Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Spiritual atheism

Or why human awe has been systemized


Spiritual atheism - oh my, what a contradiction! Well yes, depending on how you define spirituality. Now let's try and make some sense out of this.

For a long time, skeptics and atheists have been looked upon as being dull and boring with regards to feeling awe and wonder when contemplating the great majesty of the world. I actually don't think most skeptics and atheists have been this way, but there is a long standing tradition of labelling nonbelievers as simply non with regards to everything that is not immediately explainable or possible to quantisize. Who's guilty of this? First offender is the actually dull-and-boring atheist who claim that every other sane person should only be elevated to the same dull-and-boring state of mind she is wandering in. Second offender is the religious person who's simply to ignorant to realise that not all atheists and nonbelievers are like the dull-and-boring atheist. They both say that a scientific mind can not experience the intense feelings of a spiritual or religious person, because these feelings "are not rational" (I would just say "harder to control", which I don't exactly find "irrational"). The dull-and-boring atheist adds: and like everything else related to religion, these feelings and experiences are dangerous and should be exterminated from the face of the earth.

Eeck! Can we please change this idea? I think we can. And in order to do it, we should have a brief look at the anatomy of a religious feeling and then what religions have to do with this. The central issue is whether religions should have monopoly on religiousity (or more modest: spirituality).

Subjective religiousity
The diversity within any religion is exactly as large as it's followers, since every single individual has her own understanding of God, the universe and the meaning/purpose behind her own existence. Most religious people know the correct creeds and dogmas of their respective religions. But these creeds are usually professed automatically and unconsciously - a kind of "paying lip service" to the institution of you religion. When asked personally, most people are willing to come up with a lot of their own religous ideas: They bend and strech, they reformulate old dogma, they excuse and create Gods anew (just have a look at christianity, islam and judaism - undoubtly variations on the same monotheistic God).

In relation to this, I think we can point at an all-embracing human common demoninator: the immense and awestriking wonder, when faced with the incomprehensible reality of the world we exist in. We experience this at different occasions in our life, but usually when having a philosophic talk with an inspiring person, exploring new areas of the earth's nature or contemplating things which suddenly makes perfect sense. Freud called this "oceanic feelings" and I will do this as well. I like the word because it just covers the experience so well: Sometimes you really feel "oceanic" when you're looking at the very vast, the very small and seemingly infinite. When we have this sensation, we both feel the incomprehensibility of the world and yet experience a certain sort of transcendence: to somehow get grips with the ungrippable. Or as Albert Einstein said: "The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible." (Physics and Reality, 1936)

Though, it seems as if some things will never be explained - or indeed, can never be asked. Either way, we must accept that "there is more between heaven and earth", at least in our present time. This fact should make us all believers in some sense (because of the confabulations we tend to make about that which we don't know of). Einstein was often misunderstood as religious (in the conservative sense), becuase he often used the term on himself or said he believed in God (one may ask: which one?). It seems evident to me that what Einstein believed in was so far away from the conventional gods, that it really doesn't make sense to call him religious in this sense. The anthropomorfic gods of the semitic religions was obvisouly not what he was talking about:

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. (New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930) [my bold-doing]

It seems to me that what Einstein called God, was not "the great father in the sky", but instead nature it self. To modify that a bit, I think God can be used as a word for the fascinating fact that there is something at all. Then "God is in the rain" after all - because God is everything. Hallelujah!

Organized religiousity
Organized religion offers a fellowship, where the individual can share her oceanic feelings and wonders of the incomprehensible. It is less important that the concept of God in scripture and tradition is contradictory and inconsistent. As I argued before, most people have their own personal concept of God anyways. What matters is how we can gather around the internal oceanic feelings we all experience: awe, love and wonder.

The reason anyone subscribes to specific religious dogma and concepts of God, appear to depend largely on geographical factors. The reason why people subscribe to any religious dogma at all, can be found in partly in what I describes before, but some of the geographical factors could be explained and elaborated on as well: socioeconomical situation, psychological profile, indoctrination. I didn't write much about them, because they are quite obvious for most people.

In conclusion, I think a large part of these people have misunderstood their own feelings, and let the religious organisations take advantage of this. Religious stewards (ie. priests) have proclaimed that these feelings are directed to the metaphysical or the supernatural (things that are beyond the natural world). How then can one decide which religion is the right one, when their dogmas are descriptions of things we can not know? I think the systemized dogma of organized religion is to go too far, and say too much about that which we can not know anything about. Or to put it like Wittgenstein: "Of that which we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent" (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus). You don't have to speak about the unspeakable to feel wonder. You can do like the rest of us, spiritual atheists, who stand before the incomprehensibility of the world with humility and silence.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Intellectual tennis without a net

This chap prefers to play with a net


Every discipline of sports have their own prescriptive rules and internal game-mechanics. This includes the non-physical game discussion. I prefer to call discussion a game rather than a sport, but I do acknowledge that a lot of people see it as a sport (or more precisely: a competition). Because of this attitude, discussions actually tend to get that way: fighting to win. I don't like it.

More specifically, I find it peculiar how elements of tennis and "competition-discussions" look so similar in function. The idea is stolen from the philosopher Ronald de Sousa, who once accused philosophical theology of playing "intellectual tennis without a net" (in the sense that theologians always end up saying: "Well, it's a matter of faith"). I have never read anything by de Sousa except that little sentence, but I just immediately liked the tennis analogy. Hence the title of this post. For the fun of it, I wanted to see how far the idea could be expanded. So then, in both tennis and discussion certain elements are needed:

  • Ball: Any remark, comment or argument (notice how people even say: "the ball is on your court")
  • Hit: When the ball gets stated or claimed, it gets hit to the other side of the court, where the opponent need to respond. Sometimes discussions are slow in speed (when there is not much at stake) - sometimes they're fast (and then we "get personal").
  • Ad hominem hits are defined as "attacking the opponent, rather than the ball". This is not pleasant when playing either tennis or having a discussion.
  • Boxes: The personal territory of the competitors. Only balls may pass over here. When the players "get personal" and ad hominem, it is usually because they trespass on each other personal boxes. Hence why some subjects are "off limits".
  • The serve: The initial claim or statement that sparks of any discussion. It can be presented in many ways. Some people like to spin their serve, in order to confuse their opponent (often found in political tennis). Others are more fond of the direct approach, as we see it in a cannonball serve. No spin here, just go straight for the target with dogmatic persuasion. Cannonballs are usually hit very low, as to get as close to the net as possible (this is almost inevitable in the domain of philosophers who don't do philosophy very often - and therefore not realising that you have to be careful not hitting the net).
  • The net: A marker for the lowest possible internal logic any hit or serve can have. An argument that fails to make it over the net, cannot be properly responded to, because it doesn't make sense in the game of rational discussion (or basically tennis with rules). If the net is not up, both participants are allowed to say anything, thought they cannot expect any response to what they are saying. They may shoot the ball at opposite directions or high up in the sky, but should not hope that the ball will be returned. Therefore, tennis without a net, usually ends up being played alone.
  • Let: When an argument touches the net, but barely makes it to the opponents box. The serve is replayed, so that it can be properly analyzed and understood.

One could find a bunch more of these similarities (and I have, but I thought this was getting to obscure and needed some feedback first). It may seem as a joke - and indeed it is fun to find all these similarities - but there's a serious motive behind this as well. At least as far back as Aristotle, people have written on rhetoric - and often about the bad uses of rhetoric. I would call this "semi-consciously false applied logic", because almost all of the dirty tricks of rhetoric concerns logical fallacies and misrepresentations. It's "conscious" because people often are aware of their own fault, but too dishonest to admit it. "Semi" because we have manipulation as an innate ability (no wonder the psychologists call this "Machiavellian Intelligence" after the famous Renaissance political theorist). Therefore most of these manipulations are quite automatic and unconscious.

I think the idea of discussion as playing tennis works especially well for the problem of basing arguments on faith. Every time a person does this, it is really not possible to respond to (other than just giving up - letting the serve pass). The famous "faith-hit" really does the job, when the opponent doesn't realise that the net is down - and therefore everything is allowed. You cannot question the faith-argument, so you might as well just shoot some balls in the air yourself. Example: Person-B fails to realise that he is playing tennis without a net:

A (hits a serve): "Homosexuality is a sin and I know it because God told me"

B (questions the premise of the serve): "Oh, but how do you know if your God is speaking to you? Maybe you are just dictated by your internal moral feelings"

A (sends of the penetrating "faith-hit", while the net is not up): "Because I believe in God. Doh, it's called faith you know"

B (loses): OK then. Sorry to bother.

We should therefore, whenever we encounter someone playing without the net, tell them that the rules (or lack of rules) applies to everyone. We can then agree to:
(1) Keep playing without the net and let questions and comments have no logical limitations (A: "The president made a lot of mistakes last year" - B: "The solar system is a big floppy ham")
(2) End the game, because decision (1) is obviously very boring when played for more than a few seconds.
(3) Restarting the game with the net up, in order to have a reasonable and fair discussion.

Monday, May 14, 2007


How to get a headache:
Think about thinking


Philosopher's have pondered on the nature of all possible phenomena of the universe ever since anybody could do philosophy. But one might ask, what is philosophy itself? Philosopher's have pondered this as well - even people who hate philosophy have done it (one of the more frequent conclusions are usually "philosophy is just bullshit"). Since people seem to agree, I think we should invent a special branch of philosophy for this very purpose. I propose the following name:

Philosophology noun
the study of the nature and meaning of philosophy and it's philosophers: moral philosophology (what is moral philosophy?) · the philosophology of science (is science just philosophy?) · a scholar of philosophology (am I a philosopher?)
a particular set or system of beliefs resulting from the search for knowledge about philosophy and it's philosophers: the philosophology of Feynman (who hated philosophy)
a set of beliefs or an attitude to philosophy and it's philosophers that guides somebodies behaviour: Her philosophology is to scream "blahblahblah" until the philosopher stops speaking.

I consider it important to think about the world in various ways, or simply having different approaches and methods to understanding problems. No problem can be solved or understood in only one way, therefore we invent a number of sub-thinking disciplines to attack the problem with (I assume that it is impossible to understand something without thinking - therefore every discipline in human thought is a subdivision of thinking in general).

Though, in the light of this, I'm tempted to ask: why is it even important to ponder on the question "what is philosophy"? What do we benefit from defining this obscurely broad method of inquiry?

I don't have the answer, and I doubt there is an interesting answer for it too. If there is, or if anybody just considers the question important ("what is philosophy?"), we should actually invent another branch of philosophy: Philosopholosphy (the study of philosophology).

This is getting me a head ache. I should stop.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Nobody disagrees on anything

Now put down your fists, please:


I have and idea that I’ve made into a personal intellectual dogma (intellectual in the sense that I don’t live by it naturally):

In theory, a discussion or dispute between two people, could go on and evolve as long as there's still disagreement. In reality, we probably don’t discuss to understand our counterpart, but instead try to convince the other the correctness of our own view (a self-serving bias all homo sapiens have by designed). If you think about it, this seems totally stupid: shouldn’t discussion lead to the best solution to the problem? It might seem insanely obvious, but still almost everybody contradicts it when we look how people actually discuss with each other. In all probability, finding the best solution to a problem will involve modification of both participants’ positions and arguments. A sole person cannot have figured everything out – still most discussions end up with someone giving up - or pretending to be convinced, while still “deep down” knowing that the other person ain’t getting the point.

In the light of this, I think we should all try to tame our habit of manipulation, dirty rhetorical tricks and the idea that every discussion is like a fight between to combatants (and we have to find a winner and a loser). Instead we must focus on the most important (I’ll say it again): (1) reaching the best solution to the problem. This is only realistic to do if everyone accepts that (2) nobody is ever totally right or wrong.

With these two mantras inhabiting our minds, we should experience a whole bunch of healthy discussion related side effects:

  • Honesty, sharpness and consistency (We greatly enhance our analytical abilities when we don’t have to think about who’s in power of the discussion)
  • Social bonding and empathy (Most people will find this much easier, when actually cooperating on reaching a common solution)
  • Happiness (The joy of finding something true together)

In extension of the above, I have sometimes speculated that nobody really disagrees on anything – if it looks as if they do, then they just don’t understand each other yet. Similarly, it is impossible to disagree – instead you can only fail to understand. Therefore: when all is said, everyone agrees.

Do you agree?

Saturday, April 28, 2007

How to find the meaning of life in a couple of hours

Just don't get lost in metaphysics


A really simple excercise that everybody should do sometime in their life: To find the meaning of life. Simple, because you really just have to speak to a few persons to find the answer. The hard part is the process of transcending what you know intellectually and make it a habitual pattern. In order to find the answer you will need to see a philosopher of language first. Ask: "What does it mean - the meaning of life?". Well, it can actually mean two things:

1. "The meaning of life itself" (or the purpose of life)
2. "The meaning within life".

Oh, really?, you say. Yup, the philosopher of language says.

Ok, so now you are at a crossroad. Road 1 leads back to the dude you just spoke to, because we really aren't sure yet what "life itself" mean (or "purpose"). Road 2 leads you to a positive psychologist. Let's just take both of them and see what road is the most reasonable.

First back to the philospher of language. Ask: In which ways can we answer the question "What is the meaning of life itself?". Well, that depends on what you mean by meaning. If you mean the function of life, then it may mean that life exists as a tool for something else to reproduce through darwinian selection. Here we have a natural explanation - so you should actually go see a biochemist for a more detailed explanation (which we will ignore here). On the other hand, you might want the question framed as in "Why is there anything at all?". Now you can either ask a philosopher of metaphysics (who will either tell you a lot of senseless things or not really answer the right question at all), a religious person (who will tell you that the answer is God, Jesus Christ or Oprah Winfrey) or you could just ask any ol' chap down at the pub (who will give you an answer as satisfying and reasonable as the other two - perhaps that there ain't any purpose in life at all!).

It seems as if only the evolutionary explanation made some sense. But in some ways Road 1 was a dead end. At least if we were expecting more than the answer that humans exists as the product of darwinian replicators (which we know - but somehow this does not satisfy us if we want to live happy lives). Let's move on.

Road 2 will take you positive psychology, where you will have the oppurtunity to ask "what the meaning within life is" - how one can find meaning in the continuum between birth and death we call "my existence". The answer to this can be summed up in: (1) Know the cognitive programmes and automatic bodily regulations which all humans have by design. (2) Know how to cultivate the programmes and regulators that makes you happy and gives you a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Our existence is pointless in the philosophical sense, but that does not restrict us from feeling the exact opposite. For now, I will not elaborate on the more specific theories of positive psychology (this will happen when I have the time though). In conclusion, it seems as if we can actually give a reasonable answer to the question which seemed unanswerable. It just needed to be framed and questioned differently - or basically just cut of all the metaphysical crap.