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materialist spirituality, part 3

Ok, continuing my post on materialist spirituality, begun in part 1 and part 2. The main thing I didn't get to in part 2 was my thoughts about "useful fictions". As many of you know, one of the reasons my journal is named spoonless is because I view a lot of objects in the everyday world, such as spoons, as "useful fictions"... concepts we come up with to capture the essence of some phenomenon in a way that makes it easy to use mentally, but in the process leaving out a lot of the complexity of what's really going on. Such fictions then break down when you encounter situations where you realize it's not really a distinct object and has many more properties than our naive concept entails (for instance, in the case of the spoon you could melt it down or look at it with a microscope and see the lattice structure with its somewhat ill-defined boundaries and impurities). No spoonlike state of matter is exactly like the concept of spoon we have, which only exists in the minds of humans.

Ultimately, spoons can be eliminated in favor of a more fundamental and precise theory which takes into account the individual motion of the atoms in the metal composing the "spoon" as well as the gas (air) or liquid (milk?) surrounding it. Atomic theory in turn can then be eliminated in favor of an even deeper, more precise theory of elementary particle physics (quantum field theory). Perhaps physicists will succeed soon in eliminating this theory in favor of a theory of strings, branes, or other objects. Is there a level at which we will eventually get to "real" objects rather than mental fictions? I don't know the answer to that, although I occasionally take guesses--many physicists and philosophers are antirealists, while others are realists. But whether or not there is one truly non-fictitious ultimate framework, thinking along these lines in the context of religion is something I hadn't really done until the past year or two and has given me some interesting new thoughts. (Well, I'd thought plenty about the "fiction" part of reliigon, but not about the "useful" part).

One of the things that has really amazed me, the more physics I learn, as well as the more I come into contact with people of different worldviews and perspectives is just how far you can get with flawed assumptions in the fundamental framework you think in. For example, much of classical physics (Galileo, Newton, etc.) is still entirely valid, even though there were some key assumptions in the framework they used to understand reality that were flawed. None of that changes the validity of the work they did and the knowledge they gained in doing it, as is evidenced by the fact it is still the first thing taught in any university physics undergraduate program. (And no, it's not just taught for historical reasons, it's because it's something physicists still use every day to do real calculations.) While some of the assumptions they had were false (absolute time, instantaneous action at a distance, the apparent solidity of objects), the knowledge they gained is every bit as real as any other piece of knowledge we've gained afterwards. That is, the wrongness of their framework did not change the usefulness of their theories (except in the rare circumstances where you get into a regime they were unable to explore in the century they lived).

Often, I've discovered that I can learn something useful from someone whose fundamental framework I disagree with, or identify with parts of what they're saying even though I interpret what they're telling me in a very different context. For instance, let's say someone tells me that God came down from heaven and talked to them and told them that they needed to turn their life around, and stop being mean to people. If I'm in a foul mood, or they're getting on my nerves, I can take the easy way out and say "that's silly... God doesn't exist, and even if she did she wouldn't come down and talk to you personally. You're hallucinating, go get your head examined." However, if I'm in a more understanding mood, I can ignore the fact that we have very different frameworks for understanding reality, and instead listen to the useful part of what they're saying rather than focusing on the part I happen to know is fictitious. I can understand that in this case, God is a metaphor for their conscience, and I've had very similar conversations with myself and been in the exact same situation. I just didn't interpret it in the same way, and wouldn't explain it in that way to anyone. As long as you can find an isomorphism between the structure of relations within two different frameworks, you can compare knowledge within them even if one (or both) of those frameworks has huge problems with it.

Different people adopt different metaphysical frameworks for different reasons, whether they're aware of these reasons or not. As I mentioned in part 2, I think most people put more emphasis on happiness than truth in deciding what sort of framework they're going to use. But really, instead of "truth" to be more specific I should say "precision" or "universality", which are the kind of things the framework I believe in does well at. What does it matter to most people whether the framework they're using is compatible with how the Z boson decays in a 1TeV electron-positron collision experiment? Answer: it matters a hell of a lot less than whether the framework they're using is going to win them the respect and understanding of their local community of friends and family, give them psychological comfort, and be simple enough for them to wrap their heads around. These factors weigh a lot more in their subconscious when choosing between two frameworks, for instance when deciding between monism and dualism. Taken to an even more extreme, the effects of science (aside from its technological benefits) on most people are so minimal that a sizeable number of them (including Ben Stein along with 40% of US citizens) still reject even basic scientific facts such as evolution, if it serves the rest of their life better and makes them feel happier.

On the one hand, it's clear that many forms of religious extremism (such as how religion is practiced in the mainstream US, or even worse in the middle East) are very damaging. But on the other hand, not all religious people tend towards extremism. Many religious moderates seem to live happy lives and their false beliefs end up having a net positive effect on them, costing them very little since they never have to deal with or be aware of the limitations of their framework. By analogy, Isaac Newton never had to deal with speeds approaching the speed of light, so he got by with a theory that did perfectly well in describing things that propagate at speeds much slower than light. It should be noted that there is a slight difference here in that the data which would have exposed the limits of Newton's theory was completely unavailable in his day, whereas the data that exposes the limits of most religious frameworks is available today, it's just ignored by nearly anyone who doesn't have to use it directly in their work.

All of this thinking is fine and good to give me an appreciation for why people don't care enough to look into the limits of the fictions they use, and why those fictions can be just as useful for them as the ones that I use. But then the question comes: could I make use of any of the frameworks of religion myself? After all, they've been around a long long time so they must be good for something right? Some of the more moderate religious practitioners say that religion is just something that was invented to capture universal truths about the human psyche. (For instance, my example above of God standing in as a metaphor for the conscience). They cite common themes that come up in all major religions as evidence for this. I mostly agree with that, however what I've realized over the years is that one of the reasons I'm so antireligious is not just that I know that the framework religious people set up is at best a metaphor for something else. It's that whatever that something is it just doesn't really apply to me in most cases. The metaphors of mainstream religion are designed to work for the typical human, and unfortunately I'm just not very typical and have a very different psychology from most people. So while certain aspects of the psyche are almost universal, I don't believe they are universal enough to include me. For instance, I still find it most likely that monotheism, and especially any kind of theism connected with morality, will always seem too silly and irrelevant a concept for me to identify with in any strong way, no matter how metaphorically I interpret it. It's just never rung true for me, which perhaps explains why I rejected the religion I was raised in (Christianity) at such a young age (somewhere between 10 and 12), rather than later after I had more solid knowledge to back up my intuition that it was wrong. The good news is, it's mostly mainstream Western religions that don't ring true for me, even metaphorically. By contrast, I think there are plenty of things I can identify with in certain Eastern religions, occult/magick, and pagan religions. So these are the things I'm interested in pusuing more knowledge in. I do understand now that religion (mild forms of religion, not extreme forms) accomplishes something positive psychologically for people. And different people need different things out of it, which is why there are so many kinds of religion. I still suspect that ultimately, these things can be accomplished without the complicated, ugly fictions religious people invent. However, I'm willing to concede for the time being that we don't know a whole lot about how psychology works, and for now these may be the best tools we have for accomplishing certain psychological feats.

Comments

( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
xleste
Oct. 1st, 2007 08:01 am (UTC)
You might find interesting two books - one is "Maps of Meaning" by Jordan Peterson and the other is "In Over Our Heads" by Robert Kegan that addresses your last paragraph. I'd happily say more, send you articles if I didn't need to scramble to get prepped to leave the country. :p
spoonless
Oct. 2nd, 2007 12:19 am (UTC)
Thanks for the recommendations. They both look interesting.
(no subject) - xleste - Oct. 2nd, 2007 01:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 06:56 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xleste - Oct. 2nd, 2007 02:03 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 06:59 am (UTC) - Expand
paideia
Oct. 1st, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, I think there's a useful distinction to be made between religions as structures inside which people are to operate, and religions as attempts to catalog ways in which to access spirituality, in the form of altered states, psychological peace, and so on.

The former puts the cart before the horse, in my opinion. God said x, y and z, so you must do a, b, and c.

The latter is where the former stems from. Individuals have "spiritual" experiences - visions, energetic shifts, psychological shifts - and then they try to explain how it happened. If a group of people get together and do similar practices and get similar results physically, emotionally, psychologically, they create a system: zen buddhism, charismatic christianity, whatever. Over time, the group coalesces, and a social network forms. Power dynamics within the group become important because everyone wants their own experiences to be validated, or personalities dominate, or there's an outside threat of violence, or whatever. In time, social cohesion, group safety and/or political power within the group takes precedence over individual spiritual experience. Authoritarianism creeps in, power is solidified by saying "God said this" or "this is the ONLY way to do the practice," and you're left with something useless for independent people, and disempowering for authority-minded people.

To the degree one can separate out what the useful practices and approaches are from any individual religion or set of practices, a religion is useful. That there are fictions underlying those practices often has to do with the attempts to codify the pathways to the experiences. Spiritual experiences are inherently subjective (as are drug trips). We have shit that happens in our brains that we can't explain. Sometimes it's more spiritually and psychologically useful not to explain it as it happens, or to worry about whether it fits in with an exisiting worldview.
spoonless
Oct. 1st, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
excellent points!

I do think there is a big distinction between authoritarian/non-authoritarian approaches to religion. And the authoritarian ones do tend to be the ones that really bug me as opposed to the ones that seem relatively harmless. On the other hand, I can see how some people would feel they need more structure in their lives, something to guide them... and they see religion as a means to that end. So it tends to work particularly poorly for people who enjoy taking initiative and being self-guiding. But maybe seeing the non-fit of those types of religions early on has perhaps made me more wary and critical of religion than I should be?
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 2nd, 2007 03:55 am (UTC)
Spiritual experiences are inherently subjective


What experience would you not consider subjective?

Namaste.
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:55 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 2nd, 2007 05:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 06:41 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 2nd, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 3rd, 2007 12:36 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 3rd, 2007 04:36 am (UTC) - Expand
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 2nd, 2007 03:53 am (UTC)
Only a materialist would suggest God = conscience. It seems to be a common enough beginner's mistake though.

Namaste.
spoonless
Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:48 am (UTC)
I could have given a lot of other examples where God stood for other things. But I think that's one of the most common themes I see in most religions. What would you suggest God is?
(no subject) - ankh_f_n_khonsu - Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 2nd, 2007 04:56 am (UTC) - Expand
easwaran
Oct. 2nd, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
You really think that a spoon is just a fiction? "No spoonlike state of matter is exactly like the concept of spoon we have, which only exists in the minds of humans." That seems right to me, but it doesn't seem to mean that spoons don't exist, just that spoons aren't quite what we thought they were. Unless you want to be a complete skeptic and say that "stuff exists" but "atoms don't exist", "electrons don't exist", "branes don't exist", "gravity doesn't exist", and so on for everything we can name.

I think spoons exist, and they are very complex objects that we haven't figured out how to reduce to a complete physical description. Spoons are purely physical, just as the mind is purely physical, but we don't know the details of that reduction. There are some things where it's not clear whether or not they're part of the spoon (say, the oxygen atom that just briefly attaches to a metal ion on the surface before getting released back into the atmosphere, or the part of the probability density function for one of the electrons that is six inches away from the center of the spoon) but other things really are clear cases (the pyramids in Giza are not part of the spoon; a 1 cubic mm section of metal atoms in a lattice near the part where the bowl attaches to the handle is definitely part of the spoon).

I think to discover that there are no spoons, we would have to discover not just that our concept has errors, but that it's so fundamentally confused that there are several different things it could apply to, but it can't apply to all of them. So we discovered that the Lake Champlain monster didn't exist when we realized that the things we had been using the name for weren't much like the thing we thought it was, and also that one was a sturgeon, one was a log, and one was a plastic child's toy used in a hoax. If all the sightings had been caused by a sturgeon, we would say that Champ does exist, and is a fish - but as it is, we say that Champ doesn't exist. I don't expect that spoons will turn out to be like that.
spoonless
Oct. 2nd, 2007 11:15 pm (UTC)

Unless you want to be a complete skeptic and say that "stuff exists" but "atoms don't exist", "electrons don't exist", "branes don't exist", "gravity doesn't exist", and so on for everything we can name.

I do not believe there are any concepts we have which map exactly onto distinct objects in the physical world. (If we include purely mathematical concepts, then I'm agnostic and think that we may have found real objects in some cases.) So in that sense I am a "complete skeptic" about the reality of all the concepts you named. However, I think there are degrees of fictitiousness and degrees of truth. And all of these "approximately exist" in the sense that the concepts do capture a lot of what's really going on. I think ultimately we may find that reality is truly a continuum, and there are no distinct objects out there. Or, we may discover some but I expect them to be of a purely mathematical nature (ie, "non-physical" by most definitions).

When I say spoons don't exist, I just mean in the strictest sense of exist. By the definition I'm using here, in order for something to exist, there has to be a sharp delineation of that something from everything else in the world. And there just isn't in the case of a spoon (or anything else in the physical world that I know of). It does exist in an approximate sense... and I have no objection to giving it a name, as long as most of the experiences we have we can easily throw into the "spoon" or "not spoon" bin. Same goes for any concept.
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Oct. 4th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
spoonless
Oct. 2nd, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC)
Also... I should mention that the concept of a spoon is somewhat subjective. Some people may say a spork is a spoon, and others may say it is its own kind of thing, which is different from a spoon.
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Oct. 4th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 4th, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Oct. 4th, 2007 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Oct. 4th, 2007 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 4th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geheimnisnacht - Oct. 4th, 2007 09:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 4th, 2007 09:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - spoonless - Oct. 4th, 2007 09:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
easwaran
Oct. 2nd, 2007 09:07 pm (UTC)
On another matter, is it really clear that religion consists of useful fictions? I would say it consists of fictions, some of which people manage to make useful, but I would be surprised if any of these fictions turned out to be systematically useful, the way that Newtonian mechanics is.
spoonless
Oct. 2nd, 2007 10:59 pm (UTC)
I think there are two differences here. 1.) the stuff of religion is much more fictitious... that is, it's not even approximately right, and has huge problems with it. And 2.) The usefulness of it is subjective. What works for one person may not work for another. So it's not useful in the same objective way that concepts in science are, but I do think it's true that parts of religion are useful to certain people. The verdict is still out on whether I can find any part that's useful for me, but I'm interesting in looking.
elphie
Nov. 23rd, 2007 08:41 am (UTC)
Hi,

I've really enjoyed reading your noodlings on religion. This is a topic I'm very interested in. I started out as an athiest/skeptic, went on a search for meaning, became neopagan, found it very meaningful, went through a few years of having more mystically oriented beliefs, became disillusioned, moved back to being an atheist leaning agnostic, but I'm still really passionate about trying to distill what is good from spirituality for athiest/agnostic/rational types.

I've taught a class a few times on "mysticism for rationalists" where I attempted to distill what I learned from neopaganism into useful concepts for athiests, I'm on hiatus right now, because I realized I was really reinventing the wheel in so many ways, and I'm currently studying psychology because I want it to be rooted in modern psychological knowledge (and because I want to pursue a career in psychology), and I also am starting to feel like it would be good to incorporate elements of Buddhism as well.

Anyway I'd love to chat with out about all this stuff sometime, its nice to meet you.
spoonless
Nov. 26th, 2007 05:59 am (UTC)
cool! pleased to meet you. I feel like I could really benefit from a "mysticism for rationalists" class.

So you live with all of the other supercool people on Williams Way?
(no subject) - elphie - Nov. 27th, 2007 08:11 am (UTC) - Expand
(Anonymous)
Mar. 28th, 2008 07:21 pm (UTC)
Ayn Rand - by Margaret Patton & William Allan Kritsonis, PhD
Applied Educational Research Journal (AERJ)
22 (3) 2009

Maintaining a System of Intellectual Thinking: Great Minds Think Differently and in Diverse Ways

Margaret Curette Patton
PhD Student in Educational Leadership
College of Education
Prairie View A&M University
Dean of Instruction
Fort Bend Independent School District
Fort Bend, Texas

William Allan Kritsonis, PhD
Professor and Faculty Mentor
PhD Program in Educational Leadership
Prairie View A&M University
Member of the Texas A&M University System
Visiting Lecturer (2005)
Oxford Round Table
University of Oxford, Oxford, England
Distinguished Alumnus (2004)
Central Washington University
College of Education and Professional Studies


ABSTRACT
According to Ayn Rand (1957) in her best seller, Atlas Shrugged, the mind is the most important tool for humanity, and reason is its greatest virtue. This article seeks to uncover the significant aspects of developing and sustaining school-wide reform on creating thinkers. The GREAT MINDS model will clearly outline these vital components. Should students only be exposed to basic content in schools? Of course not, an educator’s job is to teach students how to become self-sufficient learners. In the medical profession, doctors lose their license for malpractice. In the legal profession, attorneys lose their ability to practice law for misconduct. Many times in the education profession, ineffective teachers and administrators continue to teach basic curriculum with no regards to creative thinking for themselves or their students. They behave in this way without fear of losing their job. Wouldn’t this be considered malpractice? Unethical? The crucial goal of the education system is to utilize critical thinkers to create more critical thinkers. According to Ayn Rand (1957) in her best seller, Atlas Shrugged, the mind is the most important tool for humanity, and reason is its greatest virtue. This article seeks to uncover the significant aspects of developing and sustaining school-wide reform on creating thinkers. The GREAT MINDS model will clearly outline these vital components.






( 42 comments — Leave a comment )

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