can be with a loving kiss or a vicious bite. Either way the experience cuts deeper than the moment-to-moment sensorial present, invoking “the Now, the perpendicular instant in the directional flow of events.”

Though science is supposed to be a neutral methodology for acquiring reliable knowledge, in the real world it’s weighted down by ideology: reality is matter under the control of timeless equations. If science has a metaphysics, it’s materialism incoherently joined at the hip with mathematical idealism.

Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. The real reality may just be living presence, the whole organism resonating with its prior experiences and its similar predecessors in a continual Now without beginning or end. This is roughly the idea of Rupert Sheldrake, formulated on the basis of a similar idea from the earlier biologist Richard Semon, who called it “mnemic homophony.” If science is a neutral methodology happy to test the conjecture that organic form is holistic and therefore irreducible to either dead matter or deterministic equations, why is Semon’s successor Sheldrake banished from respectable discussion, treated as a heretic no less?

The answer – my answer at least – is that science has devolved into a power system dedicated to perpetuating its materialist-determinist bias and terrified of confrontation with the Other, that is, a truth alien to its preconceptions. The descent of science into the grotesque cult of scientism, wherein all that is knowable is measurable and quantifiable, gives self-described skeptics their apparent credibility.

But the problem isn’t just skeptics. People in general, at least the affluent and college (mis)educated, assume that science is exempt from the general craziness of the world, that it’s set apart from the corruption of politics and systematic exploitation of nature and humanity. With its narcissistic arrogance and obsessive-compulsive need for control, Big Science is a machine like any other, a self-serving bureaucracy, its operatives dedicated to the glorious task of covering their asses and keeping the grant-money flowing. Certainly the machine periodically belches out actual truths but always within the confines of the reigning ideology. The quest for knowledge that justifies its existence is subordinate to the imperative of perpetuating prestige and authority on the basis of unquestioned and ultimately contradictory beliefs.

The assumptions of Big Science are typically unexamined, or at least never reflected upon in a serious and sustained way, because the combination of crude materialism and mathematical abstractionism cannot withstand scrutiny. The belief that reality is material/sensorial doesn’t cohere with the equally invincible truth that reality is a set of fundamental laws both timeless and abstract, an idea originating under Newton in explicitly theistic terms. Positing the ideal extremes doesn’t mean the actual middle is somehow automatically included. Nature is precisely that which does not conform to human logic.

The power system we call science is a castle built in the sky, just like the whole 20th century overbuilt socio-economic contraption that functions to channel wealth to an ever shrinking elite. But even pathological science is subject to a degree of examination unknown to religion. Lacking an Inquisition to keep the ideology intact, Big Science does the next best thing, mobilizing an army of “freethinker” fanatics to defend the citadel from the threat of real science, much like politicians who protect moneyed power from the threat of democracy.

Since even cult science is, ultimately, science and not religion, the 400-year old delusion of materialist idealism cannot propagate forever. When the dual reduction to matter and law ceases to colonize young scientific minds, the world will awaken to the science we’ve long awaited — though we hardly knew — a 21st century science not beholden to the (a)theistic mechanical philosophy of classical science.

Whereas Ehrenreich poses a Great Question, adherents of pop skepticism have only Great Answers, against which no alternative viewpoints need ever be considered. Back in the 17th century, a genuinely brilliant thinker could still take the mechanical philosophy seriously but not after the discovery of the inherently indeterminate dynamics of nonlinear systems (including ourselves) and quantum systems (with their mind-like traits of superposition and nonlocality). Though she never broke ranks to the point of substituting genetic design with holistic memory, Ehrenreich learned in the course of her college lab experiment that the truth is neither passive materialism nor mathematical determinism but a universe so intrinsically playful that physical, chemical and biological systems spontaneously self-create from the ever-buzzing core of nature.

The Other is closer than you think.

Ted Dace presented his time-based theory of mind in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. His critique of science and capitalism, Escape from Quantopia, is out on Iff Books.