Monthly Archives: April 2014


7524765_sOne of the pithiest statements to come out of any religion is “Atman = Braham,” a Hindu idea which states that the individual soul (Atman) is the same as the universal consciousness (Brahman). In one statement, this gives us the two entities which are the subject matter of spirituality: consciousness and the cosmos. The soul and God. I and Thou. That which experiences, and that which is experienced. These are the two poles of reality, between which everything happens that happens.

A related concept that has helped me to understand what consciousness is and why it cannot be approached as a scientific problem in the usual way is the difference between first person and third person as perspectives. A process in the world or in the imagination can be described in either of these ways (or sometimes in the second person). For example, an emotion in my mind can be described in the third person, as a state or certain activities in my brain, or in terms of my behavior (laughter, tears, etc.). It can also be described in the first person. I felt sad. I felt happy.

An emotion is a conscious process in that the person feeling it is aware of it, but it isn’t consciousness. Neither is a thought or an imagining or a sensation. These are the contents of consciousness: that which is experienced. Consciousness is that which experiences, and it may not be a “thing” as such, but a perspective on all things: specifically, the first-person perspective. Consciousness is subjective experience in the first person.

 Epistemic and Metaphysical Primacy

In philosophy, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Arguably, it’s the most basic of all philosophical schools, because how we know ultimately determines what we can say about what is. Metaphysics is the philosophical study of ultimate reality: what the nature of the world and ourselves is.

There’s a conflict or tension between the two when it comes to consciousness and the first-person versus the third-person world. Epistemically, the first person is primary. Everything we know, we know because we experience the world subjectively in the first person. Our concept of objective reality, which is to say, of reality in the third person, is built by reasoning inductively from multiple subjective first-person perceptions. But we tend instinctively and as a practical matter to regard this constructed third-person world as “real.” Certainly it rewards us for treating it seriously, and its regularities as independent of what we think, want, or hope.

Materialism is a philosophical position that regards the objective world in the third person as metaphysically primary even though it is epistemically derivative and secondary. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would imply that consciousness — subjective experience in the first person — can be explained in terms of some process observed in the third person.

The problem there is that we cannot observe consciousness in the third person. We can only experience it in the first person. We assume its existence in other people (because otherwise we become antisocial and a little crazy), but this assumption is reasonable only because we spend our whole lives in the first person and project onto beings similar to ourselves in some ways this primary, fundamental characteristic of experiencing the world in the first person just as we do ourselves. (Or as I do, and as I assume you do, because I don’t want to become antisocial and a little crazy.) In the third person world, we see no sign of consciousness and wouldn’t even know what to look for as such a sign.

All of the causation that we observe in the objective third-person world is third-person to third-person. That is to say, we observe a process in the third person, and it produces some effect that is also observed in the third person. Getting from that to a first-person perspective is logically nonsensical. Not only can no evidence be shown for such a process, but it isn’t even possible to coherently describe it. This is true of nothing else in the world whatsoever. Even with a lack of any good information, our primitive ancestors were able to come up with some kind of coherent (even if often factually wrong) explanation for the third-person phenomena around them. Explaining sunrise and sunset as the God Apollo driving his fiery chariot across the heavens is quite wrong in terms of facts, but it’s coherent and makes sense, and the same is true of the more involved and complex and data-rich Ptolemaic cosmology, or that of Copernicus which was almost right. The ancients didn’t know why the sun rose and set, but they were still able to come up with a coherent idea. There is no similarly coherent idea that allows us to travel logically from the third to the first person.

The Materialist Dilemma

This puts materialism in a difficult position. It’s a tenable philosophical position as long as we stay a reasonable distance from consciousness, the epistemic center. While we’re studying nonliving physical and chemical processes, it presents no difficulties at all (that we can see — although in fact, these must also be incomplete). When we move to studying life, we begin to encounter greater uncertainty precisely because many living things are conscious, or we assume so, but even so all of the observable processes of life in the third person can be accounted for without leaving the bounds of materialism. The only problem is that life has something about it that isn’t observable in the third person: consciousness. As long as we forget about consciousness and concentrate on other things, measurable and observable things, we’re fine, although even then, there’s a nagging sense that we’re missing something important. And indeed we are.

Move into the arena of psychology and the materialist dilemma becomes more acute and obvious. Here, we are very close to consciousness itself, and the failure to come to grips with that subject is hard to ignore. Psychology does present plenty of questions that are strictly third-person and can be approached from a materialist perspective, so it’s not as if psychologists have no puzzles to occupy them, but it’s highly counterintuitive to suppose that the whole of the human mind can be explained in terms of behavior and neurological processes, when these leave unexplained the very thing that most of us think of when we hear the word “mind”: conscious experience.

In the end, we are forced to conclude that materialism, however useful it may be for many practical purposes, is incorrect. The material world, which is epistemically secondary, is metaphysically secondary as well. It does not exist independent of consciousness. It is, in fact, an interaction between consciousness and the mysterious, unknowable world-in-itself. Conscious experience is real. Everything else is a construct of the mind that may help us to understand the regularities in what we experience, but is not, itself, reality.

 The Problem and the Solution

The problem is that consciousness itself, the epistemic core of our world, that which experiences, cannot be observed in the third person. It is experience in the first person, and that means it can be understood only in the first person. It’s impossible to understand consciousness from an attitude of objective detachment, such as is appropriate for science. You can’t stand back and look at consciousness. You must plunge in and be it. The only approach that works is immersive, not detached.

On the other hand, a form of detachment does allow consciousness to be separated from all of the materials we are conscious of, and with which we tend to (falsely) identify: thoughts, feelings, sensation, imagination, memory, personality — all of the psychic planetary bodies that orbit consciousness closely and confuse us as to who and what we really are. Doing this is a spiritual technique, a meditative technique. And that is why I say that consciousness is half of the subject matter of spirituality.

The other half will be the subject of next weeks blog entry.

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The End of “Religions” (More Thoughts)

11450442_sIn my last post on this subject, I presented a passage from my novel in progress where two characters were talking about it. The subject merits a bit more — I won’t say serious, because I take my fiction very seriously — but real-world and scholarly treatment.

Is there any evidence that the change I’m predicting here, the end of discrete religions and the transformation of religious thought into a marketplace of ideas like other areas of discourse and opinion, is happening? Yes, there is.

The Pew Research Center conducted a poll of religious affiliation worldwide and in the United States and found a lot of movement. Some of the interesting findings involve how many Americans change the religion in which they were raised. People who were raised Catholic, for example, drop out of the Church enough that some ten percent of the U.S. population is “former Catholic.” The Church has maintained its numbers and shows a stable percentage of the population as members only because of the disproportionate number of immigrants who are Catholic (due of course to the fact that such a large percentage of immigrants to the U.S. come from Latin America). The Catholic Church in the United States is becoming more Hispanic as time goes by. Other churches have shown similar patterns of change.

The biggest growth category is the “unaffiliated,” those who don’t subscribe to any particular religion. What’s more, this category shows a clear generational shift. The overall unaffiliated roster is 16.1% of the U.S. population, but among those 18-29 it is one in four. Lest we think that this means people are abandoning religion and becoming atheists, though, it should be noted that only 25% of the unaffiliated say that they are atheist or agnostic, representing a total of 4% of the population. The rest are religious believers, but don’t identify with any particular religious tradition.

Also of interest is the non-dogmatic approach of most people even among those who do label themselves as belonging to a particular religion. A majority of believers in every single religion surveyed (except for Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) say that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and that “there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.” The percentages are smaller for Evangelicals and Muslims than for Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and mainline Protestants, as one might expect, but a majority of Evangelicals and Muslims (57% and 56%, respectively) affirm religious pluralism. (The overall percentage among the affiliated was 70. One would, of course, expect this number to approach 100% among the unaffiliated.) This is, of course, not in accord with the official teachings of Evangelical Christianity (although it is with Islam, or may be depending on the interpretation of the word “many”), showing that a lot of people who belong to Evangelical churches have ideas not entirely in agreement with those official teachings.

What is happening here? I believe there are two factors involved. One of them is religious freedom and the fact that the United States has no established religion and the Constitution forbids both this and the infringement of religious liberty. But that factor goes back to 1789, and builds on British concepts of free religion that are even older, so it’s nothing new. What is new is the Internet. Religious believers today are confronted with a vast storm of religious ideas and discourse. If one is curious about the teachings of Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, information is only a Google search away. It’s much more difficult, if not impossible, to think of other religions in stereotypes; one must be highly motivated to do so (the human mind can believe almost anything in the grip of powerful emotions).

What Makes a Person Religious?

Before going into this, I should clarify that I am using the word “religious” here in a slightly different way than Pew does. I’m not talking about belonging to a religious organization or attending services regularly. I’m talking about beliefs and attitudes affirming a spiritual connection to the cosmos, or to a metaphor or personalization for the cosmos such as God or gods. This encompasses non-traditional as well as traditional religious belief and practice.

With that out of the way, why does a person believe and practice religion? I believe it’s one or both of two things: spiritual experience and religious indoctrination. The first of those must be present to at least a small degree, but in some cases the second may be the more important, and when it comes to belief that one particular religion is superior to others, the second is always more important as a cause.

What happens when the indoctrination becomes less effective, when a person is easily exposed to diverse beliefs and arguments against the teachings of his “home faith”? At the extreme, if the effect of indoctrination is reduced to nothing, only religious experience will motivate the person to spiritual belief and practice. What happens then depends on how strong the impact of spiritual experience is on the person. If it is very strong, as it is for me, then the person will remain (or become, as I did — I was raised in an atheist household) deeply spiritual or religious, but eschew orthodoxy of any kind. Such a person will either belong to a religious organization for social reasons rather than those of doctrinal agreement, or else be one of the unaffiliated religious.

If the effect of religious or spiritual experience is weaker, the person may drop most religious belief and practice, either becoming atheist or agnostic, or acknowledging the possible (or even probable) existence of some vaguely-understood higher power, but without having it be important in their lives.

What Makes a Person Atheist?

Again, I should clarify that by “atheist” in this context, I mean someone who rejects spirituality in his or her own life and does not believe in the existence of any higher power, whether personalized or otherwise. This would exclude the Buddha and myself. He did not, and I do not, believe in the ultimate existence of a personal God, and so by a looser definition either of us could be considered an atheist, but he was deeply spiritual, as am I, so I will not use that label for myself in this context.

Here again, I believe there are two factors involved. One of those is lack of spiritual experience, or very weak and infrequent spiritual experience that is not compelling. The other is a negative reaction to the teachings of one or more religions, particularly the more authoritarian versions. Both of these factors must be present to some degree in order for a person to definitely affirm the non-existence of God or gods and the invalidity of spiritual approaches to life. The first alone is enough for a person to be irreligious in practice and to have spiritual activity be unimportant in his life, but not enough to draw a conclusion of that kind. The aggressive, belligerent so-called “New Atheists” in particular are reacting to the abuses committed by organized religion throughout history and the brow-beating and political activity, offensive to those who value liberty and pluralism, of some of them today.

What happens as the Internet increases the spread and interaction of religious ideas and the power of religious doctrine wanes? Initially, those who have always been angry about that power will probably smell the blood in the water and be encouraged to become more vocal and active, as we have seen, but eventually the waning of religious authority makes such views seem increasingly silly, and a backlash is provoked as part of the ongoing dialogue, and we already see that happening. Eventually, atheism in this sense of dismissing all spirituality will become as passé as religious authority itself.

What Makes a Person a Fanatic?

What about the increase in recent decades in religious extremism, most visibly Christian and Muslim but arising in other religious contexts as well? This is, I believe, a reaction to the new environment in which religious orthodoxy is seriously threatened. It’s instinctive, when the core of one’s identity is under siege, to circle the wagons and lash out at perceived enemies, and a certain percentage (a small one, thankfully) of believers will take physical action along those lines, while a great many more will organize politically and attempt to influence the tide of time through government action. As the power of religious organizations and orthodoxy fades, we should for a while see a great deal of this sort of thing, but like the New Atheism it will eventually fade away. The future is a free marketplace of religious ideas with most or all people being unaffiliated, and there is no way to forestall that future except by undermining civilization itself.

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Moral Clarity, Theism, and the Power of the Will

10034764_sI had an encounter a while back with someone who had an allergy to moral clarity. This person preferred to see all things in shades of gray, whereas I do not: I’m definitely a black-and-white kind of guy. That doesn’t mean I subscribe to any predigested codes of morality, just that I’m clear, in any given situation, about what should or should not be done. Needless to say, this person and I didn’t hit it off well.

But it got me thinking about morality in general, religion as it impacts morality, who makes the judgment about what is right and what is wrong, what I see as the fundamental theistic mistake about morality, and the emergent shades-of-gray mistake that can arise in reaction to it. Good fodder for a blog post, I thought!

I stuck a bit of this into a conversation between two characters in Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering, which is my current novel in progress. Here’s what they had to say:

“Morality — that was maybe one of the biggest mistakes the old religions made. And human religions still do.”

“Morality is a mistake?”

“Attributing it to God or the cosmos or whatever is a mistake. Morality is a human concern. Or an Andol concern. Or even a Droon concern, though I can’t say I like where they’ve gone with it. We do what we judge to be good. Or we fail to do it. The universe doesn’t judge. It loves all equally, giving birth to all things, and taking all things back into itself after their time is done.

“So we’re on our own.”

“When it comes to making moral judgments, yes, we are.”

Now here’s the thing. As children, we have moral judgments made for us by our parents, and this sets a certain paradigm of morality coming from an outside source of authority. Many religious doctrines maintain that paradigm, putting God in the place of the parents for adults. The particulars differ from childhood, but the basic pattern remains constant, in that right and wrong are determined by an outside source. And that is what I call the theistic moral error.

This is related to the so-called “problem of evil.” How can God be at once omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good, when evil exists in the world? All answers to this problem that try to preserve this understanding of God as perfectly good either end up in self-contradiction (God can d0 anything, but somehow cannot create intelligent beings capable of free will that are not inclined to do evil, or a world rife with natural horrors) or lose any meaningful conception of good and evil (“good” is defined as “God’s will,” no matter how evil it might seem to human perception).

The real answer, unacceptable as many theists find it, is that the Cosmos is not “perfectly good.” Good and evil arise from human judgment, not from cosmic verities. God isn’t concerned with morality. God is beyond good and evil. The cosmos is not there for us to judge. (Which doesn’t say that we can’t work to amend it according to perceived need.)

In fact, the Book of Job has something to say about this. God in that poet’s vision clearly asserts that he is beyond human values, as he is beyond human understanding.

But if morality doesn’t come from God/the Cosmos, where does it come from? Does this mean that there are no clear moral principles at all, and that everything is, as some think when they have liberated themselves from the restrictive and often hypocritical moral codes of their childhood, sometimes imposed by abusive parents, all gray?

No. Or not in my opinion. Because although morality is, as my character asserts, a human concern rather than that of the Cosmos, it is a human concern. We do make moral judgments. It’s part of our nature to decide what actions are good and what are evil, to reward and punish accordingly, to laud or condemn. To refuse to do so in reaction to realizing that the Cosmos isn’t concerned with such things, is at least as big an error as the one that claimed Cosmic backing for one’s moral judgments in the first place.

The fact that God can’t be bothered sending people to Hell for sin doesn’t leave people free to sin. The fact that there are no “absolutes” of morality doesn’t mean that a bad person may do as he pleases in his selfishness and not be condemned. It just means he won’t be condemned by the Cosmos. He can still be condemned by me. And by other human beings, and by society itself, if I can persuade others to join me in condemning that behavior. This is the power of the will, requiring no divine backing, asserting itself in its own forcefulness. Core values are fundamentally non-rational, but they are widely shared, and reasoning from them to moral conclusions can allow for persuasion — and that is as effective as the nonexistent judgment of God; indeed, it is the only authority morality has ever had, and the only authority it has ever needed.

That morality is “relative” doesn’t mean that pursuit of self-interest without any moral concerns at all, is pursuit of “private morality.” It is an assertion, rather, that there is no morality, which is not the case. There is: we create it. We need no outside authority for this. We are adults. We make the judgments ourselves. We always did; the idea that God gave them to us was always a delusion. The loss of that delusion doesn’t change anything of significance. We still make the judgments. We simply stop deluding ourselves about where they come from. This does leave us free to change our moral values if circumstances seem to dictate this, as for example prevailing sexual morality has changed over the last few centuries from something oriented towards protecting men’s ownership of their female property to something oriented towards protecting right of consent/refusal and personal integrity and respect. But it does not mean “anything goes.”

Morality is an important part of maintaining civilization and getting along with each other. Making moral judgments is a part of what it means to be human. Ceasing to do so isn’t liberating. It’s dehumanizing.

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