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...
...to 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.
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... (read more)
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"?
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", "Br... (read more)
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... (read more)
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.
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.
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.
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 ... (read more)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
I think he meant that a baby's first steps are sacred even though they're not impressive qua steps.
space shuttles = monster trucks for intellectuals
William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience" was derived from the Gifford Lecture series he delivered around 1900-1902. The first thing to bear in mind, then, is that James' definition of religion was intended as a working definition in order that his audience could follow his exposition. As a founding father of the field of modern psychology and a proponent of pragmatic philosophy, dogmatism wasn't at all a part of James' style.
Secondly, brilliant and amiable as he may have been in person, James referred to himself as a "sick soul," given to bouts of psychic entropy (i.e, depression). His emphasis on the experiential quality of spirituality had nothing to do with supporting dogma or hewing to community supersition. Rather, James saw positive spiritual experience as psychic uplift, eudaemonia--experienced idiosyncratically at the individual level, and sought to examine and cultivate such experiences. Seen from another vantage point, James was in fact exploring a world view based on seeking out the sacred in the mundane.
Re: 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.
Dawkins seems to think that too. However, I severely doubt it.
IMO, the most obvious way for a rational agent to gain insight into religious experience - without all the training and rituals - is... (read more)
The difference between Scientific Awe and LSD hallucinations?
Um okay. Lots of subjectivity here of course.
Scientific Awe is a pleasure of epiphany, of real understanding, of seeing how things fit, while LSD's awe is (for me at least) combined with a whole bunch of confusion and strangeness. It feels more intense, that yes! I grok it! is greater, and yet I'm never quite sure what it is that I grok. Explaining it into a Dictaphone just produces lots of rambling nonsense about unity and the connection of all things, including ideas, to each other.
The LSD thing will give you more ooomph, more intensity and certainty, as opposed to actual genuine scientific understanding which is of course always tempered by the other questions that understanding tends to bring up. You understand X but then that leads to the question "but why does X work that way?"
LSD is more emotional, more intense, and probably gives the "oh my god" response more, it's more surprising, more sudden, more physical. It isn't so tempered with new questions, perhaps because it doesn't actually explain anything, so the feeling that it's complete is perhaps the advantage. It leaves you feeling sated rathe... (read more)
Mysteriousness. I do not agree with this point as it is made. I can reconcile what I believe with the idea I think I see behind your point; but I may be wrong.
I do not agree with that because it seems to me you are implying that mysteriousness is always an excuse, without any other use. I think it is possible to genuinely want to answer questions, and dissolve mysteries as they appear, but to at the same time acknowledge the existence of as of yet non resolved ones.
I don't know if we will ever solve all interesting, non trivial mysteries, but I hope that o... (read more)
This post prompts the question: Has anyone tried getting together with some rationally inclined friends, chosen your favourite OvercomingBias posts and read them while tripping on Psilocybin?
I don't think my brain is particularly inclined towards spiritual experience but I've got a strong suspicion that would do the trick and possibly be an altogether positive long term influence. But don't everyone try this at home, or we might find Eleizer guilty as charged!
To the extent that spirituality is about privacy, discontinuity, lonliness, experientialism, faith and mysteriousness I must say I'm not a huge fan of spirituality either. As Michael has alluded to, there are other elements that some people would label 'spirituality' that are healthier and more compatible with the striving for an accurate understanding of our world. That's... (read more)
I was surprised by the conflation of words solitude and loneliness here.
I'd say solitude is just a state of being alone while loneliness is an interpretation (usually negative) of that state by a person.
It's not uncommon for people who are serious about their personal growth/thinking for themselves/creating things to seek solitude as a way of c... (read more)
James might have meant something different by emphasizing solitude than what you take him to task for. He continues:... (read more)
That which is significant in the Unfolding Story.
Isn't it possible that many of the flaws you've listed creep into your thinking in via the Unfolding Story? For instance, your Story is probably somewhat private in that if we were watching a space shuttle launch you'd find it sacred and I'd think it was a harbinger of space militarization. And obviously, the faith charge often comes up on this score when it comes to futurists.
All the arguments about mystery aside, the first few paragraphs seem to be from a completely different post about the Sacred Experience instead if Religious Foo.
Leading up to:
Which is something I would strongly agree with. In my view, what this is saying is that the association of something being sacred is something that can only ... (read more)
Crossposted this to the Richard Dawkins.net forums, with link and attribution.
EDIT: why the downvote?
I don't think so. I'm left with a resolve and a reminder to strive to be Christlike: to love my enemies, to always forgive, to never hold a grudge, to with complete willingness (this is hugely important!) give myself up to the service of others.
I've never found such radical dedication to the state of mind of constant, selfless ser... (read more)
I'm surprised that nobody has balked at this.
There are more possible explanations. E.g. replace the word "sacredness" with "arousal".
I would suggest that concern over the 'sacred' is just one manifestation of a misplaced overconcern with emotion and sensation which is antithetical to rationality.