The Sacred Mundane

Followup toIs Humanism a Religion-Substitute?

So I was reading (around the first half of) Adam Frank's The Constant Fire, in preparation for my Bloggingheads dialogue with him.  Adam Frank's book is about the experience of the sacred.  I might not usually call it that, but of course I know the experience Frank is talking about.  It's what I feel when I watch a video of a space shuttle launch; or what I feel—to a lesser extent, because in this world it is too common—when I look up at the stars at night, and think about what they mean.  Or the birth of a child, say.  That which is significant in the Unfolding Story.

Adam Frank holds that this experience is something that science holds deeply in common with religion.  As opposed to e.g. being a basic human quality which religion corrupts.

The Constant Fire quotes William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience as saying:

Religion... shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude; so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.

And this theme is developed further:  Sacredness is something intensely private and individual.

Which completely nonplussed me.  Am I supposed to not have any feeling of sacredness if I'm one of many people watching the video of SpaceShipOne winning the X-Prize?  Why not?  Am I supposed to think that my experience of sacredness has to be somehow different from that of all the other people watching?  Why, when we all have the same brain design?  Indeed, why would I need to believe I was unique?  (But "unique" is another word Adam Frank uses; so-and-so's "unique experience of the sacred".)  Is the feeling private in the same sense that we have difficulty communicating any experience?  Then why emphasize this of sacredness, rather than sneezing?

The light came on when I realized that I was looking at a trick of Dark Side Epistemology—if you make something private, that shields it from criticism.  You can say, "You can't criticize me, because this is my private, inner experience that you can never access to question it."

But the price of shielding yourself from criticism is that you are cast into solitude—the solitude that William James admired as the core of religious experience, as if loneliness were a good thing.

Such relics of Dark Side Epistemology are key to understanding the many ways that religion twists the experience of sacredness:

Mysteriousness—why should the sacred have to be mysterious?  A space shuttle launch gets by just fine without being mysterious.  How much less would I appreciate the stars if I did not know what they were, if they were just little points in the night sky?  But if your religious beliefs are questioned—if someone asks, "Why doesn't God heal amputees?"—then you take refuge and say, in a tone of deep profundity, "It is a sacred mystery!"  There are questions that must not be asked, and answers that must not be acknowledged, to defend the lie.  Thus unanswerability comes to be associated with sacredness.  And the price of shielding yourself from criticism is giving up the true curiosity that truly wishes to find answers.  You will worship your own ignorance of the temporarily unanswered questions of your own generation—probably including ones that are already answered.

Faith—in the early days of religion, when people were more naive, when even intelligent folk actually believed that stuff, religions staked their reputation upon the testimony of miracles in their scriptures.  And Christian archaeologists set forth truly expecting to find the ruins of Noah's Ark.  But when no such evidence was forthcoming, then religion executed what William Bartley called the retreat to commitment, "I believe because I believe!"  Thus belief without good evidence came to be associated with the experience of the sacred.  And the price of shielding yourself from criticism is that you sacrifice your ability to think clearly about that which is sacred, and to progress in your understanding of the sacred, and relinquish mistakes.

Experientialism—if before you thought that the rainbow was a sacred contract of God with humanity, and then you begin to realize that God doesn't exist, then you may execute a retreat to pure experience—to praise yourself just for feeling such wonderful sensations when you think about God, whether or not God actually exists.  And the price of shielding yourself from criticism is solipsism: your experience is stripped of its referents.  What a terrible hollow feeling it would be to watch a space shuttle rising on a pillar of flame, and say to yourself, "But it doesn't really matter whether the space shuttle actually exists, so long as I feel."

Separation—if the sacred realm is not subject to ordinary rules of evidence or investigable by ordinary means, then it must be different in kind from the world of mundane matter: and so we are less likely to think of a space shuttle as a candidate for sacredness, because it is a work of merely human hands.  Keats lost his admiration of the rainbow and demoted it to the "dull catalogue of mundane things" for the crime of its woof and texture being known.  And the price of shielding yourself from all ordinary criticism is that you lose the sacredness of all merely real things.

Privacy—of this I have already spoken.

Such distortions are why we had best not to try to salvage religion.  No, not even in the form of "spirituality".  Take away the institutions and the factual mistakes, subtract the churches and the scriptures, and you're left with... all this nonsense about mysteriousness, faith, solipsistic experience, private solitude, and discontinuity.

The original lie is only the beginning of the problem.  Then you have all the ill habits of thought that have evolved to defend it.  Religion is a poisoned chalice, from which we had best not even sip.  Spirituality is the same cup after the original pellet of poison has been taken out, and only the dissolved portion remains—a little less directly lethal, but still not good for you.

When a lie has been defended for ages upon ages, the true origin of the inherited habits lost in the mists, with layer after layer of undocumented sickness; then the wise, I think, will start over from scratch, rather than trying to selectively discard the original lie while keeping the habits of thought that protected it.  Just admit you were wrong, give up entirely on the mistake, stop defending it at all, stop trying to say you were even a little right, stop trying to save face, just say "Oops!" and throw out the whole thing and begin again.

That capacity—to really, really, without defense, admit you were entirely wrong—is why religious experience will never be like scientific experience.  No religion can absorb that capacity without losing itself entirely and becoming simple humanity... just look up at the distant stars.  Believable without strain, without a constant distracting struggle to fend off your awareness of the counterevidence.  Truly there in the world, the experience united with the referent, a solid part of that unfolding story.  Knowable without threat, offering true meat for curiosity.  Shared in togetherness with the many other onlookers, no need to retreat to privacy.  Made of the same fabric as yourself and all other things.  Most holy and beautiful, the sacred mundane.


Part of the Against Rationalization subsequence of How To Actually Change Your Mind

Next post: "Singlethink" (start of next subsequence)

Previous post: "Dark Side Epistemology"

Moderation Guidelines: Reign of Terror - I delete anything I judge to be annoying or counterproductiveexpand_more

There's a difference between "moving experience" and "spiritual experience" that I think both Adam Frank and Eliezer are too quick to dismiss. Seeing a space shuttle blast off is inspirational, but as Eliezer correctly points out there's nothing private or especially religious about it.

Real religious experiences, the sort where you get one, say "Oh, I just saw God" and spend the rest of your life in a monastery trying in vain to capture that sense of connection again, are much more likely to be some very exotic neurological event. Consider for example the commonly remarked upon similarity of "trips" on entheogenic drugs, which we know are screwing with neurotransmission in some way, to mystical experiences.

This sort of a spiritual experience really is absolutely private and absolutely incommunicable. Those who have felt it describe it as a feeling completely alien to and much more powerful than any other feeling they've ever had - which seems completely plausible to me if it's really some sort of weird realignment of cognitive processes. How are you supposed to share or communicate a high-level reprogramming of your brain to someone else? How is a non-neurologist supposed to describe it in any terms other than what they've "experienced"?

This is a passage on Dhyana (a Sanskrit word transliterated into Japanese as "Zen", indicating an extremely high state of mystical achievement) by a certain famous yogi:

In discussing Dhyana, then, let it be clearly understood that something unexpected is about to be described. We shall consider its nature and estimate its value in a perfectly unbiassed way, without allowing ourselves the usual rhapsodies, or deducing any theory of the universe. One extra fact may destroy some existing theory; that is common enough. But no single fact is sufficient to construct one.

In the course of our concentration we noticed that the contents of the mind at any moment consisted of two things, and no more: the Object, variable, and the Subject, invariable, or apparently so. By success in Dharana the object has been made as invariable as the subject. Now the result of this is that the two become one. This phenomenon usually comes as a tremendous shock. It is indescribable even by the masters of language; and it is therefore not surprising that semi-educated stutterers wallow in oceans of gush.

All the poetic faculties and all the emotional faculties are thrown into a sort of ecstasy by an occurrence which overthrows the mind, and makes the rest of life seem absolutely worthless in comparison.

Good literature is principally a matter of clear observation and good judgment expressed in the simplest way. For this reason none of the great events of history (such as earthquakes and battles) have been well described by eye-witnesses, unless those eye-witnesses were out of danger. But even when one has become accustomed to Dhyana by constant repetition, no words seem adequate.

I doubt Adam Frank has ever had one of these experiences, but some of the people he reads have, and some of the people whom the people he reads read have, and he's taken them and misinterpreted them as equivalent to going to Newgrange and being inspired by it. I went to Newgrange once and thought it was pretty neat. I took hashish once and started seriously questioning the nature of mind and experience.

[note: I am not claiming that normal go-to-church-each-week religion is particularly related to this sort of "religious experience". That both of them are grouped together is more of a historical fact than an ontological one.]

Real religious experiences, the sort where you get one, say "Oh, I just saw God" and spend the rest of your life in a monastery trying in vain to capture that sense of connection again

I know an atheist who gets these. She used to think it was future superintelligences talking to her, but eventually she asked herself some very hard questions and managed to realize it was just a brain storm. It's one of the most heroic acts of rationality I've ever seen anyone perform.

But considering that some atheists do get these involuntarily and the vast supermajority of religious folk never get them at all, why call them "religious experiences"?

But considering that some atheists do get these involuntarily and the vast supermajority of religious folk never get them at all, why call them "religious experiences"?

The explanation for this is in the same book from which I took the dhyana quote. I may write a post on it one day, although I worry that an explanation of mysticism by a possibly insane self-confessed magician is a little off-topic for this site.

The short version is that a dhyana experience is completely unconditioned, and the brain quickly sets about conditioning it with cultural experience. Anything that vast and that holy is assumed to be the most powerful entity in the culture of the person who experiences it, usually God. There's also some evidence that the dhyana experience can itself be conditioned by culture, in the same way that a paranoid suffering delusions of persecution for completely biological reasons may interpret it as demons in medieval Europe or the CIA in modern America. Just like the brain throws the label "the CIA" on what ought to be a general persecuted feeling, it throws the label "God", "Jesus", "Allah", "Buddha-nature", "Brahman", "future superintelligence", or whatever else onto what ought to be a general feeling of intense power. This isn't interpreted as a post-hoc attribution; just as the paranoid feels like it's the CIA after them, the Christian feels like they just saw Jesus.

That's what I meant by saying its association with religion was historical and contingent rather than ontological.

Yvain, a professor named Steven T. Katz argues that mystical states of consciousness are always culturally informed, although I personally believe that is incorrect.

The problem talking about this sacred stuff is that a higher state of consciousness is attainable, but the experience of is not rationally describable to people who haven't attained it. There is a severance of rationality that is necessary for the change in consciousness. So we get the Zen koans and the talking burning bushes. Yet the ability to use the tools of rationality re-enters after complete attainment. That is the meaning of “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” Religious theologies are almost entirely composed of attempts to describe, using the scientisms of their olden days, the conditions in the universe that would explain all of this.

Then, a new circumstance entered. Since the Enlightenment, i.e. over the last 300 years or so, religious institutions have lost the esoteric meaning of theology, and both established religion and science became almost entirely ignorant of the existence of a higher state of consciousness. Or else they call it “hallucinations,” etc. Only very recently has science started to raise questions, largely as a result of the comportment of some psychedelic experience with descriptions from the mystical paths of the Eastern religions. So we will get better descriptions as science starts to investigate. There are accidental and fleeting attainments (such as the girl who has the "brainstorms") vs. practiced and held attainments. This practice is called mysticism. (Zen is historically a mystic path out of Buddhism. Otherwise the mainstream religions have almost entirely eliminated any mention of their mystical practices -- even though these are the bases of their theologies!)

Notice I wrote “some” psychedelic experience. A real problem for scientific analysis via psychedelics is that many or most people who have taken psychedelics believe they have had the full experience, but they have not. This is exhibited in some comments here, and all over the internet, all the time.

For example, most people don't know the following: there are NO hallucinations in the final state. In fact, final transcendence on psychedelics includes a complete return of all rational and calculative faculties. Go check the older clinical literature on this. (This is also indicated by the greatest religious mystics: Sankara, Buddhaghosa, John of the Cross.) Nowadays, most psychedelic users expect to see colored patterns or to get crazy drunk. It's dangerous, it’s debilitating, and it's a shame. One of the biggest mistakes was Tim Leary's promotion of LSD to the streets -- it would have been better to have kept it categorized as a psych med.

People shouldn't get the wrong idea about psychedelics. They are general brain amplifiers. Each session is very likely to be vastly different. One session is not indicative of the effect of the drug, although that is a common opinion. The first few trips can be painful and can even turn into bad trips. A beginner should only do it with a very experienced person who is a guide or a sitter. Psychedelics bring everything to the surface in an abreaction, by an order of occurrence that is specific to each individual, and which includes a lot of repressed memories that cause neuroses and body tics. Without a guide, you can hurt yourself, and you can also get the wrong idea about what is going on, as evidenced in comments all the time.

Back in the days when it was legal, the standard course of LSD psychotherapy was around 5 to 10 sessions, eyes completely covered with a blindfold for most of each session, with earphones piping in instrumental music without lyrics (usually classical.) These sessions were spread out over a year or more, with non-psychedelic therapy sessions in between. Among people who took this route, around 70 percent or so finally came to an "illumination," a full transcendent experience, and their descriptions are very close to those recorded by the great religious mystics. (And as with all the great mystics, there is no particular theological content, but rather a certain realization that all religions are in search of this same state of consciousness.) Cary Grant is a famous example of someone who realized he was a terrible egotist who hadn’t been living a full life, and threw away his day job: i.e. being a movie star.

The best two books on the subject are both by Stanislav Grof: Realms of the Human Unconscious (1975) and LSD Psychotherapy (1980).

But now, most users ruin their value as psych meds or "sacraments." As mentioned above, a lot of people think you can experience it “all” in one session. This never actually happens, and it can actually damage you. You can have a "cosmic" experience -- but it will be without abreacting all of the repressed material in your life, which takes a lot of clock-time to do -- and then you can be more or less stuck in that ego-situation throughout subsequent trips. This is epistemologically hazardous and may lead to a life of related misunderstandings. We all know the case of the insufferable old hippie who tells everybody how to run their lives: a typical casualty.

Another big mistake is taking the early trips without blocking off the outside, so then your environment triggers visual and aural hallucinations. This is enormously counterproductive because it impels you away from necessary introspection, and then you get stuck in that mind-set, and it has reduced many a person’s understanding of psychedelics to "party drugs." Rationality won’t even re-enter, here.

But what can you gain rationally from a real and COMPLETE mystical, “sacred” experience, with or without psychedelics? In essense, there is no change in the tools of analysis, but synthetical ability and the license to creativity are greatly improved.

There is no difference at all in the analytics: splitting, counting, weighing, mathematics all remain the same (although, like the mystic Brouwer, you may come across a new idea of what mathematics is.) It also won't make you a more talented artist, although it can release you from deeply buried and unsuspected inhibitions, to develop your talent. Many people think that there is at least a slight increase in IQ although I am not sure that a full study has ever been done. But there is a known improvement to the synthetic integration of rationality, and some of those people already disposed to having scientific talent are led to reintegrate knowledge beginning from the current historical level of analytic understanding. There are a fair number of self-identified examples. Kary Mullis is one. Psychedelic use was reportedly widespread throughout the early Bay Area / Silicon Valley computer community. Among known historical examples of creativity initiated by a reported mystical state, Descartes is an astonishing case of creative invention and synthesis at the level of primary symbolic understanding.

But what can you gain rationally from a real and COMPLETE mystical, “sacred” experience, with or without psychedelics? In essense, there is no change in the tools of analysis, but synthetical ability and the license to creativity are greatly improved.

If you were experimenting with LSD doses or micro-doses, how would you operationalize and measure something as vague sounding as 'synthetical ability'?

I've taken acid a few times-- not under such careful conditions-- and my experience was that I saw visual hallucinations much more when my eyes were closed than when they were open.

This post is strongly reminiscent of the little that i've read form Eckhart Tolle.

Isn't the dhyana experience the kind of thing you're supposed to pass through, rather than dwell on, on your way to Zen enlightenment?

You know, I need to reread A New Earth to make sure it still holds up, but I think humans in general, but especially rationalist can benefit greatly from it. I think I might make it "required reading" for my associates.

The theme of non-attachment is sort of the more general form of the second virtue.

This is one of the most informative posts I've ever seen on less wrong. I've always found it strange that the one technology that rationalists seem to shy away from is the technology of the sacred - that is, entheogenic plants and chemicals.

This notion of "dhyana experience" as completely unconditioned sounds suspiciously modernized-religious to me. According to the sadly-former-atheist John C. Wright, when he gets these hugely powerful "religious experiences", he gets the Trinity - yes, the good 'ol fashioned Trinity - talking to him directly.

From above:

This isn't interpreted as a post-hoc attribution; just as the paranoid feels like it's the CIA after them, the Christian feels like they just saw Jesus.

Another example: in sleep paralysis, many people report seeing demonic type figures. Although I haven't been able to find any explicit evidence, I've seen suggestions that the exact variety of demon depends on the sleeper's expectation. For example, Chinese see something like a classic transparent ghost, Hmong see a tiny child-like figure, and Americans see stuff like typical horns-and-tail demons or typical pointy-hat type witches.

The mental "stimulus" in sleep paralysis doesn't have any features - it's just a general feeling of fear, unreality, and oppression. But the sufferer does see a demon or monster with the culturally appropriate features.

So it's not contradictory to say both that dhyana itself is an "unconditioned" experience, and that individual experiences of dhyana can be detailed - although there may be many different types of emotionally powerful hallucination and "unconditioned" may be too vague to be a useful word.

I'm a little skeptical of this claim. When I've experienced sleep paralysis I've imagined seeing a non-supernatural human intruder but all I actually saw was a vaguely human shaped shadow which for some reason in the confused half-asleep state of sleep paralysis seems highly likely to be an ill-intentioned intruder rather than a shadow. People with a different cultural expectation might claim to have 'seen' a demon but I don't think that should necessarily be interpreted as them having had a detailed hallucination, just that an ambiguous and threatening presence is assumed to be whatever strikes them as the most likely thing to be hanging around threateningly if indistinctly.

Just to add to the pot - I've experienced it only twice, but both times I experienced no hallucinations at all. The first time, the room was dark and I knew there was "something out there" waiting to get me and I had to switch on the light to see it, but couldn't move. The second time there was nothing, but I was terrified anyway. Both times I managed to wake myself up (eventually).

I can quite imagine, however, that our dreaming mind might try to put a face on the stalking horror. Given you're already asleep and just out of REM state, there's no surprise in extra visual hallucinations here - and of course they'd be relevant to your own cultural experiences.

Just to add to the pot - I've experienced it only twice, but both times I experienced no hallucinations at all.

Me neither, except for the digital clock reading absurd times. (No, I hadn't read this when that happened.)

I experienced this as well as a small child. Incidentally, my alarm clock at the time looked a lot like the one in the XKCD comic.

I agree. When I've experienced sleep paralysis, I've rarely seen anything much at all other than distortions of the appearance of the room. What I get instead is a buzzing noise and a sense of vibration through my body, and then my body feels as if it's being tossed around the bed in impossibly rapid circles by some kind of evil force. I've never culturally heard of any experience like it. It certainly has the sense of oppression and evil, but there's nothing about it that sounds like any kind of mythology I've ever heard in my culture or another.

According to this article a sense of vibration and rapid acceleration of the body are fairly commonly reported (I don't recall experiencing these symptoms myself). That article and the Wikipedia entry both mention some of the mythology and folklore surrounding the experience from different cultures.

I used to have occasional sleep paralysis, starting very young. I remember seeing shadows and hearing noises, then having them quickly gain resolution until I was actually hearing whispering and walking, and seeing something between a traditional western demon and an oni mask. Years later, before I learned not to sleep on my back but after I had a more materialist outlook, I would notice the process of forming images and usually be able to mentally halt the pareidolia.

I can easily believe that a more powerful such process would leave the formative steps imperceptible, especially to someone who had no experience.

I've never seen anything when I have sleep paralysis, but I have had the feeling of malevolent presence and, once, a voice that made me very afraid.

According to the sadly-former-atheist John C. Wright, when he gets these hugely powerful "religious experiences", he gets the Trinity - yes, the good 'ol fashioned Trinity - talking to him directly.

This would seem to be some weird levels-of-abstraction confusion: the Father and the Son can influence you through the Holy Ghost (qui ex Patre Filioque procedit), but claiming the Trinity as a whole is talking to you seems to me to be double-counting evidence.

But considering that some atheists do get these involuntarily and the vast supermajority of religious folk never get them at all, why call them "religious experiences"?

Perhaps the same reason we call the game "Chinese Checkers" despite not being from China and not a variant of checkers: someone called it that, and the name stuck, and it's "too late" to change it now.

I know an atheist who gets these. She used to think it was future superintelligences talking to her, but eventually she asked herself some very hard questions and managed to realize it was just a brain storm. It's one of the most heroic acts of rationality I've ever seen anyone perform.

What was the deciding factor?

(I can only imagine this playing out as a comparison of not-particularly-well-founded prior probabilities for "gods are communicating with me" versus "mundane brain malfunction", which I think of as in practice being a matter of Copycatesque instrumentalish rationality ("what interpretation scheme would help me integrate these experiences such that they bear pragmatic fruit?") rather than epistemic rationality as such. 'Cuz basically you have no other choice than to pull inductive biases out of your local subculture; it's simply too difficult to reliably engage in successful hermeneutics on your own.)

If another data point helps: when I experienced a version of this after some traumatic brain injury, I basically asked myself "What's more likely? That what I'm experiencing actually corresponds in some relevantly isomorphic way to a distal stimulus that existed prior to my injury, but which I didn't previously notice for some as-yet-unknown reason? Or that what I'm experiencing doesn't correspond to any relevantly isomorphic event, and I'm experiencing it primarily as a consequence of my brain injury?" (I wasn't anywhere near that precise in my formulation of the question at the time, of course.)

One major deciding factor for me was that I was at the same time experiencing other novel perceptions, none of which seemed to have much to do with one another if I interpreted each of them as evidence of actual events I was accurately perceiving, but which allowed for a common explanation if I interpreted them as evidence that I was hallucinating. And, of course, another major deciding factor was believing that brains had a lot to do with constructing perceived experience, and were capable of doing so in the absence of isomorphic distal stimuli.

I mean, it was certainly possible that all of my perceptions were accurate and I really was being Called to Prophecy by Beings from Beyond the Veil of Unknowing, and also that my arm was no longer physically attached to my shoulder despite remaining under my control, and also that etc. etc. etc. But it seemed more likely that these apparently unrelated perceptions that began after my brain injury were connected to that injury in non-trivial ways.

But of course you're right that culturally primed priors play a huge role as well. If I'd remained strongly embedded in the Orthodox Jewish community I was raised in, for example, I might have found it equally plausible that all of those experiences were being sent to me by YHVH, or that the most mysterious-seeming of them (the Call to Prophecy) had a different explanation than the others.

And, of course, that whole line of reasoning would have been completely unavailable had I not been aware of the brain injury in the first place, and/or had the only novel perception been the Call to Prophecy.

That was really interesting, thanks. I've read that God usually calls to prophecy those who are least likely to interpret the call for what it is because they are meek and self-doubting. Did this factor into your considerations? Also, paranoid schizophrenic that I am, I would have toyed with the hypothesis that God chose to talk to me when my brain was damaged because the brain damage and its non-spiritual effects act as a form of plausible deniability (because it seems that the gods, if they exist, are obviously trying to be somewhat coy about it). Did this factor into your considerations? (It seems like it may have at some point because of your sentence "or that the most mysterious-seeming of them (the Call to Prophecy) had a different explanation than the others".)

The idea that there was a genuine external communicator (whether Divine or otherwise) that was deliberately seeking out brain-damaged or otherwise unreliable recipients didn't occur to me. Thinking about it now, my reaction is mostly to tell those hypothetical communicators to go fuck themselves.

The meek and self-doubting thing didn't occur to me, either.

In general, the alternatives to "I'm hallucinating" I considered were all variations on "I am now able to perceive things I wasn't previously able to perceive" rather than "something that previously was able to communicate with me but chose not to is now choosing to communicate with me".

For example, I did toy with the idea that the trauma had fortuitously opened up some psychospiritual channel, perhaps by shutting off some part of my brain that ordinarily either blocked my ability to receive such signals or caused me to forget them or whatever... that's a pretty common trope in fantasy fiction as well. I also toyed with the idea that having my ordinary perceptions screwed with made me more receptive to noticing novel isomorphic-to-reality patterns as well as the novel non-itr patterns I was demonstrably noticing... like the way taking acid might make me less succeptible to certain optical illusions or cognitive biases.

Thinking about it now, my reaction is mostly to tell those hypothetical communicators to go fuck themselves.

Ha, that's my first reaction too, but "He trolls us because He loves us." I think He's sort of a bastard but I can't help but smile at His jokes despite that; He's a lot like reality in that way. (One of my friend's interpretation of the story of Job is roughly 'reality is allowed to fuck with you, but you must still love reality, you're never justified in turning your back on reality, and if you stay faithful to reality then you'll likely be rewarded but being rewarded isn't the point'. In the same vein, "I don't like YHWH, but that's not the point: I love Him and I fear Him.")

Sure, I'm acquainted with the argument. Personally, I've never found it compelling. Even if I assume that there was a deliberate communicator, be it YHWH or Gharlane of Eddore or whatever, I'm content to let it go about its business without my love.

As for fear, well, it doesn't really take much to inspire me to fear. I'm a relatively frail life form.

It's similar to staying faithful to someone you love, e.g. a wife or a good king. Caring about the way the world really is even if the world is really painful. Not flinching away from reality because it tells you something you don't want to hear, not rebuking reality because it dares to disagree with you, not resenting reality because it seems unjust. Not replacing reality with a fantasy because you're bored or because you want to escape. Not gerrymandering the definition of what counts as staying faithful to reality. Like Eliezer's "something to protect". It's something that binds you to reality and keeps you from going out and identifying with a lot of stupid hypotheses and having sex with tons of chicks and getting STDs or delusions or whatever. (Note that going on dates with a lot of ideas is great, but you shouldn't have sex with every idea you come across.)

I really like this framework. In particular, the interpretation of Job that goes with it. I may want to use them as part of this year's Less Wrong Solstice gathering, if that's okay with you.

How did it go? It seems like it would create some unsettling ambiguity in the "happy" ending.

I did not end up using it, although I periodically stumble upon this again and still think it's a neat way of thinking

Because of their historical association with religion and religious practices, I figure. Drugs are probably the most common way of producing such experiences these days - but drugs produce all kinds of other experiences as well, so naming them after that would not be very specific.

Mystical experiences are often associated with religion - since religious tradtions invented - and are are still associated with - the technology that is often used to produce them.

E.g. see: "Yoga the Technology of Ecstasy: George Feuerstein."

"I took hashish once and started seriously questioning the nature of mind and experience."

That's wonderful... but is there any particular reason why you couldn't have done the same with a cup of coffee?

Was it something special about the hashish experience, or merely that it was so novel that it caused you to pay a lot of attention to it? What if you paid that much attention to the things you consider mundane and banal?

There's a risk here of using "mundane experience" as an applause light.

Consider the equivalent query - doctors have learned a lot about the brain by studying stroke victims. For example, one reason we know that the frontal cortex is responsible for inhibition is because people who get frontal cortex injuries lose their inhibition.

You can go up to a neurologist and say "That's wonderful...but couldn't you have learned the same thing if you really closely observed the brain of a normal person?" But why should the neurologist deny himself a useful tool just because it's not mundane enough?

You can learn arbitrarily much by contemplating everyday life. Eliezer theorizes that a superintelligence could deduce General Relativity just by watching an apple fall. But that doesn't mean you should turn your nose up at Einstein for using the perihelion of Mercury. There's no such thing as cheating in rationalism.

If you can derive the same knowledge from studying normal people intensely, you probably should. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to figure out precisely what changed in the brain of a stroke patient and connect that to changed behavior? Much less confirm that by finding another victim with precisely the right kind of damage...

If you can turn out a light either by walking across the room and flipping a switch, or building an intricate Rube Goldberg, you should just walk. If simple, cheap, and fast works, there's no need for complicated, expensive, and slow.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to figure out precisely what changed in the brain of a stroke patient and connect that to changed behavior?

People have been doing it successfully since Broca and Wernicke in the mid 1800s. It's the way everyone does it in neurology, and it's produced a vastly greater amount of knowledge (in its specific area) than the way you're suggesting.

Likewise, helium was discovered in the sun before it was found on Earth. It's a standard method - study extremely weird conditions, seeing how they differ from normality, asking what could have created those differences, and discovering the general principles involved.

Eliezer condemns those who ignore zebras to dream of dragons. But it's not especially virtuous to refuse to look at zebras and stare only at the ground, since the ground is even more mundane than zebras are.

Good point. I would go so far as say most problems people get into, especially cognitive, seem to be caused by their not paying attention to reality, as opposed to the inside of their heads. I suspect that even most cognitive biases could be worked around much more effectively if people would just pay attention to what is really happening.

Eliezer: All the ways that you don't think that religion is entirely wrong, I think that you simple label those as "not religion" and imagine them to be "human universals" possibly after some "extrapolation of volition".

Also, isn't the science fiction about human space colonization on which your sense of space shuttles as sacred truly and entirely wrong? When I see a space shuttle... well... it's like seeing a pyramid, a Soviet factory, or some other weird monument of sincere but stupid strategic error that partially invalidates the ocean of tactical correctness that it consists of.

It is difficult for anything to be entirely wrong. Stupidity is not reversed intelligence. The question is whether you should drink from the old cup or start over. For this, a few examples of subtle poison really ought to be enough.

Re: Space shuttles: I know that, but they get to me anyway. Apparently the sacredness of space shuttles is not something that this particular truth about them can destroy. Sort of like a baby taking its very first steps and falling over. It's not going anywhere for a while, but so what.

"It is difficult for anything to be entirely wrong."

No, it really isn't. If you also consider those things which don't rise to the level of coherence necessary to be wrong, it's even easier.

Excellent second point, Michael, this is essentially what I was getting at below.

Eliezer, are we to assume from your final comment that the "baby steps" you're taking are a means to eliminate the feeling of the sacred from your life? Otherwise I don't get the baby metaphor.

I remember an interesting Slate article about the vagus nerve and the feeling of the sacred. I can't speak to the science behind it, but I think there's an interesting relationship between the notion of the sacred and AnnaSalamon's excellent "Cached Selves" post. Don't we then have a responsibility to actively avoid the feeling of the sacred?

I think he meant that a baby's first steps are sacred even though they're not impressive qua steps.

More like: religion is a thick soup. Picking out the good bits has its attractions - compared to trying to make your own soup.

I find the analogies of poison and soup to be flawed. There is neither contamination nor possible sterilization in the history of thought.

What would be the difference between starting from "scratch", creating a new 'rational' type of spirituality and responding to past spirituality? It's not as if the entire human race believes the same thing and is working on the same problem.

Science and Spirituality are not food to be consumed, but separate tools in the shed of experience. Just because you have scissors, you shouldn't throw away your glue.

This "War on Spirituality" is just as harmful as the "War on Science."

Once science explains what everything is, down the the smallest particle, that still doesn't explain what it IS. What if the smallest particle in the universe is irony? What if the universe is objectively non-objective? What if the laws of physics emerge in complexity only because somebody is trying to explain them? What if electricity did not exist before Ben Franklin thought of it? What if solipsistically you have always been here, and you will always be here, reading this message board. The "faith" that you hold that everything will eventually be "proved" might lead to an infinity. This is not an argument against science but FOR staring into the void (spirituality)


What would be the difference between starting from "scratch", creating a new 'rational' type of spirituality and responding to past spirituality?

Here's my crack at this: I take both sides in this to be arguing that we should pursue something like spirituality. Call it elevation#Elevation). Adam Frank and timtyler seem to be saying that the most well-developed, existing understanding of elevation comes from religion; the quickest way to secular elevation is by appropriating the good parts of spirituality. Eliezer, perhaps taking a more long-term view, wants to build a much more solid foundation. I think both projects would come up with the same result if they succeed. The big question is which is more likely to be successful and how quickly.

Consider designing a word processor. There is probably code already out there that you can use to achieve your goal, but maybe it's buggy or written in an outdated language. Depending on the exact state of the code, it might be quicker to refactor or it might be quicker to begin from the bottom up. Either way, the end result is going to share some features with the original application.

I don't think it is fair to call a proposal for secular elevation a "war on spirituality" any more than building new software is a war on old applications or general relativity was a war on classical mechanics. This is merely a striving for something better.

I'm afraid you completely lost me in your last paragraph. There is always some probability we are radically wrong about the universe, but what would it even mean for the things you speculate about to be true?

Spirituality is a word processor? This is just as ridiculous an analogy as Spirituality is a soup. You're talking about specific proponents of a word processor and using it to describe spirituality. Just like a word processor doesn't get flies if you leave it out, and a soup does not have a source code or programming language. Rationality and spirituality are both things that EMERGED, they were not constructed by a programmer or a cook, and you can't "start over from scratch"

As I understood this article, it was less a proposal for secular elevation, and more of a anti-religious kneejerk reaction to a Adam Frank's book before the reading was even finished. It was a call for spirituality to admit that it is wrong, a attempt for stigmatization of anything remotely spiritual. (This is just as likely as science admitting it is wrong. Not only is it 'not-applicable' it does not have a spokesman. Who speaks for existence?) This review is motivated by the crimes of religious faith-advocating anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-rationality, knuckleheads, which are absolutely crimes. But I would argue that religion/faith doctrines are just harmful to spirituality, as they are to science.

(BTW The last post' paragraph was examples of physical states in which the scientific method would be asking the wrong question). The question "what do things mean" and "why" is embarking on a rational spiritual journey. The question of "how things work" is embarking on a rational scientific journey. From science, we obtain the results in the form of "proof." From spirituality, we obtain results in the form of "purpose." Both are private journeys, even though they might incorporate appreciating the value of sharing discoveries with a group. They are separate tools for understanding experience. (HOW and WHY) Again I will say, do not throw away your glue just because your scissors cut things apart so flawlessly. Glue is not even meant to cut things, but still serves a purpose. I support this form of secularity, but not the banishment of glue from the tool shed (because it cannot cut.)

Adam Frank's point was that this need for understanding, this purpose that drives our passion for science, has a common ancestor with spirituality. Makes perfect sense to me, and it needs to be said.

Japan is a good example of what happens if you start again. They rebuilt their culture, discarding much traditional Chinese knowledge. They have new martial arts, new forms of healing, new types of religion, even new rules of the game of go. IMO, in almost every case, they should have stuck with the Chinese original. Traditional knowledge often contains much wisdom - ignore it at your peril - and if you think you know better, then you probably don't.

To what degree does people's reverence towards space shuttles consist of admiration for complex human endeavors, and to what degree is it simple awe at something large, fast, noisy, and bright?

I rarely hear of people talking about their spiritual experiences upon considering major human accomplishments that are modest and unassertive in their sensory effects, but often come across people gushing about meaningless or even wrongheaded things that are sensational or assertive.