[Work in progress – I would like to continue exploring the subject in a more dialectical fashion, but I’m not sure yet what the best forum for that would be. Your comments and suggestions are welcome. –PR]
We have lately learned that living organisms, whatever else we may know or speculate about them, are combinations of billions of nano-machines. But the complexity of the world exceeds our powers of observation and interpretation and so unscientific myths and metaphors (including creative fiction such as that of Shakespeare) can be useful to represent hypotheses or provisional theories about ourselves and the world even as they provide us with entertainment.
One of the subjects this essay addresses is the fuzzy boundaries between what we know, what we think we know, and what we know that we don’t know. The subject of epistemology (what knowledge is and how we get it) has probably been debated since the beginning of language, and I don’t attempt to settle anything. I only suggest some pragmatic, agnostic rules of thumb.
It is often said that there are many “ways of knowing” or many paths to truth.
However spirituality and science are typically at odds in at least one important way: “Science is a methodology, not a belief, so any fixed belief that eschews critical examination is not only at odds, but fundamentally mutually exclusive to the methodology.” (Nick Ancient)
In the frequent clashes between religion, philosophy, and science, it is often overlooked that they belong to the same family tree. Religion and natural philosophy may have first diverged in prehistory and the scientific method may have emerged out of both around 2000 bce, though in each case it was a very gradual and messy separation, such that religion, philosophy and science today are still not free of pre-scientific legacies. One example is that the minds of many scientists today are still infected with myths like anthropocentric human exceptionalism.
Partial timeline of the history of the scientific method (Wikipedia):
c. 2000 BC — First text indexes (various cultures).
c. 1600 BC — An Egyptian medical textbook, the Edwin Smith papyrus, (circa 1600 BC), applies the following components: examination, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis, to the treatment of disease, which display parallels to basic empirical methodology.
c. 400 BC — In China, Mozi and the School of Names advocate using one’s senses to observe the world, and develop the “three-prong method” for testing the truth or falsehood of statements.
c. 400 BC — Democritus advocates inductive reasoning through a process of examining the causes of sensory perceptions and drawing conclusions about the outside world.
c. 320 BC — First comprehensive documents categorising and subdividing knowledge, dividing knowledge into different areas by Aristotle,(physics, poetry, zoology, logic, rhetoric, politics, and biology). Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics defends the ideal of science as necessary demonstration from axioms known with certainty.
c. 300 BC — Euclid’s Elements expound geometry as a system of theorems following logically from axioms known with certainty.
c. 200 BC — First Cataloged library (at Alexandria)
Science still struggles with defining itself:
“The history of scientific method is a history of the methodology of scientific inquiry, as differentiated from a history of science in general. The development and elaboration of rules for scientific reasoning and investigation has not been straightforward; scientific method has been the subject of intense and recurring debate throughout the history of science, and many eminent natural philosophers and scientists have argued for the primacy of one or another approach to establishing scientific knowledge. Despite the many disagreements about primacy of one approach over another, there also have been many identifiable trends and historical markers in the several-millennia-long development of scientific method into present-day forms.
“Some of the most important debates in the history of scientific method center on: rationalism, especially as advocated by René Descartes; inductivism, which rose to particular prominence with Isaac Newton and his followers; and hypothetico-deductivism, which came to the fore in the early 19th century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a debate over realism vs. antirealism was central to discussions of scientific method as powerful scientific theories extended beyond the realm of the observable, while in the mid-20th century some prominent philosophers argued against any universal rules of science at all.”
In the evolution of ideas, as in biological evolution, an earlier set of ideas doesn’t necessarily go extinct once a newer school of thought emerges. Alchemy was a historical precursor of chemistry like religion was a precursor of science. Continuing to practice either precursor today is relatively anachronistic, but both have attempted to adapt and to update themselves over the centuries.
As a precursor to philosophy and science, ancient religion deserves the same respect we give to out-of-date science, which we do not characterize as magical thinking or superstition even though it included faulty observations or false conclusions of fact or causality. We don’t accuse Newton of magical thinking about gravity even though some of his conclusions are now seen as incorrect. Ancient religion was inseparable from the science of the time. Ancient temples incorporated the most advanced astronomical, mathematical, architectural, mechanical, and agricultural science, engineering, and technologies of their day. But what of modern religion?
The faithful often see likenesses of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in stains, patterns on walls or rusty screens, or in natural objects. There is nothing wrong with imaginative pattern recognition, but what about all the carrying on that sometimes follows?
One comment on the above picture was “when faith inspires people to reflect on the spiritual rather than the material world, it can be beneficial.. as unscientific as that may be.”
So what if superstition or magical thinking may sometimes have “benefits”? So do cheating and lying. Those who know the principles of their own religions (a minority) know that encouraging or even tolerating superstition or magical thinking in less-informed or less-educated adult members of the community is actually a sin. In some cases this even qualifies as a mortal sin. Of course the question is what qualifies as superstition or magical thinking and what doesn’t.
It can be awkward when in the course of time old writings and beliefs are revealed to be in error, but most genuine religious scholars, theologians, and teachers know this to be the case and deal with it in various ways. Sometimes they attempt to salvage moral and social values from scripture by treating the texts as allegory, metaphor, or philosophy rather than supernatural revelation.
Some may argue that magical thinking can be a way of thinking “outside the box” or using non-rational parts of the mind. That’s all well and good, and in fact things like intuition, creative imagination, speculative reasoning, and abductive reasoning play important roles in science as means for producing fresh, new hypotheses about the world. The issue central to this essay is what one does with the results of personal experience, intuition, imagination, speculation, etc. The question is not whether or not these things have value, but when and how.
“Science is crucially a two-fold process, and this is where many people get lost. Yes, science requires imagination, an open mind, even stream of consciousness cognition at times, but then people who like to compare that process with spirituality forget the second part of the process, which is to test the plausibility of those imaginative ideas.” (Nick Ancient)
Religion vs spirituality
In my lifetime there has been a trend (especially among the young, educated class) to migrate from the ranks of formal, organized religion to more loosely-defined forms of “spirituality“. Increasingly I hear “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual.“
What is that?
I think spirituality, like religion or love, is a composite category of often loosely or vaguely defined things that if examined more closely might really belong in separate categories. It may include various feelings, emotions or sentiments. It may include some instinctive urges like the desire to belong or to be accepted or connected. It may include an urge towards good will, generosity, altruism, or cooperation. It may include a sense of enlightened self-interest. It may include an appreciation of the interrelation and interdependence of all life. It may include the experience of empathy or compassion, generated perhaps by mirror neurons. It may include a sense of awe, wonder, reverie, reverence, or even fear (like a fear of death or the unknown). It may be produced by subconscious or subliminal stimuli. Who really knows what it is?
First, let’s contrast and compare the natural and the supernatural.
Then let’s unpack and deconstruct what spirituality is and isn’t.
The following quote is by Dr. Dennis L. Merritt, a practitioner of eco-psychology, a field which includes proponents of both “spiritual” and non-spiritual approaches for including the natural world in models of mental health and psychotherapy. Dr. Merritt takes the spiritual approach:
“The spiritually dead…will fight any of the principles involved [in spirituality]. The principles go deep, and for those who believe that technology and progress are the way for humans to continue expanding and controlling nature and eventually the universe, these principles are contradictory and deep to their own vision (if you want to give what goes on in their heads the credit of calling it vision), thus they reflexively will react to them and try to deny their introduction and any active play of those ideas in their world of rational ideas. Killing spirit is their métier. It’s easy enough. Spirit is fragile in spiritually dead, violent and dominator institutional organizations, such as industrial civilization. They resort to any method to derail the principles’ development in discussion. There’s a deep understanding involved. That understanding is always at work in the mental sorting process. Why the spiritually dead fear it, I do not know. But they do and they reject it.” – Dennis L. Merritt, PhD.
If we are going to disparage others as “spiritually dead”, what are we talking about?
The quote above refers to “those who believe that technology and progress are the way for humans to continue expanding and controlling nature and eventually the universe.” I would agree that the key words in that formulation add up to a fairly reductionist and ego-centric point of view. Is that un-spiritual?
Would the same negative tar apply to those who believe that the scientific method is the way forward for humans to better understand themselves and their place in ecology? Does the word “ecology” make it more spiritual?
In the beginning: definition of terms
What do we mean by the words “spirit”, “spiritual”, ““, “belief”, “natural”, and “supernatural”?
Each of these words means many things to different people, much like the word “love”. The links in the first column of the table below jump to definitions at Dictionary.com. The second column links to contextual overviews (“thought maps”) of these words from the “Visual Thesaurus“:
The root word of spirituality is spirit, defined by Wikipedia as follows:
The English word spirit (from Latin spiritus “breath“) has many differing meanings and connotations, all of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body. The spirit of a human being is thus the animating, sensitive or vital principle in that individual, similar to the soul taken to be the seat of the mental, intellectual and emotional powers. The notions of a person’s “spirit” and “soul” often also overlap, as both contrast with body and both are imagined as surviving the bodily death in religion and occultism, and “spirit” can also have the sense of “ghost“, i.e. manifestations of the spirit of a deceased person. The term may also refer to any being imagined as incorporeal or immaterial, such as demons or deities
In Old Testament theology, the first breath of air is the moment that the spirit or soul enters the body:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”Genesis 2:7
Before the breath (spirit) entered Adam, he was not a living soul. This agrees well with the Latin derivation of spirit, spiritus, breath.
According to Wikipedia, “ideas on mind/body dualism, originating at least as far back as Zarathushtra, Plato, and Aristotle, deal with speculations as to the existence of an incorporeal soul that bore the faculties of intelligence and wisdom. They maintained, for different reasons, that people’s “intelligence” (a faculty of the mind or soul) could not be identified with, or explained in terms of, their physical body.”
Here again, just as in the Biblical theory, the spirit, or soul, is something immaterial and distinct from the material body; and the non-material mind is distinct from the physical brain.
Although mind/body dualism originated in pre-scientific times there are plenty of relatively modern philosophers and even some scientists who still hold this view. Sir Karl Popper (1902 – 1994), widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, was a Cartesian dualist.
However, there are at least six logical and scientific arguments against mind/body dualism:
1. There is no evidence that consciousness can exist independently of the brain. It exists only as long as there is a live brain. Even in cases of so-called “out of body” parapsychology experiences, few would argue that the out-of-body consciousness would survive the death of the brain unless they specifically believe in the supernatural survival of consciousness after death. By this argument, therefore, mind/body dualism is supernatural.
2. If consciousness exists independently of the brain, we must explain how the material and immaterial are able to interact. This would by definition constitute a miracle, therefore by that argument mind/body dualism would require something supernatural. On the other hand, when mind interacts with the physical (as in deciding on a move in a chess game and then directing the intended physical action), if the mind itself is physical to begin with then no material/immaterial interaction (no miracle) is required.
Aristotle wrote the following in “On The Soul” (in Aristotle, Volume 8, W.S. Hett (trans.), William Heinemann, London, UK, 1936, 1986.):
“So one need no more ask (zetein) whether body and soul are one than whether the wax (keros) and the impression (schema) it receives are one… It is quite clear, then, that neither the soul nor certain parts of it, if it has parts, can be separated from the body…”
I am pleasantly surprised to find such a modern, non-dual interpretation by Aristotle. I especially like the wax analogy for illustrating the inseparable relations between substance, form, and function. However, the cultural milieu still asserts its power in such nagging questions as Aristotle asks:
“It is also uncertain (adelon) whether the soul as an actuality bears the same relation to the body as the sailor (ploter) to the ship (ploion).” (ibid.)
In living organisms as in the greater self-assembling physical universe there is a nearly infinite regression of agency ending only at some veil of mystery imposed by the limits of observation. The sailor is part of the ship, the brain is part of the sailor, the lobes and neural sub-assemblies are part of the brain, the neurons are part of the neural sub-assemblies…etc. IMO there is some amount of agency at every level. If there is a “ghost in the machine” it exists far below the level of anything we know as gross (observable) matter and thus it becomes a matter for parsimonious and skeptical agnosticism. However, given the agency of matter to self-assemble and the agency of neurons to process I/O and make decisions, the agency of the higher composite assemblies and organs is, if anything, progressively less mysterious and less “dual.”
3. If the mind were a completely separate substance from the brain, why would the mind be affected by brain damage or by electrical stimulation of the brain? This argument suggests that the mind is a natural product of the brain, and not a product of a supernatural substance. Sam Harris summarizes this argument in the following video:
4. “Phylogenetically, the human species evolved, as did all other species, from a single cell made up of
matter. Ontologically, every fetus likewise develops from a single fertilized ovum. There is nothing non-material or mentalistic involved in conception, the formation of the blastula, the gastrula, and so on. Our development can be explained entirely in terms of the accumulation of matter through the natural, materialistic processes of fetal development.” (Wikipedia: Dualsim) This argument suggests that the mind is a natural product of the brain, and not a product of a supernatural substance.
5. As an infant develops, the mind goes through stages of development in parallel with the physical development of the brain. This argument suggests that the mind is a natural product of the brain, and not a product of a supernatural substance.
6. The principle of parsimony.
“Why should anyone find it necessary to believe in the existence of two, ontologically distinct, entities (mind and brain), when it seems possible and would make for a simpler thesis to test against scientific evidence, to explain the same events and properties in terms of one. It is a heuristic principle in science and philosophy (the principle of parsimony) not to assume the existence of more entities than is necessary for clear explanation and prediction (see Occam’s razor).” (Wikipedia: Dualsim)
Why not explain the mind as a natural product of the brain? Why is that not sufficient without any necessity for dualism or for supernatural substances and forces? If we can think of things as exotic as dark energy, dark matter, or quantum strangeness and charm in natural terms, why not also the exotic topics or experiences we often ascribe to spirit?
If the terms spirit or spiritual are used to categorize things that are considered to be real but unexplained, and we turn around and give those things a spiritual (unexplained) explanations, how is that different from making up explanations, i.e. magical thinking? It is better to leave the unexplained without explanation than to make up explanations out of whole spiritual cloth.
Consequences of unparsimonious thought and belief
One problem with false explanations and beliefs is that they often get in the way of finding or adopting more valid ones. A classic example is the imprisonment of Galileo Galilei for offering natural explanations to phenomena that already had strongly-held supernatural explanations.
Psalm 104:5 says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place” etc. Even though Galileo argued that such biblical statements were poetic or metaphorical expressions, not meant to be interpreted literally and physically, the Inquisition disagreed.
Even without the authority of scripture, “common sense” tells us that the sun moves across the sky. We directly “experience” that “reality”, much as we also experience what are called spiritual forces and phenomena. I don’t question that something real is associated withe such phenomena–I question the interpretations, especially when they are unparsimonious.
The thing in itself (Ding an sich)
In the beginning, Love (Eros) was the ancient Mother of Wisdom (Sophia) , and Reason (Logos) was Sophia’s Father. Then they begat the twin sons Science and Religion, sort of like Cain and Abel. As we know, Cain eventually slays Abel and gets banished from Paradise…or something along those lines…. and we don’t know what the heck happened to Sophia. All the characters in this pantheon have cognitive neuro-correlates.
With the advent of things like evolutionary psychology and evolutionary religious studies, does science now offer a potential Rosetta stone for multiple belief systems? Something with greater invariance over global communities of interdisciplinary interpretation?
It is not the purpose of this essay to claim that modern science has a fully material explanation for consciousness. At present there are details of consciousness on which science sheds little light. I am agnostic on the question of whether science will ever fully explain all the phenomena of consciousness and in particular the question of subjective experience per se. A materialistic or mechanistic basis for most cognitive processes does not necessarily explain the subjective experience itself. We consider the possibility that a machine, even an incredibly complex machine, even an intelligent machine, may function without subjective experience. The subjective nature of subjective experience, in and of itself (Ding an sich), seems fairly refractory to ordinary scientific methods.
However, my purpose is not so much to make an ultimate distinction between the natural and the supernatural (or non-natural), which may be a wholly philosophical or metaphysical question (or perhaps a logical absurdity), but to start with a simple, pragmatic distinction between rational thinking and magical thinking, and to consider how the may alternately oppose and complement one another.
What is magical thinking?
The first premise will be that magical thinking has two sides: 1) a side that opposes logical/rational thinking and 2) a side that complements it.
Wikipedia has a decent page on Magical Thinking. However, it focuses on its opposition with rational thinking.
In this form of magical thinking a perceived correlation between facts or events is supplied with a made up causal explanation that involves a supernatural agency, e.g. magic spells, gods, fairies, witches, etc.
For example, if you wake up from a bad dream with a case of sleep paralysis you may think you have been attacked by an evil force or demon.
If a flickering fluorescent light creates a moving shadow you just glimpse from the corner of your eye you may get a chill and suspect you have seen a ghost. The flight response is visceral and demands an explanation for the sake of self-preservation.
Evolution has predisposed the brain to automatically create context for our experiences and narratives to explain them to ourselves and others. The brain evolved in an environment where a fleeting shadow might have been the only warning we got of a sudden predator attack. The brain may jump to conclusions about the interpretation of an experience before our newly emerging rational and analytical abilities have the time or opportunity to gather all the evidence. Often the experience is so fleeting that no hard evidence is left to examine.
In rational thinking one remains skeptical or agnostic about the hypothetical causal relationships of correlations between facts or events until they are verified by compelling evidence. Even then the attribution of cause is provisional, subject to future revision.
The history of science is full of erroneous causal assumptions but science has a good track record of correcting such errors over time.
In the case of magical thinking the assumptions about causation are not examined rigorously and in fact are often defended against rational thinking and logical scrutiny, much less scientific inquiry. Contrary evidence or the absence of evidence are ignored or actively denied.
Common examples of magical thinking
- Everything is a choice
- There are no accidents
- If you put out good vibes the universe will respond
- You are what you think
- Prosperity consciousness
- The “Invisible Hand”
- The “ghost in the machine”
- Illness or bad fortune is punishment
- Good fortune is a reward for virtue
- My lucky tie
These are not just naive conceptualizations of some placebo effect. They are vestiges of pre-scientific superstitions, occultism, animism, pantheism, and magic used to explain coincidences or to explain correlations between facts and events which might have alternative natural causes or for which the causes are simply unknown.
Many of my peers seem to use “spirituality” as a device by which they can dodge having to rationally defend an assortment of nebulous or “universalist” articles of faith. Their unconscious intuition tells them that if they don’t spell out their magical thinking in so many words they won’t have to defend something which they never explicitly expose to rational thought.
I’m not politely buying it anymore.
Isn’t spiritual just the new supernatural?
Realists concede that there are vast domains of knowledge about consciousness and the world we have not dreamed of in our philosophy and which science has not scratched the surface of. If something exists that is non-material, OK – but as Carl Sagan famously said, extravagant claims demand extravagant proof. Where is the proof ? If spirituality is a domain of beliefs held without proofs, why would we respect it?
I understand that we have thousands of years of anecdotal “evidence” for spiritual and religious experiences, emotional states, “higher states of consciousness”, mystical experiences, and many other subjective experiences. I think this is an exciting domain for scientific research, not faith. Believing in things without proper evidence is dangerous.
But I am not actually a militant materialist.
I confess I am inclined to suspect that everything is material (including known forms of energy), but the point is far from proven. In fact, it isn’t proven that anything is material. At some level of scrutiny it must be admitted that we don’t actually know what material is. We only know how it behaves under certain circumstances. I think descriptions of the world might be created under multiple assumptions: all material, no material, and some mixture of material and something else. The latter two, however, face some serious evidence problems for those of us to whom evidence matters.
Science is often accused of disrespecting the authenticity of subjective experience, but that is largely a straw man. A few scientists may have taken that position, but they are a minority. On the other hand, its funny how many grudging acknowledgments of science from the “spiritual” community come paired with back-handed insults about how science is uncool because it is cold, reductionist, heartless, materialistic, and “spiritually dead”.
There is more in heaven and earth than dreamed of at the National Science Foundation. But in the Worldview Hall of Fame, Natural Science has the distinction of being the paradigm that most willingly and quickly corrects it’s own reality. (Second place goes to Buddhists for killing Buddha if they meet him in the road!)
Why the American obsession with “god, religion and spirituality”?
Where should I begin? I think Americans are poorly educated compared with other industrial nations. Our real history is so shameful that historical, social, and political studies have been filled full of bullshit. We also have the worst media in the civilized world. Therefore we have no idea how the world really works. Complacence has contributed to a segment of our population being indifferent to reality (not to mention obese).
A post new age brand of bland, generic spirituality is on the upsurge among our better educated demographics and it may be finding some sympathy within the progressive community. I recognize the importance of an inner life, too, but does it have to be full of superstition and magical thinking to be valuable and poignant?
Just how different can belief structures be and still motivate (or even permit) people to take cooperative action? Over and over, down through the ages, most people seem to have decided they would need to kill off much of their opposition before they could proceed with changing the world in their chosen direction. Have all those people been wrong?
Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation says this about a peer-to-peer version of spirituality:
I’ll give you an example in the field of spiritual research. I have an example of one or two people like John Heron in New Zealand (of the South Pacific Center for Human Inquiry). Let’s say you do meditation. You have to choose a lineage from within which to work. If you do it according to the instructions of the lineage, there are certain things you are expected to experience while other experiences may be disqualified. In other words authoritarianism is built into the spiritual practice.
But what if we just agree to get together and practice a certain meditation. Lets say Zen. At the end of the day we get together and exchange our experiences. This then is the open source way to experience things which I personally consider to be real without having to accept the whole hierarchical and institutional context in which this has happened until today. You can see then how peer to peer is not something you apply just in the production of goods or the collection of knowledge.
Perhaps you just apply it to everything.
Every human activity that can be done by peers allocating their resources together can be peer-to-peer. You can therefore have something as unlikely seeming as a peer-to-peer spirituality.”
See also The next Buddha will be a collective: spiritual expression in the peer to peer era. By Michel Bauwens
I agree with Bauwens about the authoritarianism of spiritual traditions, but I disagree with him about the basic nature of spirituality itself, which even without the authoritarianism is overburdened with magical thinking.
If you subtract the magical thinking from spirituality, what’s left is 1) meta-cognition, 2) cognitive hygiene and 3) the scientific fact that all life is interconnected and interdependent.
“Is motherly love just an oxytocin release?”
Do we know what anything is, in itself? They are not necessarily completely different things which are merely coincident, nor completely different things which merely proceed from a common cause. There could actually be some existential or ontological overlap. If they are always correlated, it certainly begs the question. How can we design an experiment to expand our knowledge on this matter? It is still early days in fMRI, molecular biology and other objective lab measurements. No doubt even more subtle and more powerful methods are needed and are to come.
The question of knowing what another person’s spiritual values are is also intriguing. It is not yet widely known, but it is nevertheless a proven scientific fact that most people do not even know what many of their own values are. See and/or participate in the Harvard study on implicit associations at implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. It suggests that if we are looking for allies for changing the material world, a person’s past behavior is a much better correlate with their probable future behavior than anything we can learn about their “values”.
What we believe about ourselves is usually no better justified than what we believe about God.
In my opinion there IS evidence that thoughts are material. They always seem to require the proximity of a physical brain. They seem to leave “footprints” we can see with EEG or fMRI or whatever. But even if there were no evidence of the materiality of thoughts, mind, self, enlightenment, etc., how would such non-evidence be transubstantiated into evidence of the contrary (non-materiality)?
It seems to me that the only evidence we have of anything being non-material is “thought evidence”. The current body of evidence for materiality may sometimes be sparse, but its better than that. Excuse me for thinking that the case for materiality (with all the wormholes it may still include) is stronger than the case for non-materiality.
Like our senses, our emotions are integral parts of our authentic experience. They can be important guides and teachers. The trouble is, they can also mislead us. Thoughts can mislead as well. We can make logical errors or deceive ourselves. We can get lost and carried away. That’s why we need our scientific methods to stay in touch with reality and stay on course.
Of course, you are right to be skeptical of science, as well. It certainly has its problems and shortcomings.
But there is no war between subjective experience and science. Science has revealed to us that the physical development of an infant’s brain depends on love. But it has also begun to reveal ways that love and other feelings are intimately interwoven with physical processes in the human brain, such as oxytocin and dopamine pathways.
Faith and science are not enemies. Faith is expectation. That is where things like neurotransmitters and other hormones, and things like the placebo effect, come in.
Unfortunately, science just has little or nothing to offer at present about many important questions and experiences. Science is still young compared with other aspects of human culture. Rational thought itself is a relatively recent, still-emerging cognitive ability in our species. Rationality still competes with many forms of predictable irrationality in our brains. On the other hand, I think many people would be very surprised at what science has learned about human nature, emotions, and cognitive processes in just the past few years.
I recently read something like “Reality is anything that still exists when you stop believing in it.”
To be fair, I have experienced a number of altered states of consciousness that I cannot explain scientifically. In my world, however, these are “exotic” experiences rather than spiritual experiences, even though they sometimes have even contained religious imagery or content. In my opinion, the jury is still out on the origin and meaning of these experiences. I lean towards natural causes, even if those causes turn out to be very subtle and perhaps very surprising.
Zen Buddhism teaches a principle called beginner’s mind. In brief, it is the idea that a mind full of preconceptions is like a full cup–there is no room for new knowledge. In science, this is the principle of skepticism or agnosticism. Contrary to popular misconception, skepticism is not about having a closed or narrow mind. It is about keeping an open mind in the absence of evidence, about not cluttering the mind with unjustified beliefs. Spiritual liberals tend to think of themselves as open minded, but are they? Or are they simply willing to “shine you on” about your spiritual beliefs to avoid drawing critical scrutiny to their own? An open mind is not always what it claims to be.
Metaphysical and philosophical speculations are great for café conversations, and in science they are known as hypotheses, good for inspiring experiments or data analysis. In themselves, however, they are not suitable for anchoring any level of faith or belief.
It can be stressful to live with unanswered questions and unexplained experiences, but you can’t go wrong by admitting what you don’t know.
More Spiritual Q&A
Q: Spirituality has nothing to do with religion or faith. It is based on the inter-connectedness of all life.
A: The inter-connectedness of all life is well established by the sciences of genetics, molecular biology, and ecology. Is genetics spiritual? Why adopt a highly charged word like spirituality which has religious and supernatural connotations? What does this add or clarify? In addition, what you call spirituality (connectedness to life) can also be described as empathy, compassion, ecological awareness, enlightened self interest (utility, common good, golden rule, etc.), and many other terms that draw nothing from any supernatural reality.
Q: Spirituality is nothing more than self-insight. The self is a construction of thoughts, feelings and memories, nothing supernatural.
A: The self is not supernatural, but it is highly complex and multifaceted– much more than thoughts, feelings and memory artifacts. All people probably have sub-clinical levels of multiple personality disorder (or perhaps more aptly multiple identity disorder) as part of the natural structure of self and personality. Personality is the more stable part of the self complex while the “I” which assumes executive control at any given moment is typically only one of many. One moment I am the compassionate counselor, next the angry man, then the hungry man, then the philosopher, barber, baker, Indian chief, etc…each in the moment of its arousal, fragments evoked by context but autonomous in their autocratic control of the moment…captive to the physiology and psychology of the moment but eager for another bout of life and power over the thoughts and limbs and the world…these I’s are not simply mosaics of memory, they are unique combinations of sub-networks, neural modules and logic threads that process information each in its own characteristic way down to the information processing of the individual neurons. This is far more than static memory. These are semi-independent, creative, and spontaneous actors that each has access to all other available and accessible neural resources including the entire memory database. All selfs are further divided into default networks/modes and active networks/modes. The active self commands the executive networks in the cortex, among other things.
The self resides in neural networks, not in thoughts. The self commands thoughts to the degree that it is trained and disciplined to do so. If the self is a lazy, untrained and unskilled self it engages mostly in masturbatory self-amusement or it is captivated by external events. If it is skilled in thinking it can do thought work such as composing rational arguments for or against a proposition.
As I have stated, thought can be either passive and automatic or it can be active and goal-directed. It is based not only on memories but also on stimuli and on executive directives (goals).
Cognitive hygiene and cognitive skills are often taught in so-called “spiritual” systems but actually do not depend on anything spiritual. The spirituality adds no value. It is window dressing for the customers.
Q: Introspection can’t be done with usual scientific method because there is nothing to measure. One can’t measure an idea or a thought. Thought itself is immeasurable….the bearer of it giving it meaning.
A: Mindfulness training and forms of meditation, discovery of unconscious cognitive biases and implicit associations, recognition of logical fallacies, concentration and conscious control of attention, self-observation, and many other cognitive skills and abilities are taught/coached in academic settings devoid of any spiritual overtones. The superfluous “spiritual” icing and sprinkles have been stripped off and only the active ingredients are retained. One consequence is that the techniques can be mastered more consistently and in less time. In the case of meditation and concentration, various kinds of biofeedback can quantify and optimize neural states. In the case of unconscious cognitive bias and implicit associations the degree of bias or strength of associations can be numerically quantified by computer testing. This is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the kinds of cognitive hygiene and training that will soon be available, without any of the old spiritual snake oil so many spiritual “teachers” and their followers are fond of…
Q: Science does not–and cannot–deal with all aspects of what it means to be human. Can science truly explain art for instance?
A: Science doesn’t explain all aspects of reality and perhaps never will. If there is no scientific explanation for something, intellectual honesty demands agnosticism, admitting the lack of knowledge. It is perfectly consistent with rational thought to make up provisional explanations for things which are not fully understood. However, these provisional explanations are called hypotheses or theories to distinguish them from verified facts. When a made-up explanation is accepted on faith as a fact, without strong evidence, it is called a belief. This is superstition: I play the clarinet better when I wear my lucky tie.
On the other hand, science does have a great deal to say about art. NPR’s Christopher Joyce reports: “An appreciation for beauty may play a vital role in evolution. Female bowerbirds, for example, choose mates based on the aesthetics of their mating dance. Human behavior is more complex, but scientists say our love of beauty has also helped us survive.”
Musicians who were also gifted mathematicians, scientists, and technologists have contributed much to our understanding of the musical arts. One example is the Music Genome Project at Pandora.com:
On January 6, 2000 a group of musicians and music-loving technologists came together with the idea of creating the most comprehensive analysis of music ever.
Together we set out to capture the essence of music at the most fundamental level. We ended up assembling literally hundreds of musical attributes or “genes” into a very large Music Genome. Taken together these genes capture the unique and magical musical identity of a song – everything from melody, harmony and rhythm, to instrumentation, orchestration, arrangement, lyrics, and of course the rich world of singing and vocal harmony. It’s not about what a band looks like, or what genre they supposedly belong to, or about who buys their records – it’s about what each individual song sounds like.
Research subjects as diverse as synesthesia and gender-based standards of anatomical beauty have contributed greatly to our broad understanding of aesthetics.
In the ground-breaking book The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris introduced many of us to correlations between being human and human attributions of meaning and our evolutionary history.
The field of Evolutionary Religious Studies even deepens our understanding of the meaning of religion in human life.
Q: Things called spiritual result from misinterpreting what the subconscious creates and what we are predisposed to by our nature as social beings and animals to believe as true and to see as part of the real world.
A: So spirit = human nature, and spiritual = following natural impulses?
That is an interesting naturalistic definition, but what do we gain by adding yet another new definition for a term that is already ambiguous, loaded, and controversial? Instead of using the term spiritual in that way, we could just say “instinctive”, “intuitive”, “spontaneous”, or something like that.
Anyone making references to spirit or spirituality should probably be aware of the supernatural connotations and choose other words if something non-material or supernatural is not intended. If something supernatural IS intended, they should probably be prepared for rational skepticism in response.
Q: Spirituality is only magical according to the doctrine that feeling and experience arise from matter. Isn’t that just as magical?
A: No. A non-dual phenomenological explanation of consciousness is less magical than a dualistic explanation that includes a supernatural or non-material side. A presumption that subjective experience arises from the physical brain is supported my many measurable neural correlates of consciousness. The associations are not made up. On the other hand, what is a supernatural explanation of consciousness supported by?
Q: Does all matter have consciousness or is there something special about matter that has consciousness attached to it?
A: We have no evidence that all matter has consciousness so we are skeptical but agnostic of that position. It is more likely that animate matter has consciousness than inanimate matter. It is more likely that complex organisms have consciousness than that single-celled organisms or newly-fertilized ova have it. Since we observe that the complexity of consciousness increases as we go up the phylogenetic tree, there may be an evolutionary stage below which it is absent. Most likely, consciousness requires a critical mass of neurons and a threshold of neural organizational complexity. When one neural network becomes aware of the activity of another neural network in the same brain, this may be a threshold for self-awareness.
We don’t know if individual nerve cells feel, because we don’t know how primitive the subjective experience of sensation may be. Rocks don’t feel (as far as we know). Although piezoelectric minerals do react to stimuli, we don’t have any evidence that they “feel” anything. Its not impossible, though. If you want to know if rocks can think, however, I think they are dislike brains enough to say probably not.
Q: To react/respond to stimuli – wouldn’t something have to “feel”?
A: How about a vending machine?
Q: We have always known that our bodies and our consciousness are involved with one another. I do not see that brain stimulation, brain injuries and the like are especially impressive evidence that consciousness is the brain alone.
A: Until reliable evidence for any part of consciousness being located somewhere other than the brain or produced by something other than the brain is demonstrated, those ideas will remain vague hypotheses without corroboration.
Q: Science knows nothing about the qualities or qualia of the subjective experience itself. How can this be given any meaning except through the reports of the person who experiences the subjective experience itself?
A: The scientific measurement of a thing is not the thing itself. However, in reporting subjective experience, “the word is not the thing”, either (central tenet of General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski, 1879–1950). In this respect subjective language is at the same disadvantage as science. “The map is not the territory” (Korzybski, again). But I don’t want to defend the imperfect human institution of science, nor even the scientific method, which is also imperfect. It doesn’t guarantee results.
I simply want to contrast rational or critical thinking with uncritical, irrational, magical thinking.
The critical thinker is like a highly trained pugilist who abides by the Marquess of Queensberry rules. In thinking, those include the rules of logic and the rules of evidence. The critical thinker must also have a thorough knowledge of the implicit associations, cognitive biases, and predictable irrationality that characterize the human brain at its current state of evolution.
The uncritical/irrational/magical thinker is like the World Wrestling Federation wrestler. The only rules are 1) eliminate self-doubt (basic method-acting), 2) play to the audience, and 3) don’t get caught.
* * *
That’s about it for now. There is an extensive forum discussion of this essay on Thom Hartmann’s Blog which includes many more Q’s and A’s on these topics.
Related PRA 2010 posts:
- Participative Spirituality and the Critique of Spiritual Authoritarianism (p2pfoundation.net)
- Redefining Spirituality [EvolutionBlog] (scienceblogs.com)
- The Aftermath (theuniverseaccordingtotim.blogspot.com)
- Can the “supernatural” be of any use? (Open Parachute blog)
- Slaves to Superstition, Richard Dawkins (YouTube)
A good short lecture on the subjective self and mind-body dualism:
How Meditation Reshapes Your Brain Max Miller on October 6, 2010 (BigThink.com)
—”Mental Training Enhances Attentional Stability: Neural and Behavioral Evidence,” (2009) by Antoine Lutz in The Journal of Neuroscience [PDF]
—”Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” (2007) by Michael Posner in the journal PNAS
—David Lynch on meditation [VIDEO]
The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief, Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. 2009 PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272.
The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief (BigThink.com)
—Borg, J., et al. “The serotonin system and spiritual experiences.”
—Kapogiannis, D., et al. “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”
—Urgesi, C., et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence.”
A scientific consensus on human morality (openparachute)
How Neuroscience Is Changing the Law (BigThink.com)
— Langleben, D., “Detection of deception with fMRI: Are we there yet?“
— Jones, O. et al. “The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment.”
The Neurobiology of Evil (BigThink.com)
— Gao, Yu, et al. “Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime.”
— Davidson, R. et al. “Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation — A Possible Prelude to Violence.”
— Raine, A., and Yang, Y. “Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior.”
— DeLisi, M., et al. “The Criminology of the Amygdala.”
Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law (Santa Clara University)
The Neuroethics Project (The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE))
The Brain in Love (BigThink.com)
–Fisher, H., et at., “Romantic Love: And fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice.”
Photograph: Tat Isaias Mendoza – Traditional Mayan Priest and owner of Mendoza’s Lava Love Mayan Cacao.
“From several in the Tribe, there have been questions about fair trade and human rights issues concerning our cacao. So for transparency to those who haven’t read the website, I thought I would post this – and it also goes deeper into the spiritual view behind the ceremonies that we are doing here.
When I need cacao, I ask the cacao spirit where to go to get the quantity I want with the compounds and energy for the spiritual purposes that are important to me. Included in the energetics is an understanding that the cacao be vibrationally clean along the lines that the fair trade people are attempting to address politically… and in more ways that they do not address at all. Cacao from the same people and the same rainforest can be so different in the next batch that I won’t want it… it would make a yummy chocolate treat, but it’s not suitable for my purposes and the community I am purchasing it from does not understand why I don’t want it because it IS great cacao by their standards.
Cacao is far more variable than wine – the next vintage can be really different. I began sourcing my cacao, at 25 pounds (11 kg) a month, from a single community… I took everything they could produce and some batches were much better than others. As the business grew my standards went up, and sourcing this way became impossible. The people in this community, eight years later, remain friends… and I continue to source another rainforest product, Ujuxte (Maya Nut – an emerging superfood), from them, even though it is less expensive elsewhere, because they are friends and the quality and vibe are great.
Because I now carefully select my cacao from wherever the Cacao Spirit sends me in Pacific slope Guatemala… from individual communities, from wholesale city markets, or from distributors who buy from the people who bring it out of the mountains… fair trade certification would be impossible. I don’t fit in their box, as I would if my cacao were single origin from a single group of people. As I say on my website… the Cacao Spirit is my certification. I totally understand that having a story, complete with photos of the people involved from the tree to the shipping office, is important to many people these days. I have a different kind of story…”
I have experienced similar forms of “psychic intuition” in my own exploration of shamanism, especially with being “guided” to locations of psilocybin mushrooms and receiving instructive messages from botanical “entities”. Its too bad that modern Western taboos and prejudices prevent effective scientific investigation of such phenomena.
In my opinion these phenomena are not “spiritual” in the sense that they are not supernatural. They are important natural phenomena that are too-little understood. The lack of naturalistic understanding makes it difficult to distinguish real shamanism from fraud. This is the framework in which I think about it:
We receive subtle sense impressions below the threshold of conscious awareness. Sensitivity to such impressions is often heightened by shamanistic practices that place the nervous system into special, extra-receptive states.
Once received, the special impressions trigger associations with memories, including sensory memories. Through a cascade of memories and associations combined with imagination and what might be called hallucinations, the mind wraps the initial sense impression into a metaphor, image, or narrative that is available and meaningful to the conscious mind.
The sensitivity to such subtle, natural sensory impressions and the practical usefulness of the resulting mental metaphors or narratives for things like gardening, hunting, healing, psychological insight, conflict resolution, etc. can be enhanced through practice, education, and training. This is what the transmission of shamanic knowledge and skills is about.
Shamanistic traditions naturally accumulate a certain amount of magical thinking for lack of available, naturalistic theories of the causes and effects involved. The same has been true for natural science throughout its history. Genuine modern shamans are often just as eager to adopt naturalistic explanations of phenomena as they become available as scientists are. Real shamans have always been “scientists of the bush,” refining their knowledge and skills through meticulous observation and informed trial and error.
I was surprised to find Sam Harris on the other side of the argument over the term spirituality. I understand Harris’ idea of spirituality without religion. But I’m still skeptical about the definition of spirituality. In many cases I think spiritual is the new supernatural, another way of trying to make magical thinking seem respectable. I’m pretty sure Harris doesn’t intend any such thing, but we can’t dismiss what most people mean by spirituality and what they use it for, even when they say things like “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual.” More often than not, I think they still mean something irrational.
I appreciate the effort Sam and others go to in trying to “sterilize” and repurpose the term. I don’t think it succeeds. Spiritual is too deeply associated in language and history with the supernatural. Mystical is no worse. Transcendent is better, but transcending what? It still smacks of transcending the natural, not just the normal. I prefer to speak of exotic or atypical experiences, neurocognitive functions, states of consciousness, etc. If exotic or atypical is too general or impersonal, or not warm and fuzzy enough, we can add qualifiers such as euphoric, blissful, loving, tonic, etc. BTW If we just say spiritual without qualifiers, we are not only allowing unwanted irrational connotations but are *inviting* them and perhaps even unconsciously relying on them. Even those who read and approve of Sam’s book may continue to have unconscious implicit associations. IMO not even Sam can get away with that, his book as a long and detailed disclaimer notwithstanding. Maybe using three or four words instead of one is a good thing rather than a bad thing. We can always adopt an acronym. Exotic neurocognitive functions (ENF), atypical state of consciousness (ASC), etc. It’s less burdensome than having to refer to a whole book for context.