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Sun, 02 May 2010

How Real Spiritual Experience Might Work

There is such a thing as real spiritual experience. This has almost nothing to do with so-called "religious" experiences that involve seeing beings with physical forms (like angels or demons) or hearing voices or sounds from alleged heavenly beings. These so-called "religious" experiences are best explained in terms of psychology. We cannot trust these experiences. Real spiritual experience is something entirely different.

A real spiritual experience is not an experience of alleged beings or objects that normally are invisible. Instead, it is an experience of properties and relationships of objects. Here are a few examples.

  • A nature poet is gazing upon a mountain landscape, and suddenly perceives the woods, land, and rivers as divine. This poet is not seeing any new objects besides the known objects in nature. Instead, the poet is perceiving a new quality of things - a quality of divineness or sacredness, perhaps best described as a supreme goodness and beauty that can be felt.
  • A religious mystic has an overwhelming impression that all things are one. This mystic is not seeing or hearing any new things besides the objects she already knows about. Instead, she is simply seeing old objects in a new way - noticing the unity, inseparability, and sameness among them, instead of focusing on the differences.
  • A poet gazes upon his beloved, and sees in her the pinnacle of inner beauty and the very meaning of existence. This poet is not seeing any new items besides the human being before him. Instead, he is noticing qualities in that person, and a relation between that person and the whole of existence, that are impossible to know without being in a poetically inspired state of mind.
  • An Eastern monk, deep in meditation, suddenly perceives the visible world as empty and void. This meditator is not noticing any additional objects besides the ones in the visible world. Instead, he is noticing a set of qualities in those objects - qualities which, in everyday life, often get ignored. All objects in our familiar world are, in a way, flimsy. They are temporary and are dependent on other things; they are small compared to the whole of existence. Normally we notice the solidity and durability of objects - "positive" qualities. We tend to ignore the other, "negative" qualities. However, an observer in a certain frame of mind may be acutely aware of the negative qualities and unaware of their opposites - making familiar objects seem like insubstantial phantoms. Our normal, "positive" perspective is right - but this other, "negative" perspective also is right. The two perspectives just emphasize different aspects of things.

In each of these examples - those of the nature poet, the religious mystic, the romantic poet, and the meditator - a special experience occurs. In each of these experiences, what is important is the perception of new qualities and relations. All of these experiences can occur without the perception of any new particular objects. One doesn't have to see angels or devils or hear supernatural voices to have these experiences. Some people might not want to call these four examples "religious experiences." Yet there is no doubt that these experiences are "spiritual" in a broad, nonsectarian, and true sense of that word.

Do these real spiritual experiences prove the existence of the supernatural? Perhaps not - but they prove something far better.

We can't infer the existence of the supernatural from these experiences. Why? Because the qualities and relations disclosed in the experiences may, for all we know, fit into the framework of nature. Even if we don't currently know how to understand them as part of nature, we have no compelling reason to assume that this can't be done. (Labeling something "supernatural" is always a questionable move, because we can't know in advance that the "supernatural" thing won't someday be viewed as part of nature.) Therefore, these spiritual experiences don't settle the question of the reality of the supernatural. What these experiences do prove is that there are qualities and relations in the world that aren't part of our normal, everyday experience. To put it bluntly, the natural world has spiritual qualities as well as physical ones - and spiritual experience attests to the existence of these qualities, whether or not we believe in the supernatural or in religion.

In other words, spiritual experiences establish the reality of the spiritual features of the world. They do not tell us whether those features are natural or supernatural - so they don't rule out either naturalism or supernaturalism. (We might still be able to learn something from so-called experiences of the supernatural, even if we don't believe the experiences. I'll discuss that possibility in a footnote [1]).

The big question about these experiences is whether the qualities and relations they disclose are real. I've already presented my detailed answer to this question elsewhere (here and here), so I'll just summarize it here. The question really is two questions:

  1. Are these qualities and relations themselves real? (For example: is the quality of ultimate beauty, which the nature poet found in a natural landscape, a real quality? Is there really such a quality, or is this quality merely illusory?) [2]
  2. If the qualities and relations themselves are real, do things really have these qualities and relations? (For example: does the natural landscape, in which the nature poet found ultimate beauty, really have the quality of ultimate beauty? Or does it only seem to have that quality?)

Here are the short answers:

  1. Yes, these qualities and relations are real. At least they are as real as all familiar qualities and relations. Even if people experience these qualities and relations only in certain mental states, the qualities and relations themselves still are real.
  2. Yes, things really have these qualities and relations. The fact that you have to be in a certain mental state to perceive the qualities and relations doesn't change this in the least. Qualities like beauty and meaning are observer-dependent qualities. There is nothing fishy about such qualities; scientists often use other qualities of this kind, though not under that name. Observer-dependent qualities and relations can be important features of the world.

For the long answers, and the rational arguments supporting them, see here and here.

(Someone might want to argue that there are real spiritual experiences of other kinds besides the ones I have described here. I haven't ruled this out; I'm not going to comment on this question one way or the other. The class of experiences I have described here seems to encompass the most important kinds of spiritual experience.)

The upshot of all this is that some spiritual experiences are trustworthy. These experiences can be used as a way of knowing spiritual realities. The spiritual realities we find in this way are not supernatural (or at least we have no compelling reason to think that they are). Instead, they are features of the natural world - every bit as real as more familiar features, like the mass of the electron or the liquidity of water.

This means that many of the central insights of the nature mystics, religious mystics, and visionary poets are right. Like all thinkers, these visionaries made mistakes - especially when they went beyond their data and assumed their experiences were supernatural. However, these mistakes do not shed any doubt on these thinkers' greatest contribution: the exploration of the spiritual features that the human mind can discover in the world.



[1] It's possible that a person having a superficial "religious" vision, like seeing a physical angel with wings, might feel the presence of real spiritual qualities in that imagined being. In this case, the superficial experience is hallucinatory, but a real spiritual experience is occurring at the same time. The idea of an imaginary being - perhaps best understood as an abstraction similar to a character in a story - might serve as the basis for a real spiritual experience. This, I think, is what happens with those religious poets who have poetic insights but also have visions of beings with forms. The hallucinatory nature of the visions doesn't invalidate the spiritual experience - but we should be careful to separate the real experience from the untrustworthy part.

[2] In this post I am deliberately avoiding the old philosophical debate about the reality of qualities and relations. As I've said before in several places, I think we should consider qualities and relations real, though not in the same way that concrete objects are real. However, this debate doesn't make or break the present post. For now, the important issue is whether spiritual qualities and relations "exist" in the same sense that we have in mind when we say that familiar qualities and relations "exist."

posted at: 23:09 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Mind Is to Brain as Digestion Is to Digestive Tract. Oh, Really?

There is an old philosophical chestnut that says that the mind is to the brain as digestion is to the digestive tract. The underlying thought is clear: why should we regard the mind as something "special," over and above the brain, when we wouldn't regard digestion as something over and above the digestive organs?

The best reply to this chestnut is simple but surprising: digestion is something over and above the digestive tract. Your digestion - what you refer to when you say things like "I have a slow digestion" or "my digestion is good today" - is not merely part of your digestive tract. Instead, it is a feature of your digestive tract. It is what philosophers call an abstract entity. A feature of a thing is not identical to the thing. Thus, your digestion is not identical to your digestive tract - for the same reason that the mass of an electron is not the same as an electron, or that the shape of a window is not the same item as the window.

The reason the digestion-digestive tract difference is unlike the mind-brain difference is that nothing interesting follows from the digestion-digestive tract difference. The fact that the digestion is different from the digestive tract doesn't tell us anything new about the nature of digestion or of ourselves. It tells us no more than we already know when we admit that the shape of a window is not identical to the window. It is a near-trivial logical fact.

However, in the case of the mind (which is a feature or set of features of the brain), the difference between mind and brain does imply something interesting. Unlike digestion, the mind is associated in a distinctive way with a large domain of other abstract entities. These other entities are the contents of consciousness, which make up what we think of as our inner world. The fact that we possess this inner, abstract "world" has a drastic bearing on who we are as individuals and as a species. It makes the difference between a conscious observer and a mere nonconscious thing. Once we face the fact that this inner world exists, we realize that minds and selves are not just lumps of matter, even if they are only features of the brain. What is more, we cannot understand the mind without taking the inner world into account. If we ignore the contents of consciousness, we miss what is most essential to the mind.

With digestion it is different. Once we know the physical mechanisms of digestion, there is essentially nothing left to understand about the nature of digestion. Even if we admit that digestion is something distinct from the digestive tract, this fact doesn't help us understand digestion. We learn no more that way than we already knew when we realized that the mass of an electron is not an electron, or the color of a stone is not the same as the stone. The distinctness of digestion from digestive tract is, as I have said, a near-trivial logical fact. However, if we don't pay attention to the complex abstract features of the brain (specifically mental contents), then we don't really have any idea of what a mind is. We miss the important aspects of the mind.

This, in brief, is why the old analogy between digestion and mind fails.

The same argument works against any analogy that says "Why should I think my mind is distinct from my brain, when my [fill in name of body function] isn't distinct from my [fill in name of organ]?" The analogy fails for the same reasons.

posted at: 23:04 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry

Sat, 01 May 2010

Am I Really Defending Religion?

Some readers of my writings might wonder whether I am defending religion or attacking it. I can see how someone might be unsure about this.

On the one hand, I have argued that the cosmos has a spiritual aspect - an aspect that is real, not merely imaginary. On the other hand, I am doubtful about anything labeled "supernatural."

On the one hand, I have criticized several common religious beliefs, and I rely on reason instead of faith to support my opinions. On the other hand, I have said that the essential truths of religion are valid and should be preserved.

On the one hand, I have argued that there is an ultimate being that can sensibly be called "God." On the other hand, I have said that I don't fit the definition of a "theist."

So, which am I - a defender of religion, or a critic?

The answer is that I am a defender of what is true and sensible in all religions, but a critic of the mistakes made in the name of religion. Religion, like all human institutions, is full of errors that result from human folly. Some of what passes for "religion" today is half true at best, sheer superstition at worst. However, that doesn't mean that religion itself is bad, or that religion can't change for the better. I disagree fervently with fundamentalism. I even disagree with some of the ideas of more moderate forms of religion. But I am not going to deny probable truth where I find it. And often I find it in the world's religious teachings.

Here are a few of the points where religion gets it right.

Human beings are more than just blobs of matter. Our existence is something more than the existence of a material body. We have characteristics that give us worth and dignity. We even have some characteristics that pass beyond what's normally called the "physical." I disagree with many religious sects in that I don't think any of this is "supernatural." However, the religions are perfectly right when they claim that we are more than just our bodies. And the fact that our minds are products of our brains doesn't change this in the least.

The physical universe is full of meaning. It might not have a prearranged purpose imposed from outside - but still it has real meaning that is not just a product of our imaginations. The meaning of existence is much more than the imaginary, illusory "meaning" that existentialists and hardcore atheists pretend to "find" in things. When a child is saved from cancer, that event really is meaningful. It really matters. It doesn't only matter to you, and it doesn't only matter to me - it really does matter, period. Some things really matter and really are meaningful. They seem meaningful to us, but they are objectively meaningful too. Meaning is much more than a matter of opinion.

Goodness is objectively real. There are events and acts that really are good, and other events and acts that really are bad. An act of genocide is bad; an act of saving a child from cancer is good. These acts are not just good or bad in your opinion or in my opinion. They really are good or bad. Their value or disvalue is objective. What is more, the ideas of good and bad are more than just resultants of our evolutionary history. Some modern authors have claimed we have evolved a social tendency to be nice or to cooperate. Our tendency to behave morally may well have come from such sources. (After all, it must have come from somewhere - and we did arise from evolution.) However, that is not all there is to morality. There also are objective facts about what is moral. Perhaps morality was not passed down to us from above, as many religions say it was. Perhaps it comes from within us instead. Even objective moral values can be natural. But regardless of these details, there are objective moral facts.

Beauty, like goodness, is objectively real. It might seem strange to think of beauty as a religious topic. Some religions don't bother much about beauty, and some don't even seem to like it. Of course, many other religions do appreciate beauty, and religious art pervades many faiths. Beauty is relevant to all religions because it is an important part of the meaning of existence - and because some of the more interesting poets and artists found spiritual insight in it. Beauty is a notoriously personal phenomenon ("in the eye of the beholder" as the saying goes), but that is only because you have to be in the right state of mind to behold it. The beauty is really there; it's not just an illusion. When poets sing the glories of the dawn, the beloved, or the starlight, they are not merely expressing illusory private feelings. They are not merely creating an enjoyable combination of words. Instead, they are actually revealing new knowledge - penetrating into reality in ways that only a poetically opened human mind can do. The knowledge they gain is, at very least, knowledge about the felt features of the world, and about other ways of seeing the world that may be just as "true" as the usual, everyday ways. Nothing in this special knowledge contradicts science or reason - but poetry and the other arts can reveal knowledge that science, with its objective methods, cannot reach.

Beauty, goodness and meaning are real spiritual features of things and of the world. The universe, though perhaps made only of physical substance, is not only physical; it also has these spiritual features. Behind these features is another, deeper stratum: something that could be called the supreme spiritual reality. This is not a being outside of nature, but an all-encompassing whole, containing natural things, relationships, and values, that is the summit of goodness and beauty. It is not just a poetical name for the physical universe. You might think of it as the best and finest aspect of the physical/spiritual cosmos in which we live. It is the kind of entity in which the poet's consciousness can find its long-sought ideal.

It is this entity that I, in my previous writings, have called "God." Some believers (and atheists also) might not be happy with my use of this term. This God is not much like the picture of a crudely humanoid God that some religions hold and that atheists love to deny. Some of the God-figures of religions are unkind and all too fallible. They don't even come close to being ideally good and beautiful. But setting aside those erroneous God-images, we find that the supreme spiritual reality has the most important features of the God worshipped by good-hearted believers. The religions are right when they claim that an ideal, perfect being exists. They are only wrong about the details of that being - including their assumption that God can only be supernatural.

Human beings are more than just bodies. Existence has real meaning and contains real values. There is a supreme spiritual reality that exemplifies those values. These three ideas are among the most essential concepts of religion. As I have argued in my previous writings, these ideas have rational support. You can find them believable on rational grounds, without the use of faith. It is these ideas that I want to defend - along with anything else true and rationally defensible that can be found in the teachings of religion.

I am not the first to propose that some basic spiritual ideas are rational. In the history of thought there have been many spiritual-minded rationalists. Many noted philosophers, ranging from Leibniz and Spinoza of earlier times to the last century's Howison and Royce, knew that spiritual thought could be placed on a rational basis. One of the causes of the conflict between science and religion is the widespread ignorance of philosophy among today's scientists and believers. If religion would abandon blind faith and embrace rational exploration, and if scientists would realize that reason includes philosophy as well as science, then the degrading and unnecessary "war" between science and the human spirit might come to an end.

Religion today may consist largely of unjustified assumptions and guesswork, but essential truths still can be found among the doctrines. In its ideas of the soul, objective morality, and God, religion presents us with hints of these truths. The real ideas have been covered over by humanly invented dogmas, but the real ideas still remain true. And no matter what you've heard from ranting fundamentalists or angry atheists, the basic ideas of real religion are fully compatible with reason.



For lengthier discussions of these topics, read the following documents of mine:

    Religion: the Next Version

    God: the Next Version

    Religion section of The Unfinishable Scroll


posted at: 01:49 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

The Hidden Tension Within Belief in God

There is a hidden tension within most religious believers' idea of God. Most believers hold two different concepts of God without realizing it. On the one hand, they believe that God is the creator of the universe. ("Our Maker" is one of the most common designations for God.) On the other hand, they think that God is the supremely good being - a being who is worthy of our highest love, and who, in some sense, loves us. Both of these ideas of God perform functions in the believer's life. When you ask believers who God is, they will likely say "the creator of the world." However, in times of personal crisis, they find solace and strength in the idea of a God who is good - a God who is lovable and who somehow represents love itself.

If you asked an average, good-hearted believer which of these is his or her idea of God, he or she would tell you that God is both of these things. There's no need to decide between the two, because both of them are the same being - God. But what if the believer found out that these two beings - the creator and the supremely good being - were not the same? Which one of them would the believer consider to be "God"?

By asking this question, we pinpoint the tension within the idea of God. The common idea of God is not one idea, but two. And which idea is more fundamental? If the creator and the supremely good being were not the same (or if one or the other did not exist), which one should we call "God"?

We can approach the answer by thinking about the role of God in people's lives at times of crisis. We find that the supremely good being is the more important of the two ideas of God. A soldier who derives strength and comfort from his faith is relying on a supremely good being for emotional support. At the moment of danger, the question of how the universe started really doesn't matter to him. In fact, he probably couldn't care less how the universe started. The important thing is that the thought of a supremely loving God is giving him inner strength. He might also be praying to God for a miracle - suggesting an idea of God closer to the miraculous creator. However, if he experiences a seeming "miracle," it won't really matter to him whether the miracle had natural or supernatural causes. He will see the "hand" of God in it - a sign or reminder of God's goodness - even if a natural explanation is found later on.

This soldier's idea of God is a mixture of creator and supremely good being. However, it is the thought of a supremely good being that ultimately keeps the soldier going. The same can be said for other situations in which belief in God is a help. A parent praying for a sick child couldn't really care less how the universe started. (String theory? Quantum vacuum? Intelligent act? That was a long time ago - what difference does it make right now?) Instead, it is the idea of a supremely good being that gives the parent strength. And although the ability to pray to God for a good outcome is comforting, this comfort doesn't depend on God's ability to violate natural laws. The important thing is that the required "miracle" might happen, either through God's action or with the help of the inner strength and determination that prayer can provide. To pray to God is either to ask for a suspension of natural laws, or to focus one's mind on working for the good outcome that natural laws allow - or both. Either way, prayer is a comforting and potentially beneficial act.

What is it in the idea of God that really matters to people? The idea of a creator is familiar, but it is not as important as it seems. It is the idea of God as a supremely good being that makes all the difference in a caring believer's life.

If it turned out that no one made the universe, would humanity still be able to believe in God? Yes - provided we remembered that the important part of the idea of God is not the creator, but the Supremely Good Being.

If you think there is such a being, then that being can be the focus of your spiritual thoughts and feelings no matter what caused the universe. A believer can see the reflection of that goodness - the metaphorical "hand" of God - in all that is good, regardless of whether life's "miracles" are exceptions to the laws of nature or expressions of them.



God, the Next Version


posted at: 01:46 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry


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