Good Math, Bad Math

Spirituality and Religion

In general, I haven’t talked much about personal stuff on the blog, unless it related to
something else that I was already talking about. This post is going to be an exception to that.

There’s a bit of a scienceblogs flamewar that started up, with Rob Knop, a new SBer on one
side
, and a bunch of atheistic SBers on the other. I pretty much think arguments like this are a
total waste of time: Rob isn’t going to convince PZ that he’s not a delusional idiot for being
religious; PZ isn’t going to convince Rob that he is a delusional idiot. It’s all just
ranting.

But as part of it, PZ made a statement in one of his posts that bugged me. It’s one he’s made before, and which I’m sure he’ll make again; but it’s an example of a kind of thinking that has always bothered me. The statement, from the title of his post, is “Spirituality? Another word for lies and empty noise”.

As long-time readers of GM/BM know, I’m a religious Reconstructionist Jew. I don’t write about
my religion, because I view it as a private matter, and one which isn’t likely to cast any
light on much of anything. I’m not interested in converting anyone else to my beliefs, and I’m not particularly interested in listening to the same old silly rants from Christians or Atheists trying to convince me to adopt their beliefs.

But throwing the concept of spirituality out the window because you don’t like religion is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In fact, I would go so far as to say that based on reading PZs blog for several years, that he is actually a rather spiritual person.

In these kinds of discussions, we constantly get related, but distinct, concepts all muddled together. Too many religious folks mix their belief in a deity up with all manner of other things – ranging from morality to free will – and present them as a single, inseparable, monolithic whole. And too many atheists accept that muddling too quickly. Just like there’s no real reason to insist that you can’t have real morality without religion, there’s no reason to insist that you can’t have something like spirituality without religion.

So what do I mean when I say spirituality? There’s something more to my life than just a
bunch of chemical reactions. I love my wife. I care about other people. I core about the way the world is, and work for things that I think will make it a better place. These things – these emotions, desires, concerns – they may well be nothing more than emergent phenomena resulting from the basic physical and chemical processes that I am a part of. But for my own experience of my life, even if they are nothing more than an illusion, they seem real – as real as other abstractions like free will, morality, and other such things.

The photograph of a waterfall and Banff on my wall isn’t solid. In fact, if I were to look at it very closely, it wouldn’t look anything like the waterfall. But all the tiny parts that make it up interact with light, which interacts with chemicals in the cells in my eyes to transmit a bunch of electrochemical signals to my brain, which result in me seeing something that looks like the waterfall. And most of the time, in my daily life, treating it as a picture of a waterfall in Banff is the right thing to do.

To me, spirituality is something very similar to that. My experience of the world occurs on more than one level. There’s direct physical experience – I move around, I touch things, I see things. There’s a level of intellectual experience – I interpret what I see, and attempt to make sense of it, and decide how to react to things on some level beyond pure physical reflex. There’s an emotional level of experience: things make me happy, or angry, or frustrated. And there’s a spiritual: there is a level at which I am aware of myself, my thoughts, and my emotions – where I can do more that just experience those things, but where I can observe them. Why do I love my wife? What connection do we share? Why do I want to make my children happy, even when it involves doing something that I don’t enjoy? There is that level to my experience, to my choices, and to my life which is absolutely real to me – and which I believe is real to someone like PZ too: look at his blog, the way he talks about how he feels about his wife. There’s some level of experience where we feel things like that. That’s spirituality.

It’s not lies, and it’s not empty noise. In fact, it’s the part of life that I value the most. It has nothing to do with my religion; I tend to vary through phases of belief, and phases of agnosticism, but that part of my life is always there, and it’s always important.

Comments

  1. #1 Mel
    March 15, 2007

    I suspect that this is simply a disagreement in definitions, like most of these kinds of disagreements. You seem to be using “spirituality” very broadly as it relates to your sense of consciousness. I can’t tell from his brief statement how he is using it, but I suspect he means vague, superstitious thinking short of organized religion.

  2. #2 Bill
    March 15, 2007

    Well said.

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 15, 2007

    The definition of “spirituality” is extremely mercurial. Your definition seems something like “emotionality.” It can also be used for things that would fall under “morality”, or under “supernatural.” I do not question that you love your wife. But, as you acknowledge, that doesn’t involve anything supernatural. And frequently people will slide from one definition to another in the middle of a discussion to make illegitimate points. If a word means everything, it means nothing.

  4. #4 J-Dog
    March 15, 2007

    I am a “Type 1 Atheist” like PZ, but I appreciate your post – it makes sense, but I thnik Mel has the money quote -
    you are disagreeing by definition.

    HOWEVER, as I think about your post and PZ’s posts, and my position is the same as PZ’s, it occures to me that it might be worth a little more research into this area…

    What impact do the usual variables have on beliefs?
    Age, Sex, etc?

    Okay. Enough with the effing introspection!
    Can we go back to bashing Dembski and daveScot now?

  5. #5 Jane Shevtsov
    March 15, 2007

    My favorite quote on spirituality comes from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.

    Spirit comes from the Latin word “to breathe”. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’ that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

  6. #6 gg
    March 15, 2007

    Mustafa wrote: “The definition of “spirituality” is extremely mercurial… If a word means everything, it means nothing.”

    I tend to think this is an overly strong conclusion. Many words which refer to a topic of broad importance have definitions which can be hard to pin down. PZ gave three different definitions of ‘science’ last week, and had lots of agreement and disagreement about his definitions. The boundaries of a word’s meaning are often fuzzy, and even shifting.

    That the issue is a disagreement of definitions is pretty clear, but that is, I think, part of Mark’s point: lumping all ‘spiritual’ people into a bin with the crazy fundamentalists is as unfair as lumping all atheists into a bin with child-throttling tools of Satan.

    For me, the definition of spirituality I’ve heard the most (and one I agree with) is a feeling of connectedness – feeling that you have an intimate relation with everything around you. That’s a pretty vague definition, and that’s fine with me – people usually veer off into irrationality when they get more specific (“and with that connection, I conclude that I can control things with my mind.”).

  7. #7 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    You folks all seem to be talking a lot of sense. That makes me happy. Long live the tradition of civilized discourse!

    Quoting Mustapha Mond, FCD:

    And frequently people will slide from one definition to another in the middle of a discussion to make illegitimate points. If a word means everything, it means nothing.

    You conflate two very legitimate points to arrive at what I think is (at least in this circumstance) not a valid conclusion, or at least a conclusion which requires stronger proof. I’ve quoted a couple times Alan Sokal’s rough-and-ready definition of “science”, which I reproduce again below:

    The word science, as commonly used, has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and, finally, it denotes applied science and technology.

    Sokal goes on to point out that, as Mustapha Mond implied, it’s trivial to construct bad arguments against “science” by equivocation. You just have to take a valid critique of one sense and apply it to another. For example, the military (dominated by men) often uses technology for destructive ends. Therefore — sneakily switching from definition 4 to definition 1 — the method of hypothesis, experiment and cross-criticism is nothing but a tool of the phallocentric patriarchy.

    We can see that “science” does not “mean everything”; or rather, it doesn’t have to mean everything for the possibility of equivocation to arise. The same holds true, I believe, for the term spirit. Looking at the matter with an anthropological eye, I think it’s actually pretty well defined: to a materialist like PZ Myers or myself, it signifies what one might call “the Sagan experience”, as the quote kindly provided by Jane Shevtsov describes. Add in a cup of familial love and a tablespoon of mystery, and you’re just about there.

    I think it’s pretty clear how switching between the Saganesque definition of spirituality and the What-Would-Jesus-Do version can lead to bad arguments, much as Sokal points out for the polymorphic word science. The statement “If a word means everything, it means nothing”, while true, is not quite the best description of our situation. Rather, we should recognize that when the same word can mean only two things, we can be quite well set up for strife!

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    I forgot to say that my only beef with the Sagan quote offered by Jane Shevtsov is the argument from etymology, but that’s a rant and ramble for another day.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    OK, this will be my final post (unless somebody asks a question to which I can fool myself into thinking I can reply). We actually have to consider three definitions of the word spirituality, which I will caricature as follows:

    1. The Sagan Experience. This is the usage which MarkCC seems to employ (“It has nothing to do with my religion; I tend to vary through phases of belief, and phases of agnosticism, but that part of my life is always there, and it’s always important”), it is what I mean when I use the word, and I suspect that if he didn’t consider the word “tainted”, PZ Myers might employ it in this sense too.

    2. New Age Woo. “It’s like. . . we’re all one note, man. . . We’re all. . . connected. . . into one big, like, vibration. . .” Or, alternatively, “I’m spiritual but not religious. Would you like some herbal tea? It tastes so much better since I brought that Feng Shui consultant in to remodel my kitchen.”

    3. What Would Jesus Do? Quick, get down on your knees and accept Him into your heart or you’ll burn in the lake of fire, forever! So says the Gospel of Jack T. Chick!

    Like I said, these are caricatures. I interpret PZ’s position to be that the disrepute of senses 2 and 3 ruins the word so far that employing it in sense 1 is not a wise idea. On some level, this becomes a subject for empirical investigation: just how bad is it for us rationalists to invoke spirit in the Saganesque sense 1? Does this reassure people, counteract the demonization of science and help get our message across, or does it just provide fodder for the Deepak Chopra types who want to peddle their memes and make a fast buck? In the likely case that the answer is “both”, which effect is predominant? Bear in mind that if we don’t say “spirit”, Chopra and company will just pick up a different word — quantum springs readily to mind.

  10. #10 Thony C.
    March 15, 2007

    I am an atheist and I am almost a scientist (historian of science). I use the word spiritual to descirbe the feeling I get when I really listen to a John Coltrane saxophone solo or read a poem by Blake. It is more than emotion and other than knowledge. If I use the word connectedness then Blake Stacey will accuse me of New Age Woo which is a long way from the truth but I think here in lies the origin of such New Age Woo. I often get the same feeling when I read a mathematical proof. If somebody can suggest another maybe better word than spirituallity then I will use it. Until then I will stick to spirituallity.

  11. #11 Curt Rozeboom
    March 15, 2007

    Thony C. said, “I often get the same feeling when I read a mathematical proof. If somebody can suggest another maybe better word than spirituallity then I will use it.”

    Isn’t what you’re describing generally referred to as an epiphany?

    From Merrian-Webster – Epiphany:
    2: an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being 3 a (1): a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2): an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3): an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure b: a revealing scene or moment

    Definition 2 fits what most people describe as spirituality, but you seem to be referring to definition 3. While 3 can feed into spirituality, is it perhaps best kept distinct from 2 when trying to discuss spirituality?

  12. #12 Saboma
    March 15, 2007

    What I’ve grown to know about spirituality has everything to do with the utilization of our higher brain. It is sectioned into three parts. Of course, we have the lower brain, the mid-brain, and the higher brain or at least that’s what I learned in Psychology and I find that it is just what I learned.

    I could provide some examples with folks from each order yet I’d be ashamed that I would be associated or affiliated with them if I did show these examples. I’m just the messenger, if you will. And like you said in summary, what I believe or disbelieve holds no weight on anyone else since I have nothing to prove. I’m not on a crusade. My life demonstrates my personal beliefs, meaning – I walk my talk. Moreover, I don’t care what anyone else believes nor disbelieves other than I respect them for what those beliefs mean to that particular person. Other than that, life is about ch-ch-change and that is something we all have to do or else we’ve already passed through to the ‘other’ side, if there is any such thing.

    So far, I’m pretty sure that no one has come back from death with any type of sensational news about having been visiting awhile.

    Great post thar, fella!

    *Hugs*

  13. #13 Beren
    March 15, 2007

    I have a different word for you, Thony C., and I even got it from Carl Sagan. How’s that for legitimacy? :p I offer: “numinous.”

    At least, that word adequately describes my reactions to the things you describe.

  14. #14 KeithB
    March 15, 2007

    MarkCC:
    This sounds very much like your post about “Going Meta.”

    Does the physical->senses->intellect->emotion->spiritual form a “meta-hierarchy”, in your opinion?

  15. #15 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    Beren:

    I was just going to offer numinous for consideration! As I understand the usage, it hits sense 1 of my list and perhaps sense 2 without really brushing against sense 3. That’s progress! :-)

  16. #16 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 15, 2007

    It seems to me (and please correct me if I misunderstood) that MarkCC is suggesting:

    (1) “spirituality” is an emergent phenomenon derived from a multi-leveled mental-emotional hierarchy which in turn is interpreted from interactions with the physical and human world.

    He hints (in my opinion) that
    (2) “consciousness” is a somehow similar emergent phenomenon;

    (3) There is a nonlinear interaction between “spirituality” and “consciousness.”

    This model, if I am even partly right, may be worth elaborating in a woo-free way.

    For instance, how does the evolved meaningful multi-leveled mental-emotional hierarchy relate to, say, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Or to the evolved hierarchy or nearly scale-free networks of biological organisms and social systems?

    I like the use of the word “numinous” and I am biased by my culturally Jewish Secular Humanist Science-educated upbringing towards the interpretation of “spiritual” by Spinoza, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman, and Asimov/Bradbury/Clarke/Heinlein….

    In the context of the Abrahamic religions (which include but are not limited to Judaism, Christianity, Islam) one can also ask:

    What would Abraham do?
    What would Moses do?
    What would Jesus do?
    What would Mohammed do?

    But they didn’t explicitly blog about Math. Otherwise the 10 Commandments would be the 10 Hotlinks.

  17. #17 Thomas Reynolds
    March 15, 2007

    I think people need to realize that “spirituality” is not something everyone feels. I, and I imagine PZ, have never felt that… whatever… people talk about as a spiritual sensation. To us, people who talk about their spirituality seem to be making something up.

    PZ thinks they are doing it on purpose (if not subconsciously), but I am willing to believe that some people are more biologically inclined to experience such feelings. The rest of my family is religious, but I’ve never seen them act spiritual. I am willing to give that spiritual feeling over to the world of genetics.

  18. #18 Koray
    March 15, 2007

    MarkCC wrote:

    These things – these emotions, desires, concerns – they may well be nothing more than emergent phenomena resulting from the basic physical and chemical processes that I am a part of.

    Then, what’s the problem? Surely an atheist may have no problem agreeing with you that these things exist. You are also welcome to value them above everything else. As long as you don’t claim that these things are caused by supernatural events, this is just a matter of terminology.

    However, it’s my understanding (I may be wrong) that when people use the word spirituality, the supernatural is somewhat implied.

  19. #19 Larry D'Anna
    March 15, 2007

    There are two types of science-minded people with respect to spirituality. The kind like you, and the kind to whom “spirituality” is synonymous with superstition and nonsense. It’s not even a substantive difference. The only disagreement is about the meaning of the word.

  20. #20 Chris' Wills
    March 15, 2007

    A nice post,
    I tend to be Agnostic most of the time but “feel” emotions, desires, concerns and a connection with my fellow humans.

    The problem may lie in the multiple meanings ascribed to words and the fuzziness surrounding how we describe personal feelings, so confusion can be created, either deliberately or accidentaly.

    I once had an atheist claim that an Agnostic was actually an Atheist without moral fortitude, seems that they had a very broad meaning for atheist:o)

    I was also suprised to see claims made (not by PZ I hasten to add) that real scientists (whatever one of them is) must be atheists, very odd. A purity test for scientists?

    Now, please, back to mathematics and exposing woo.

  21. #21 PZ Myers
    March 15, 2007

    No, I am not a spiritual person. I am an anti-spiritual person. What I feel are only natural, human sensations and ideas–no connection to any mysterious agent or otherworldly dimension–and I refuse to allow them to be appropriated in the service of a word that is used only by religious hucksters.

    Do not confuse real feelings with the lies and empty noise of people who want you to believe that you, your wife, and the real world are gifts of a supernatural being. They aren’t.

  22. #22 Thony C.
    March 15, 2007

    Isn’t what you’re describing generally referred to as an epiphany?

    After having posted I went for a walk with my dog, underway I thought about what I had posted. One of the things I considered was how that which I had posted related to the concept of epiphany. However I would be refering to definition 2!

    “I have a different word for you, Thony C., and I even got it from Carl Sagan. How’s that for legitimacy? :p I offer: “numinous.””

    Merriam_webster definition from numinous:

    “3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : SPIRITUAL”

  23. #23 Thony C.
    March 15, 2007

    “no connection to any mysterious agent or otherworldly dimension”

    Spirituallity does not necessarily have these connatations.

    “I refuse to allow them to be appropriated in the service of a word that is used only by religious hucksters.”

    Point one: The word spirituallity is not only used by religious hucksters.

    Point two: Why should I give up using a very good and useful word just because some sort of arsehole thinks he can misappropriate it?

  24. #24 mtraven
    March 15, 2007

    Ho-hum. PZ is capable of taking even the most polite and unagressive attempt to draw fine distinctions between any positions that aren’t equivalent (in his mind) to rock-solid atheistic naturalism, and collapsing them to the same imaginary enemy. So MarkCC’s perfectly reasonable attempt to outline what he means by spirituality gets equated to belief in the supernatural and hucksterism. It’s extremely tedious to be arguing over the definition of a word. And it’s simply wrong to say that it “is used only be religious hucksters”. Mark used it, for example, and he’s not one, so QED.

  25. #25 Roy
    March 15, 2007

    Thomas Reynolds wrote: “I think people need to realize that “spirituality” is not something everyone feels.”

    I think this is the key here. In my experience, self-proclaimed “spiritual” people tend to associate the word (in their own mind) with one of two kinds of *feelings*.

    1. Feelings of love, self-awareness etc. (e.g. MarkCC)
    2. Feelings of interconnectedness (e.g. gg) and/or a sense of ultimate/supreme reality

    The second kind of feeling is probably completely incomprehensible to those that do not feel it – therefore, if you do not feel it, it is meaningless to comment on it or on the people who do feel it. I believe you can’t argue about the existence or non-existence of the feelings described above (if someone tells you they feel something, how can you argue??). Note also that these definitions are described independently of religion (“supreme reality” might be a God or it might be a Theory of Everything or it might be a feeling of enlightenment felt during meditation, for example – whatever happens to cause someone to feel the feeling).

    The only thing you can argue about is whether the word “spirituality” should be used to define the above feelings. One reason it shouldn’t (as has already been discussed at length by others) is that there are multiple definitions. One reason it should be used is that (I believe) it adequately sums up a range of feelings which are hard to describe and felt by different people in different ways.

  26. #26 MarkP
    March 15, 2007

    PZ didn’t equate MarkCC’s views to the supernatural and hucksterism. He objected to having natural events tucked under a huckster’s terms.

    As an atheist in the PZ camp, I suspect if all religious people meant by “spiritual” what MarkCC means by it, we wouldn’t concern ourselves with it. I relate very much to what Mark had to say. But words mean things, and when someone says “I am spiritual”, the meaning MarkCC means is not what is inferred by his audience. Like it or not, speaking that way gives support to ideas that I suspect Mark does not believe at all.

  27. #27 PZ Myers
    March 15, 2007

    That is correct — unless Mark is claiming that a sense of wonder is caused by angels tickling his cortex (and I don’t think he is), then he is talking about the same natural feelings I experience, and unfortunately tainting them with a loaded term.

  28. #28 Blake Stacey
    March 15, 2007

    Spirit is such a warm and pleasant word that, I suspect, it acts rather like grease in the wheels of discourse. It lubricates ideas, lets them slide into the brain’s crevices more easily. A few people try to use it to reverse the demonization of science, while a great many more people insulate themselves with a self-assurance which obviates the need for critical thought. Sad, really.

    To paraphrase The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think most people think it means what you think it means.”

    I think I’ll be laying off the use of spiritual, for much the same reason that I’m not eager to trot out Einstein quotes about “God” having such-and-such an attribute. This is one reason why I’ve started pulling out other deities’ names when I’m tempted to make some Spinozan or Einsteinian remark. Thus: “I cannot believe that Loki plays dice with the Universe,” or, “The good Lady Isis is subtle but not malicious.” The ironies of such statements are often built in, which is also a good thing.

    There is a model of the early Universe called string gas cosmology, in which the reason why the Cosmos has three dimensions is essentially the same as the reason why knots can exist in three dimensions but not more or less. (In 2D, there’s not enough “room” for a string to overlap itself, and in 4D or higher, there’s too much room, and a knotted loop can always “slip free”, returning to a simple circle.) If we wish to anthropomorphize this idea, we could perhaps say, “Maybe Isis likes to be tied up in knots.”

  29. #29 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 15, 2007

    Father of a kid I knew 40 years ago had never experienced a hiccup or hiccough. Whever any of his children or their friends exhibited this involuntary spasm of the diaphragm, he would become angry. He believed that people were making it up, and doing it to annoy him. Since this phenomenon typically repeated several times a minute, he would become increasingly enraged.

    Maybe “spirituality” is a higher-order hiccup to some people who never experience it. But one need not become angry.

    My profoundly deaf brother not only admits that there is such a thing as music, but can feel the beat and dance quite well.

    Tired: String Gas
    Wired: String-nets

    The universe is a string-net liquid

    * 15 March 2007
    * From New Scientist Print Edition. .
    * Zeeya Merali

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19325954.200

    … Wen speculated that FQHE systems represented a state of matter in which entanglement was an intrinsic property, with particles tied to each other in a complicated manner across the entire material.

    This led Wen and Levin to the idea that there may be a different way of thinking about matter. What if electrons were not really elementary, but were formed at the ends of long “strings” of other, fundamental particles? They formulated a model in which such strings are free to move “like noodles in a soup” and weave together into huge “string-nets”….

  30. #30 Jud
    March 15, 2007

    While I think the etymology of “spiritual” does lend itself to appropriation by people who wish to use notions of spirits for their own purposes, I’ll align myself with those who think that PZ’s criticism of the term is overblown.

    Years ago, my girlfriend Lisa and I were watching a fine meteor shower. Her mother had been ill for some time. As we turned to go in at 5 a.m., we saw a spectacular burst of three or four large meteor trails. Lisa said, “Those are the angels welcoming my mother into Heaven.” Later that morning, we received a call from the hospice that Lisa’s mother had died at 5 a.m.

    I think of this as a beautiful coincidence that gave Lisa a bit of needed comfort. I’d personally call that moment poetic, but if someone wished to refer to it as spiritual, I just can’t see getting irritated by that.

  31. #31 Jane Shevtsov
    March 15, 2007

    Blake: I also dislike arguments from etymology, but I like this quotation so much, I’m willing to overlook it. (The same goes for some Lewis Thomas essays.)

    PZ: Why are you equating “spiritual” with “supernatural”? The very fact that we are having this discussion and that similar ones occur on your blog shows that the words are not synonymous. “Numinous” is ok, but to me it seems more restricted and sounds CLOSER to religion than “spiritual”. (Plus, most people don’t know what it means.) I am quite happy to call myself a spiritual atheist.

  32. #32 Xanthir, FCD
    March 15, 2007

    Yep, as soon as Mark started writing, I knew this was an argument by definition. PZ’s referring to a specific definition of spirituality that’s oh-so-common, while Mark is referring to another definition that doesn’t have a thing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with the convergence of experience, emotion, and reason. We all (I hope) have ‘spiritual’ moments like Mark describes, times when our minds make those subtle connections that give us a feeling of being a part of more than ourselves. I, at least, know that this is a wonderful feeling brought about by the way my brain works, and has nothing to do with woo or religion. Many people don’t.

    Spiritual is, I think, a bad term to use these days in any case, merely because of the connection to ‘spirit’. The major definition is religious, which isn’t what we want to connote. Feel free to retake the word, though. I’m having an absolute blast retaking the word ‘godless’. It seems to bring a smile to my religious friend’s faces when I refer to myself as that, and I think it actually describes atheism better than ‘atheism’ does.

  33. #33 great_ape
    March 16, 2007

    I find it interesting that having now studied/worked in science at multiple institutions, I have rarely run across folks who have espoused positions on religion/spirituality as extreme as PZ’s or many SBers. Yet they seem to be the majority here. I ran into more agnostics and folks of the deistic persuasion. Were the anti-religious the silent majority in my work circles? Are they a true majority or an especially vocal minority here at SBlogs?

  34. #34 Colugo
    March 16, 2007

    “Too many religious folks mix their belief in a deity up with all manner of other things – ranging from morality to free will – and present them as a single, inseparable, monolithic whole.”

    That’s an interesting observation. It’s certainly not a phenomenon restricted to the religious. A lot of people – especially intellectuals – do it; namely tie together their particular philosophy, ethics, politics, scientific paradigms, and spiritual/religious beliefs (or opposition to such) into one overarching worldview, which they insist is not just a wholly consistent one, but one whose elements are mutually supporting. In fact, some believe that if any element is deviated from the entire edifice of that worldview is then fatally inconsistent, compartmentalized, and deformed.

    For some, that mix is post-Gouldian evolutionary biology, political liberalism, and atheism. Others prefer holistic evolution, anti-capitalism, and Gaian spirituality. Still others find comfort in libertarianism and Extropianism. And any number of other idiosyncratic combinations of science, politics, philosophy, and the kitchen sink.

    Some of these believers become proselytizers of their worldviews, seeking adherents. And they can cite all kinds of reasons, using their best mental gymnastics, to assert that if you accept scientific paradigm A you must also accept religion/nontheism B and political position C.

  35. #35 mtraven
    March 16, 2007

    The word “spiritual” points, in its vague way, to something deep and important in human psychology. People want what it has to offer, and if people like Mark can reconcile their spiritual yearnings with a solid grounding in the reality of the natural world, more power to ‘em. Yes, there are plenty of people whose spirituality takes more questionable forms. So what? The reality of spirit as a psychological and social phenomenon is not going to go away.

    This is why I’m a Neville Chamberlain atheist. Spirituality won’t go away, we don’t even want it to go away. And if scientists demonize all forms of it you will just push people away from science and into the arms of fundamentalism.

  36. #36 John W.
    March 16, 2007

    Like many University Proffesors, PZ has become so specified in his job, that to think of the word spirituality as meaning anything other than what it means to him is wrong.

    Many, maybe even the majority, are not refering to angels tickling your cortex when they say spirituality. They could be refering to the untangible nature of something like a painting or dare I say it evolution. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with being spiritual and having feelings or perceiving things beyond your five senses.

    I have been told by the ‘PZ elite blogging posse’ (no insult intended) that I don’t understand about the culture war going on in the US right now (I live in Hong Kong) and how every little battle counts.

    Both Spirituality and Religion are natural and have coevolved multiple times in every culture in history, but just because they coevolved does not mean they are the same thing.

    Spirituality is no more loaded of a term than the word Christmas which is not an empty hucksters term any longer. It seems to have its own meaning to each individual person just like spirituality does.

    I have rarely seen people with the spirituality of PZ, his spirit for anti-spirituality is well, spiritual.

  37. #37 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 16, 2007

    Woo warning: Anthroposophy, also called “spiritual science”, is the spiritual and/or religious philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, according to:

    Wikipedia, MSN Encarta Encyclopedia, and Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD 10 January 2007.

  38. #38 Harald K
    March 16, 2007

    Colugo: I am perhaps guilty as charged. I do believe the different aspects of my world-view support each other, and are interlinked. But while I think that the different parts of it are compatible, I am quite aware that they do not always mandate each other. I can argue directly from Christianity to pacifism, for instance, but not to teetotalism – although I believe it’s a very reasonable position for a Christian, and I can argue for it from more general positions. I’m aware that my beliefs in free will and the objective existence of right and wrong do not mandate Christianity, but when I explore these topics I find that they make sense in a profound way. It is of course important for me that my beliefs are internally consistent (since I strive to be a rationalist), and some of my beliefs do demand that I stand up for them and try to convince others to adopt them

    What I do take offense at, however, are reductionistic attempts to “explain away” my beliefs, religious or otherwise, for instance by saying I believe this because I belong to this or that demographic category, or because my far-off descendants had to have this or that trait to survive. To take it a couple of decades back, it’s very similar to being dismissed because you are brainwashed by your class interests (communism), because you have repressions (freudianism), because you are posessed by Satan (nasty sects) or because I belong to the wrong race or gender (nasty varieties of feminism and anti-racism!). I think this is going for the man instead of the ball — wait, I suppose that’s how it’s done in american football :-) but anyway, we are not treating each other as rational human beings and equals when we dismiss each other in this way.

  39. #39 Lisuebie
    March 16, 2007

    What a wonderful thread. This is something that has been occupying my mind a great deal lately. The fact I cannot talk to my mother about her spiritual experiences. She simply cannot understand.

    Through the biological-cognitive-physiological filter:

    We have evolved as organisms in such a way that supernatural explanations make easy sense, where what is really going on is unknowable without special education. The solution to the miseries caused by religion and spiritual explanations cannnot be to try and educate “the masses” in physiology and evolution, but to create a useful, helpful constructive religion.

    We are animals. Each of us, not just “they”. We use our particular-to-human set of physical stimuli receptors and information processing neural structure to construct a merely sufficient approximation of physical reality. Our tools of brain structure and our interpretive maps of acquired fact, concept and association make possible a merely sufficient internal representation of ourselves, too.

    Each human animal has its own necessarily and irrevocably unique, because faulty and incomplete, mental representation of the world. As a result, it can never come to pass that one of us will ever nail actual reality to a tree where it can be simply displayed as a single thing that each and all will necessarily perceive and understand in the same way.

    Our conscious experience is restricted to a small, not well understood portion of brain activity. The “we” that appears to argue and discuss and lay out logical proof and intentionally act is apparently often merely the trailing surface reflection of results of processing not available to consciousness.

    The experience of “voices” and “spiritual guidance” comes from information processing going on outside of consciousness. The results, such as ideas, understandings, and solutions to complex problems, bubble up into consciouness and seem to the conscious mind to appear out of nowhere. If you do not have concepts to allow you to characterise it as a physiological process, this sudden knowledge or noncoporeal instruction seems very good evidence of the supernatural.

    The experience of upwelling moral conscience accompanied by emotional experience while consciously plotting an action path of rational self-interest is also very easily characterised as a communication from a supernatural being, such as Jesus or an angel speaking to you about good and evil. A four-year old can make a mental picture of that. It requires special education to understand it as normal brain process, based on genetic predispositions evolved in our species due to group living, with the function of supporting reproductive fitness.

    Meditation and prayer techniques repress self-reflective conscious activity. This results in an unusual conscious experience starkly in contrast to the experience of normal conscious stress at the focus of competing subgoals battling for voluntary behavior control. How do you talk about this in nonscientific terms? As “unity with the cosmos”, as “spiritual peace”.

    This conundrum, this fact of near incomprehensibility for the non-specialist, that our conscious minds are not the sum total of our mental beings, is what makes possible the physically real, conscious experiences we traditionally have described as spirituality, numinosity and epiphany. Its ineffability makes supernatural explanation very plausible and nearly inescapable for people with no other way to conceptualize it. The majority of us are going to actively embrace religion and spirituality in order to interpret personal experience that does not make sense otherwise.

    Can one change this? Can you take an animal who has grown and evolved in its natural environment to behave in action and thought as if there were supernatural beings and influences acting on its life and experience, and create an intended, artificial social and educational environment in which that animal, across all of its genetically and environmentally determined variations in unique individuals, will begin to think and behave as if there were no supernatural beings or influences? Can one group of such animals do that to the rest of the species?

    Seems unlikely to me. So rather than joust at windmills, rather than try to argue people out of their own private yet biologically predisposed constructions of the world, if you really want to change human society in a positive manner, the best bet would be to construct a new, satisfying religion. One that contains the sociological and enviromental wisdoms accumulated in major religions so far, and includes evolutionary wisdoms as well, avoids proselytizing through violence, but is equally metaphorical about mental processes and conscious experience. If it is attractive enough, and useful enough, it should spread and dominate. Right?

    Oh, well. Who are we to think it should be other for us than it is for diatoms and blue whales? We are very fancy animals, but animals nonetheless. The ability of a few to think about the nature of thinking cannot change the consequences of what the majority simply experiences, and can equally simply interpret, using ideas originating in universal human experience- a superior being who cares about you and who knows more than you about how to live life successfully and survive its trials and tribulations, who is willing to guide you, if you would only listen.

    Thus spake the Mom, daughter of Mom.

  40. #40 Jud
    March 16, 2007

    Harald K said: “…but anyway, we are not treating each other as rational human beings and equals when we dismiss each other in this way.”

    I would think it’s one of the points PZ is making that to attribute such things as “the objective existence of right and wrong” or our own existence to spirits for whom there’s no scientific evidence is not rational.

    If we find people on the street speaking to scientifically undetectable entities, we think it is evidence of irrationality. If we take ten steps from the street into a church, synagogue, mosque, etc., and find people speaking to scientifically undetectable entities, is there a logical reason not to see this as evidence of irrationality?

    For PZ (if I may presume to speak for him for a moment – of course I look to be corrected if I’m wrong) it is bothersome that some flavors of such irrational behavior are particularly valued by society. Others such as myself are more sanguine about it. For example, I think that strife, war, killing, having a negative opinion of others not in one’s own “group,” etc., are facets of human nature that don’t depend on spirituality, and that people would find other excuses for such nonsense if religion weren’t available. I also think that (from my own observation of people I know, and my belief that what I observe is more or less typical) many kind, generous and brilliant people feel spirituality is an essential part of their lives: that it is part of the reason for their kindness and generosity (and, were they not too modest to say so, is no impediment to their brilliance).

    While the situation may be a bit different in the comment pages of some blogs, it seems to me that we do have a long way to go before the mere fact of being spiritual is not seen by a large part of society as good in itself, and the mere fact of not being religious/spiritual isn’t seen by a large part of society as somehow negative in itself.

  41. #41 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 16, 2007

    It is a indeed a problem with definitions, since “spirit”, “spirituality” and “spiritualism” are so overloaded, which a dictionary and an encyclopedia will tell a non-native speaker. (For example, I learned that spiritualism was also an american religion in the 1800′s.) I have never been keen to use the word before, and now I have decided against it.

    Besides, the two useful distinctions seems to be either veracity or personal experiences. The first is question begging, and the second is not answer giving. :-)

  42. #42 Reed Bailey
    March 16, 2007

    Well written.
    The tolerance and acceptance you express are worthy ideas for all of us to emulate.
    May you be blessed and may others be blessed by you.

  43. #43 Harald K
    March 16, 2007

    Jud: If you believe that right and wrong really exist, independent of any particular individual or culture’s opinion about them, you are already believing in a pretty huge thing which is scientifically undetectable. This does not force you to believe in God in any way, but it should give you pause before objecting to people believing in things that can’t be scientifically detected.
    It’s a demarcation issue, really. I hope even the most ardent atheists admit that there are some decisions which should be made which can’t be argued for rationally (accepting rationality in the first place, for instance!).

  44. #44 Flex
    March 16, 2007

    Torbjörn Larsson (as well as others) wrote, “It is a indeed a problem with definitions”

    And this is both the beauty and curse of the English language.

    There are plenty of words which have multiple definitions, or have had different definitions in the past. ‘Spirituality’ has had all sorts of meanings assigned to it, and since the earliest meanings all seem to relate to a form of dualism, I can see PZ’s point in just wanting to abandon the word to the supernaturalists.

    But what other words express the feeling as well? Numinous isn’t bad, but rather obscure. It might become less obscure with use, but even numinous has mainly religious overtones. Transcendent has just as many conflicting meanings as spiritual, with the additional confusion between eastern and western histories of transcendent thought.

    I would also argue that abandoning a word which could be used as a bridge to improve communication between the rationalists and the supernaturalists is a poor idea. Both rationalists and supernaturalists appear to agree that there is a facet of human experiance which generates a feeling of connectedness with things beyond their immediate self. Using the word spiritual to describe this feeling should allow both groups to concentrate on the difference in their definitions rather than on the description of the experiance itself.

    To use a simile, it’s easier to discuss the differences between the breaststroke and the backstroke if we everyone understands that we are talking about the experiance of swimming. Arguing that people who prefer the breaststoke should stop calling it swimming and should call it immersion doesn’t really help in clarifying the difference in the strokes.

    Sure, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that anything which evokes a spiritual experiance is supernatural. The feeling of innerconnectedness is a feeling generated in our minds, entirely natural, and we may even figure out how at some point. But I see no reason to abandon the word ‘spiritual’ simply because the history of the word implies a dualistic viewpoint. That would be like abandoning the word ‘plumbing’ because the history of the word implies lead pipes. Or not using the word ‘mad’ for ‘angry’ because the history of the word means senseless or foolish.

    Of course, I confess to being a little hypocritical in my criticism for those people who are abandoning the word ‘spiritual’ because of the dualism. There are words which I have abondoned in order to try to increase the clarity of my communication. For example, I admit that I do not use the word ‘gay’ for lighthearted. :o

  45. #45 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 16, 2007

    PZ:

    I think you’re creating a connection where there isn’t necessarily one. It’s natural for people who are religious to connect the idea of spirituality with their religious beliefs. That doesn’t mean that the two are intrinsically the same thing. As I see it, accepting the idea that spirituality is intrinsically tied to religion is the same sort of error as accepting the idea that morality is intrinsically tied to religion.

    You may not like the word spirituality, but I think it’s the right word. When we view our experiences, there are multiple different ways of thinking about them – the purely physical, the emotional, etc. There is a level of experience – the one that’s a step removed from direct experience, where we can look at ourselves, and be observers of our experiences, which is important, and which I think fits the name spirituality. You can change the word, but I see that as just playing a semantic game – it’s still the same basic concept – and if you described that concept to most people, whether theist or atheist, and asked what to call it – I think that they’d come up with the word spirituality.

  46. #46 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 16, 2007

    KeithB:

    You’re right that it sounds a lot like meta. I’m a math geek, so I tend to view things that way. I wouldn’t quite describe it as a meta-heirarchy, because I don’t view emotional experience as being a meta- of physical experience. But I do definitely view the idea of spirituality as a sort of meta-experience – the thing that separates spirituality to me is the way that it’s an experience of observing our own experiences – basically meta-awareness, where something in ourselves is capable of standing apart from ourselves enough to observe our own self-awareness.

  47. #47 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 16, 2007

    JohnW:

    I think that what you’re observing is just a sort of self-selection sort of thing.

    My own experience is that the majority of scientists are atheists; but that it’s not a huge majority. But the theists tend to be fairly weak theists like me – not the type of religious people who shout their beliefs from the rooftops like a fundamentalist. At the same time, in reaction to the overwhelming religiosity of American culture, many of the atheistic scientists have made a conscious decision to combat the kind of anti-intellectual, arrogant, bigoted religion that dominates in American social and political discourse. So they become highly visible, by taking a very vocal stand that’s staunchly opposed to the common view in our culture.

    As much as I think people like PZ have taken it a bit too far, I think that they’re doing something very valuable. I just wish that they didn’t feel the need to be as extreme as the religious assholes.

  48. #48 Kevin
    March 16, 2007

    ” scienceblogs flamewar that started up, with Rob Knop, a new SBer on one side, and a bunch of atheistic SBers on the other.’

    I’ve been posting and reading the comments since early on. I do not see a flamewar. I did not see any trolls (except maybe Josh) and I think that Rob claims of persecution were over blown.

    I saw many people trying to grapple with what spirituality means in a determinist world. i.e. If we can figure out everything in nature through the use of science, what good is religion? to deal with the supernatural? what like ghosts?

    Breath in and feel the spirit of the earth fill you with life! Let it out and feel at one with the world!

    I mean that’s great but….

  49. #49 Blake Stacey
    March 16, 2007

    MarkCC:

    As much as I think people like PZ have taken it a bit too far, I think that they’re doing something very valuable. I just wish that they didn’t feel the need to be as extreme as the religious assholes.

    I wonder, sometimes, if this notion of parity is not an illusion produced by the distorting effects of seeing everything through a computer screen. To put the problem in the most gruesome possible way: Richard Dawkins has not, to my knowledge, hacked off a little girl’s genitals; nor has Daniel Dennett (at least in the books I’ve read) stood in judgment on loving couples trying to get married. Victor Stenger hasn’t led us into war. If we’re talking about atheist scientists, then all we can find are some rather strident words. Imams don’t have to hire bodyguards to protect themselves from Sam Harris.

    Yes, the religious behavior in my examples is just about the worst kind of religion we see in the modern world. But we’re trying to compare the worst of one with the worst of the other, aren’t we? (Which, when you put it like that, seems about as useful as trying to characterize two distributions by giving only their outliers.)

    Sean Carroll wrote over at Cosmic Variance:

    I’m sympathetic to the argument that atheists shouldn’t be obnoxious and insulting; in fact, I think it’s a good strategy in all sorts of situations. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, etc. But it does not follow that we should keep quiet about comforting illusions because those are the only things standing between the poor dears and overwhelming existential anxiety. If people ask whether, as scientists, we believe in God, we should respect them enough to tell the truth — whatever we think that is. That doesn’t mean we have to go door-to-door spreading the good word of the laws of nature. It just means that we should be honest about what we actually think, giving the best arguments we have for whatever that may be, and let people decide for themselves what to believe.

    Arrogant or not, as a matter of fact Dawkins and company have done a great service to the cause of atheism: they have significantly shifted the Overton Window. That’s the notion, borrowed from public-policy debates, of the spectrum of “acceptable opinion” on an issue. At any given time, on any particular question, the public discourse will implicitly deem certain positions to be respectable and worthy of civilized debate, and other positions to be crazy and laughable. The crucial part of this idea is that the window can be shifted by vigorous advocacy of positions on one extreme. And that’s just what Dawkins has done.

  50. #50 Ben Saunders
    March 16, 2007

    I appreciate the opinions presented here, and I agree that the majority of the disagreement on this issue (at least within this post) is based on equivocation of the word spiritual/spirituality. Given what MarkCC said in the post, I think that his use of the word spiritual (in this case) is misleading to a majority of people, not just those who read Scienceblogs.

    I also think that the opposition to Mark’s post is misplaced. Ultimately, from what I’ve gathered here so far, he comes to the same basic conclusions about the world that a hard-line atheist would, he just talks about them in a different (perhaps less explicit) way. In other words, we’re on the same side. Mark isn’t advocating that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that ID should be taught in public schools.

    A philosophical discussion of etymology and the nature of human experience can be healthy and productive. But opposition that amounts to infighting can divert time and energy away from really important pursuits, such as educating the public about science.

  51. #51 Blake Stacey
    March 16, 2007

    Ben Saunders:

    Given what MarkCC said in the post, I think that his use of the word spiritual (in this case) is misleading to a majority of people, not just those who read Scienceblogs.

    I suspect that you are largely correct; however, I might modify your statement slightly. In my view, people who read ScienceBlogs (and science buffs in general) are more likely to “get” what MarkCC is talking about. Notice how few people around here have actually disputed that the experiences he describes actually exist, or are relevant to human experience. Um, actually, I don’t think anybody has. Jason Rosenhouse says he doesn’t get the awe-and-wonder feeling very often, which is probably true of a great many people, but even he says, “I recognize myself in Mark’s description”. The discussion has focused almost wholly on whether or not spirituality is a good word to describe this feeling that most of us get. Personally, I think that it’s such a feel-good word that it naturally lubricates discourse in either direction: Chopra and Sagan can invoke the same feeling to advance their ideas. It’s just that the former ties the feeling to vanity and the latter to humility, one promotes stupefaction and the other curiosity, and one peddles lies while the other seeks truth.

    I also think that the opposition to Mark’s post is misplaced. Ultimately, from what I’ve gathered here so far, he comes to the same basic conclusions about the world that a hard-line atheist would, he just talks about them in a different (perhaps less explicit) way. In other words, we’re on the same side. Mark isn’t advocating that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that ID should be taught in public schools.

    Which makes him a cool guy in my book! :-)

    Like I tried to say, my impression is that almost all of the disagreement has to do with what words we think we should be saying to best express ourselves. Nobody is telling MarkCC to lobotomize himself and root these feelings out of his brain; I haven’t seen anyone argue that he should refrain from writing about them. (Actually, his own perspective seems to be that it’s not a useful topic to bring up very often, which is certainly a perspective I can understand. While I think it’s necessary to keep moving the Overton Window in the direction Dawkins and Co. have tried to pull it, I’m also inclined to leave that job to other people.) Perhaps there’s a strongly vitriolic comment thread somewhere on this site which I haven’t read, but I haven’t noticed people telling MarkCC that he’s a bad person for feeling the way he does.

    Which would, really, be a pretty stupid thing to say.

    A philosophical discussion of etymology and the nature of human experience can be healthy and productive. But opposition that amounts to infighting can divert time and energy away from really important pursuits, such as educating the public about science.

    Well, if we want to educate effectively, it’s surely worth spending a little time figuring out the best way to do that! Honestly, I think that’s where this debate has led us: we’ve all got these feelings, which like most facets of humanity can lead either to good or to evil, so how do we talk about them and bring out the good? Whether or not this is the right way to go about that discussion, I don’t know, but hey, we have to try.

    CITOKATE.

  52. #52 p
    March 16, 2007

    Those who are wondering why otherwise seemingly reasonable and rational people have not completely abandonded ‘spiritual’ things can easily prove to themselves whether or not there is anything to it.

    Learn to meditate, be patient, and wait for results without expectations of what they might be. There are many completely procedural formulas (i.e. algorithms) in the spiritual texts of the world which describe how to personally verify whether or not there is a ‘spiritual reality’, so to speak. It is empirical (in that it is completely experiential and replicable) but not quantitative.

    Meditating is surprisingly difficult, but if you persist you will gain a much better vantage point from which to understand (and critique!) these weird things called ‘religions’.

    Probably athiests would be more likely to succeed at meditating than fundies, in fact, because they will have fewer preconceived notions about what all that spirit and god stuff is.

  53. #53 Jud
    March 16, 2007

    Thanks for your response to my comment, Harald K. Let’s continue this interesting discussion a bit further.

    Harald K said: “Jud: If you believe that right and wrong really exist, independent of any particular individual or culture’s opinion about them, you are already believing in a pretty huge thing which is scientifically undetectable. This does not force you to believe in God in any way, but it should give you pause before objecting to people believing in things that can’t be scientifically detected.”

    There are certainly concepts humans can use that are not scientifically detectable – right, wrong, good, evil, beauty…. But to say that such things have independent existence, I don’t think I can agree. To give one of many possible examples: You come upon a man beating little bunnies to death with a shovel. Then you learn the rabbits have parasites that are vectors for a disease killing children in the village the man comes from, and the man is trying to wipe them out with the only implement he owns that can do the job. Then you learn the rabbits have always lived in this place so far as anyone knows, while the humans are recent interlopers. Is the man’s action right or wrong? Surely such concepts are relative and depend on particular situations and points of view. While it isn’t what was originally meant by the words, I like the gloss on Einstein/Lorenz that “there are no privileged frames of reference.” (Yes, a moral relativist, oh dear!;)

    “It’s a demarcation issue, really. I hope even the most ardent atheists admit that there are some decisions which should be made which can’t be argued for rationally (accepting rationality in the first place, for instance!).”

    Many decisions *are* made which can’t be argued for rationally, but I am interested in examples of what you are thinking of when you say decisions *should* be made which can’t be argued for rationally. A question of what proportion of public monies to spend on science education vs. art museums vs. public health – is that the type of thing you are referring to? What principles can tell us how such monies *should* be spent?

  54. #54 Reb Cabin
    March 16, 2007

    Allow me to propose the following definition: “Spiritual” refers to REAL but non-material things. Examples include songs, ideas, numbers, theorems, emotions, software programs. These things unquestionably EXIST, but they do not have coordinates or lifetimes, masses or quantum numbers, so they’re not physical. They can be represented physically — that is, sung, written down, copied. But they have a transcendent, though not supernatural, existence independent of any physical representation. They can interact with the physical world, as when a software program does a printout.

    It is an open question whether they exist independently of any humans being there to appreciate them. Do numbers, in abstracto, exist if there are no humans to think about them?

    Many people confuse “physical” and “real.” Some atheists incorrectly conclude that the non-physical does not exist because it’s not real (that’s the mistake, it is real). Some religionists mistakenly conclude that the spiritual must be supernatural because it’s not real because it’s not physical. Both are incorrect conclusions resulting from confusing “physical” and “real.”

  55. #55 Ben Saunders
    March 16, 2007

    Blake,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with you that most of the people on this thread can relate to Mark’s version of spiritual experience (the awe and wonder feeling) . I would put myself in that camp as well. When I commented about misplaced opposition to Mark, I was really alluding to the ostracism that scientists (even atheists) in general can experience when they invoke traditionally unscientific language. This is what I find counterproductive, dismissing potentially valuable people based on a semantic discrepancy.

    I completely agree that in order to properly educate people we need to have well thought out, explicit perspectives on the issues.

  56. #56 Reb Cabin
    March 16, 2007

    Relativity in physics says the LAWS of physics do NOT depend on the reference frame. It implies that some measurements will depend on the reference frame, such as the time interval between events. Those measurements were formerly thought to be absolute, but they turn out not to be when the absolutism is put in the right place: namely the mathematical form of the law.

    So the theory is poorly named: it should be called the Theory of Absolute Indifference to Reference Frame.

    It’s hard to see how this fact would give a moral relativist any comfort. In any event, I think analogizing from physics to moral question is a variation of “Appeal to Authority.” Einstein’s physics is all but irrefutable, it is true. So, if I can convince you that Relativity in physics has something to do with Relativity in Morals, then I can transfer some of the irrefutability of physics to my propositions about morality, and perhaps intimidate you into accepting moral relativity with the awesome bludgeon of Einstein’s authority. Piffle.

  57. #57 Blake Stacey
    March 16, 2007

    Ben,

    Typically, we resolve ambiguities by introducing jargon. Doctors can treat serious illnesses in part because they can specify what they’re talking about with greater precision than “patient has a bad feeling in the tummy”. Since scientists and mathematicians are already accustomed to modifying an “ordinary” word (complexity, potential) with a person’s name (Kolmogorov, Coulomb) I suggest we modify spirituality with Sagan or some other apt choice. Then, thanks to convention, at least the science folk would know what we’re talking about, and we would have half the problem licked.

  58. #58 BenE
    March 17, 2007

    I like philosopher George Santayana’s interpretation of religion and spirituality. I think it is very similar, maybe even identical, to Mark C. C-C’s.

    Santayana called himself an “Aesthetic Catholic”. He thought that religious truths were not truths about the external physical universe, but were useful nonetheless.

    He deduced his philosophy on basic assumptions that are almost Cartesian (I think therefore I am) and resting on the concept of Idealism.

    It goes something like this:

    The human mind, through chemical and physical reactions, creates an order of molecules that generates sentience, feelings etc…

    Internal human feelings are real. The order present in the atoms of our brain is real. In fact, taking the perspective of a person, the perception of our internal feelings is perhaps even more real than of the external world which has to be filtered and distorted through our limited senses.

    When we ignore the internal part of our mind and focuse solely on the outer world, we become ignorant about a big part of our existence.

    Santanaya thought that religious texts and religious rituals were the ultimate form of poetry. They are a way to explore our internal worlds. He thought that it was stupid to think that religion and spirituality said anything about the external physical world. It only said something about the order in our brain and the psychology of humans. It is very useful in providing insight about our relation with the external world, but the ideas proclaimed are limited to this. It is still very useful to us, as it deals with a huge part of our existence.

    I stumbled upon, Santayana at the same time that I was reading E.T.Jayne’s probability theory, and I got fascinated by both. It was a weird and suprising coincidence. Even if Santayana is not from the same era or discipline as Jaynes, their thesis both rested on the idea that humans always fall for what Jaynes calls the “Mind Projection Fallacy”, the false attribution of our internal thoughts to external reality or the confusion of the ideal and the real.

    Jaynes says that when we attribute probability to an object, like saying a coin has p=.5 falling head, we are not actually saying something about the coin, we are rather saying something about our own knowledge, or lack thereof, of the coin. The fact that we don’t know the initial condition of the coin toss is the reason we say it has .5 probability of falling on either side. If we knew the exact conditions we could predict how it would fall.

    Santayana used the same ideas to say that current religions falsely think they speak about the world, the universe and everything when, if inspected by reason, we discover that they speak only of human psychology, albeit in a very useful way.

    When we get rid of the “Mind Projection Fallacy” we reach a higher understanding of a lot of things.

  59. #59 Joe Curious
    March 18, 2007

    So, if spirituality to you is just what you feel then, why Judaism? Why not Hinduism? or Budhism? or Christianity?

    Is there a scientific basis for your choice or do you just “feel” it is the right religion for you.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

  60. #60 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 18, 2007

    Joe:

    Whether or not spiritutality as I understand it is something meaninful is a completely separate issue from that of theism or religion. My reasons for choosing to be Jewish are very personal, and not something I which I think is appropriate for the blog, or in fact for any public forum. Some personal matters are best kept personal.

  61. #61 Kevin
    March 19, 2007

    “My reasons for choosing to be Jewish are very personal, and not something I which I think is appropriate for the blog, or in fact for any public forum. Some personal matters are best kept personal.”

    Something about “Uncle” Harry huh?

  62. #62 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 19, 2007

    QUANTUM AGNOSTIC
    by
    Jonathan Vos Post

    How sharp the line between shaman and sham?
    Is it liar or lion who lies down with lamb?
    Is he shooting with blanks when shouting “God damn”?
    Are you unsure at all? I certainly am.

    Alone on your death bed, is there any hope
    Or hype that they sell, not a harp, only dope?
    Jesus hangs on a cross, Judas hangs from a rope.
    Whom to believe – politician or Pope?

    “The time is out of joint, o blessed spite…”
    Do only conmen claim to put it right?
    When crisis forces choosing fight or flight
    Is it heaven or hell? Is it black or white?

    Debate pro and con, or confusion? How odd -
    Does anyone know? God knows, if there’s God.

    1410-1450
    17 Mar 07

    Copyright 2007 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
    All rights reserved Worldwide. May not be reproduced without permission.
    May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.

    JVP\edd\QuantumGodPoem.doc

  63. #63 Joe Curious
    March 20, 2007

    Right, it is personal. Meaning that you came to that decision because of your feelings and not due to scientific evidence. Chances are you were born in to a Jewish family and that is what you learned from where you were a boy. Maybe you had a personal revelation.

    That is normal. Neuroscientists tell us that we arrive at most of our decisions based on feelings/intuition and only later does the frontal lobe come in and try to find a rational explanation for our decision. Ramachandran has tells of a case of a young man who, after emerging from a come, lost his ability to feel love at the sight of his parents. Thus, he concluded, “those people who look like my parents are impostors”. He was otherwise completely sane.

    It is normal for us humans to believe in things because we feel them to be right. However, as scientists, it is also important for us to be able to step back and realize which of our beliefs are based on evidence.

    There is no evidence for a ghost in the machine.

    The much more amazing fact that we can tentatively derive from this lack of evidence, and you should really appreciate it, is that *this* is how it feels to be the program. If there is no supernatural then we are the massively-parallel program that our brains are running.

    Personally, I find that revelation much more spiritual than the 2000-year old writings of largely ignorant men who did not want us to eat bacon. But then again, that is just my religion.

  64. #64 Raging Bee
    March 21, 2007

    If PZ wants to assert that MY spirituality is nothing but “lies and empty noise,” he’s gonna have to prove it with specific instances from my life and experience. No specifics? No case.

    These things – these emotions, desires, concerns – they may well be nothing more than emergent phenomena resulting from the basic physical and chemical processes that I am a part of.

    And the emotions, desires, and concerns of those who disagree with your thoughts are different…how?

  65. #65 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    March 21, 2007

    Raging Bee:

    These things – these emotions, desires, concerns – they may well be nothing more than emergent phenomena resulting from the basic physical and chemical processes that I am a part of.

    And the emotions, desires, and concerns of those who disagree with your thoughts are different…how?

    They’re different because I don’t experience them. When it comes to things like that, I can only really talk about what I experience. To me, whatever the cause of those things, it seems that there is something that I experience that I describe as spirituality. I believe that other people experience the same sorts of things – but I can’t talk about other peoples’ experience of meta-awareness of themselves. I can’t know if they see things the way that I do, or if they interpret them in the same ways. To me, that’s a part of what defines what I think spirituality is. I have a meta-awareness of myself, my consciousness, my thoughts, and my emotions; and that meta-awareness causes me to associate a kind of meaning to those things that my meta-awareness of myself shows me. But that kind of meta-awareness is something that I can only directly experience for myself.

    Other people can disagree with me. And in fact, many do. But no one can deny my own experiences. Just like I can’t tell you what’s going on in your mind when you read this post, you can’t tell me what’s going on inside my mind.

  66. #66 Xanthir, FCD
    March 21, 2007

    Typically, we resolve ambiguities by introducing jargon. Doctors can treat serious illnesses in part because they can specify what they’re talking about with greater precision than “patient has a bad feeling in the tummy”. Since scientists and mathematicians are already accustomed to modifying an “ordinary” word (complexity, potential) with a person’s name (Kolmogorov, Coulomb) I suggest we modify spirituality with Sagan or some other apt choice. Then, thanks to convention, at least the science folk would know what we’re talking about, and we would have half the problem licked.

    Blake Stacey, that’s a great idea. Sagan spirituality it is. The term “spiritual” by itself is now forever a layman’s term for me.

  67. #67 Norm Breyfogle
    March 23, 2007

    Mark CC, I appreciate your addressing this very personal subject, and on a math blog, at that.

    And all the above responses have made for very worthwhile reading.

    Yes, debates over definitions are semantic equivocations, and such is language. To expect language to be strictly denotative in an attempt to try to eliminate superstitions would indeed be throwing out the baby with the bathwater … and it wouldn’t work, anyway. Fools would still be fools, and eliminating the connotative capacity of lanquage would do much harm to verbal expressiveness. Poets would revolt, and I’d be among the most revolting. To prove my point:

    Phoenix

    Apotheoses of agony immolate my heart and mind.
    Illusions of separability and passion burn out,
    fade to infinite detachment,
    attain ashen annihilation.

    Yet I subsist.

    Incognizant, I know eternity.
    Incorporeal, I act on ether.
    Ineffable, I am divine.

    Blazing, numinous, I am born again.

    (copyright Norm Breyfogle)

  68. #68 Caledonian
    April 25, 2007

    Just like I can’t tell you what’s going on in your mind when you read this post, you can’t tell me what’s going on inside my mind.

    Ah, the appeal to subjectivity.

    If it’s only your ‘subjective’ experience that’s responsible for your religious beliefs, then your beliefs are wrong.

  69. #69 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    April 25, 2007

    Caledonian:

    Nonsense.

    It’s only my subjective experience that tells me that I love my wife. Is my belief that I love my wife wrong?

    It’s only my subjective experience that I have fun writing for my blog. Is my belief that I enjoy doing this wrong?

  70. #70 Norm Breyfogle
    April 26, 2007

    Indeed, the subjective is the flipped coin side of the objective, and they interpenetrate each other in the body of the coin, where both become one. One implies the other, neither can exist alone.

  71. #71 normbreyfogle
    April 30, 2007

    Which is to say that MCC is perfectly correct in asserting that his personal spiritual outlook isn’t “wrong.” Only inconsistent logic re objectivity (science) is “wrong” (in an objectve or scientific sense). The vast subjective areas of feelings, speculation, art, and other metaphors are largely outside of that objectivity by definition.

    Caledonian implies that everything subjective is “wrong,” but doesn’t define what he means by “wrong.”

    Is Caledonian nothing more than a calculating machine with no ability to perceive the nuances of language?

  72. #72 Rui
    December 27, 2008

    In this book, I have explained spirituality through Math. Please click to LOOK INSIDE. Start with pages 21, 28, 29 and 30.
    I’ll be looking forward your feedback.
    Thx

  73. #73 Mark C. Chu-Carroll
    December 27, 2008

    Rui:

    If you have a theory you’d like to discuss, fine, go ahead and post it here. But please don’t waste your time shilling for your book.

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