Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Is Spirituality Irrational?

5 Post author: lisper 09 February 2016 01:42AM

[Originally published at Intentional Insights in response to Religious and Rational]

Spirituality and rationality seem completely opposed. But are they really?

 

To get at this question, let's start with a little thought experiment.  Consider the following two questions:

 

1.  If you were given a choice between reading a physical book (or an e-book) or listening to an audiobook, which would you prefer?

 

2.  If you were given a choice between listening to music, or looking at the grooves of a phonograph record through a microscope, which would you prefer?

 

But I am more interested in the answer to a third question:

 

3.  For which of the first two questions do you have a stronger preference between the two options?

 

Most people will have a stronger preference in the second case than the first.  But why?  Both situations are in some sense the same: there is information being fed into your brain, in one case through your ears and in the other through your eyes.  So why should people's preference for ears be so much stronger in the case of music than books?

 

There is something in the essence of music that is lost in the translation between an audio and a visual rendering.  The same loss happens for words too, but to a much lesser extent.  Subtle shades of emphasis and tone of voice can convey essential information in spoken language. This is one of the reasons that email is so notorious for amplifying misunderstandings.  But the loss in much greater in the case of music.  

 

The same is true for other senses.  Color is one example.  A blind person can abstractly understand what light is, and that color is a byproduct of the wavelength of light, and that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation... yet there is no way for a blind person to experience subjectively the difference between red and blue and green.  But just because some people can't see colors doesn't mean that colors aren't real.

 

The same is true for spiritual experiences.

 

Now, before I expand that thought, I want to give you my bona fides.  I am a committed rationalist, and an atheist (though I don't like to self-identify as an atheist because I'd rather focus on what I *do* believe in rather than what I don't).  So I am not trying to convince you that God exists.  What I want to say is rather that certain kinds of spiritual experiences *might* be more than mere fantasies made up out of whole cloth. If we ignore this possibility we risk shutting ourselves off from a vital part of the human experience.

 

I grew up in the deep south (Kentucky and Tennessee) in a secular Jewish family.  When I was 12 my parents sent me to a Christian summer camp (there were no other kinds in Kentucky back in those days).  After a week of being relentlessly proselytized (read: teased and ostracized), I decided I was tired of being the camp punching bag and so I relented and gave my heart to Jesus.  I prayed, confessed my sins, and just like that I was a member of the club.

 

I experienced a euphoria that I cannot render into words, in exactly the same way that one cannot render into words the subjective experience of listening to music or seeing colors or eating chocolate or having sex.  If you have not experienced these things for yourself, no amount of description can fill the gap.  Of course, you can come to an *intellectual* understanding that "feeling the presence of the holy spirit" has nothing to do with any holy spirit. You can intellectually grasp that it is an internal mental process resulting from (probably) some kind of neurotransmitter released in response to social and internal mental stimulus.  But that won't allow you to understand *what it is like* any more than understanding physics will let you understand what colors look like or what music sounds like.

 

Happily, there are ways to stimulate the subjective experience that I'm describing other than accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Meditation, for example, can produce similar results.  It can be a very powerful experience.  It can even become addictive, almost like a drug.

 

I am not necessarily advocating that you go try to get yourself a hit of religious euphoria (though I wouldn’t discourage you either -- the experience can give you some interesting and useful perspective on life).  Instead, I simply want to convince you to entertain the possibility that people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity.  Religious texts and rituals might be attempts to share real subjective experiences that, in the absence of a detailed modern understanding of neuroscience, can appear to originate from mysterious, subtle external sources.

 

The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot. Such arguments tend to be ineffective, which can be very frustrating for those who advance them. The antidote for this frustration is to realize that spirituality is not about logic.  It's about subjective experiences that not everyone is privy to.  Logic is about looking at the grooves.  Spirituality is about hearing the music.

 

The good news is that adopting science and reason doesn’t mean you have to give up on spirituality any more than you have to give up on music. There are myriad paths to spiritual experience, to a sense of awe and wonder at the grand tapestry of creation, to the essential existential mysteries of life and consciousness, to what religious people call “God.” Walking in the woods. Seeing the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. Gathering with friends to listen to music, or to sing, or simply to share the experience of being alive. Meditation. Any of these can be spiritual experiences if you allow them to be. In this sense, God is everywhere.

 

Comments (429)

Comment author: gjm 09 February 2016 03:38:24PM 13 points [-]

I simply want to convince you to entertain the possibility that people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity.

Why do you think any convincing is necessary?

arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds [...] spirituality is not about logic. It's about subjective experiences [...]

Religious beliefs and subjective experiences are quite separate things, at least in principle. If someone simply says "I went to church and had this amazing experience", I don't think even the strawmanniest Spockiest stereotypical rationalist would have much quarrel with that. But here in the real world, actual religious people tend not just to say "I had this amazing experience" but to go further and say "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of all things seen and unseen, and in one Lord Jesus Christ", or "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one", or whatever.

(They not infrequently go further still and say "you must do X and not do Y, because God says so", or attempt to get laws made requiring X and forbidding Y, or in very extreme cases blow things up in an attempt to intimidate people into doing X rather than Y, and that sort of behaviour tends to be what provokes the louder sort of unbeliever, rather than mere professions of belief. But let's ignore that for now.)

So, consider someone who has these amazing experiences and reacts to them by (not merely appreciating the experiences, but) declaring that those experiences give him special insight into the nature of reality, and professing belief in a particular religion's doctrines. There are (crudely) three possibilities.

  • Perhaps he means what he says at something like face value: he actually intends to make claims about how the actual world actually is.
    • In this case, arguing against those claims isn't a matter of misunderstanding What Spirituality Is About; our hypothetical religious person really is making (alleged) factual claims which may be right or wrong, supported or undermined by the evidence, etc., and argument is an appropriate response (at least in some contexts).
  • Or perhaps he doesn't mean to make actual factual claims; when he says "I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church" he really means "I had an experience where I felt like I was one with the universe"; when he says "Muhammad is the messenger of God" he really means "something ineffably indescribable happened to me".
    • In this case, indeed arguing against the claims he makes may be a mistake. But it might be perfectly reasonable to argue against using those claims to express those experiences. Because, really, take a look at typical religious professions of faith, theological writings, etc.; do they look to you like good ways of expressing ineffable overwhelming religious experiences? They don't to me.
  • Or, finally, perhaps he actually doesn't make those claims at all; or, at most, he makes them when required to make them by some ritual he participates in, and otherwise refrains.
    • In this case, finally, I do agree: the usual sort of religious argument may be entirely irrelevant to this person. But it seems to me that (1) most people who profess religious belief are not like this person, and (2) most people who engage in argument against religious beliefs are, most of the time, not doing so in discussion with someone like this.

In this sense, God is everywhere.

In this sense, we are all Spartacus. In this sense, the Singularity is here. In this sense, I am the walrus.

Comment author: torekp 07 March 2016 10:52:35PM 2 points [-]

Religious beliefs and subjective experiences are quite separate things

I would like to take this opportunity to note that "religious beliefs" is not redundant; that belief is not even a particularly important part of many religions. Not that you said anything to the contrary. But to a lot of readers of this site, Bible-thumping Christians, to whom belief is paramount, are over-represented in the mental prototype of "religion".

Comment author: gjm 08 March 2016 08:51:14AM 0 points [-]

Yup, all agreed.

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 05:29:34PM 2 points [-]

But here in the real world, actual religious people tend not just to say "I had this amazing experience" but to go further and say "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of all things seen and unseen, and in one Lord Jesus Christ"

Yes, of course I don't deny that. The point is that the reason that they say these things (and maybe even actually believe these things) is because of subjective experiences that they have personally experienced which people who do not believe have not had (and who do not believe because they have not had those subjective experiences).

In this sense, we are all Spartacus.

This piece was originally written for a different audience than the hard-core rationalists that hang out here on Less Wrong. I probably should have taken that sentence out before posting it here. Sorry about that.

Comment author: gjm 09 February 2016 08:41:06PM 1 point [-]

The point is that the reason [...]

As I've remarked elsewhere in the thread, the fact (when it is one) that their belief is based on their subjective experiences is no reason why it shouldn't be the subject of argument. Neither does that fact mean that their belief isn't the result of "indoctrination or stupidity". (Of course it needn't be. But if you interpret a euphoric altered-consciousness experience as indicating the presence of a god who, say, is composed in a mysterious way of three persons in a single substance, disapproves of gay sex, approves of forgiveness, and walked the earth a couple of thousand years ago until he got nailed to a tree, that can be the result of indoctrination or stupidity just as easily as if you draw the same conclusions from the beauty of the natural world or from the presence of claims along those lines in a particular set of old documents.)

Sorry about that.

It's OK. I hope you didn't mind my snarkiness too much.

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 09:36:58PM 2 points [-]

I think an interesting implication of this piece is that instead of arguing about the reality of the experiences of religious people, it would be helpful to empathize with religious people about their experiences, and even use the term "spiritual" if it resonates with them. Saying something like: "oh wow, that must have been really powerful" and sharing a personal euphoric experience might help them be more open to subsequent discussions, and prevent the backfire effect.

Comment author: kithpendragon 09 February 2016 01:25:24PM 7 points [-]

...let's start with a little thought experiment...

The two cases are non-analogous. Grooves in a phonograph record are not designed to be read by a human. Perhaps a better analogy would be reading sheet music, but most people are not trained to do that either. The reason people show such a strong preference in the latter case is that most people will get nothing at all from the record (or sheet music, for that matter).

just because some people can't see colors doesn't mean that colors aren't real. The same is true for spiritual experiences.

This is a truism. Moreover, it is often argued that colors, flavors, &c. are of the map, not of the territory. If this is the case, colors may not be "real", even if the experience of colors is.

...one cannot render into words the subjective experience...

The attempt to losslessly transmit a complete subjective experience would be futile, although I've read some poets who took a good stab at it. Experience is one of the media that make up the map. Two people, given exactly the same stimulus, would have two different subjective experiences. It would certainly be easier to compare similar experiences with a similar reference frame but it is far from impossible to transmit one, even if some of the nuance is necessarily lost.

Finally, religiosity and spirituality are neither identical concepts nor even close synonyms, though they are treated as synonymous in the post. If you could define the two as you intend for us to read them it might be less confusing.

Comment author: gjm 09 February 2016 03:13:45PM 4 points [-]

The two cases are non-analogous.

I strongly agree, and in fact when I read the OP I nearly stopped when I saw this argument. (Because it's so transparently wrong that if someone finds it a good analogy, that's evidence that they aren't thinking clearly about this stuff.)

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 22 March 2016 10:16:11PM 1 point [-]

When I read it, it was so strongly non-analogous that I was entirely unsurprised to find that their being anti-analogical was precisely the point.

Comment author: gjm 22 March 2016 11:58:46PM *  3 points [-]

I think we may be referring to different analogies. There are two going on, and lisper is making a third analogy between them.

  • Between vinyl records and books.
  • Between vinyl records and spiritual experiences.

The first pair, lisper intends to be importantly non-analogous, on the grounds that the difference in immediacy and intensity and so forth is so much greater for the records than the books. The second pair, he intends to be importantly analogous, the idea being that the difference between having spiritual experiences and merely hearing about them is as profound as that between hearing music and looking at the groove on a vinyl record.

But a problem (at least as it seemed to both kithpendragon and me) is that the disanalogy between records and books isn't just a matter of greater immediacy and vividity; it's that most of us are literally unable to interpret the groove on a vinyl record even theoretically, and this is an important part of what's going on in the comparison between records and books. And this (so I think and I guess kithpendragon does too) is not the case for spiritual experiences; even people who have nothing resembling the experiences some profoundly religious people have can get a reasonable understanding of what sort of thing they're experiencing, even if it's a dry and theoretical understanding. Which, to my mind, means that the analogy between analogies doesn't work the way lisper intended it to.

Comment author: Riothamus 21 April 2016 04:26:55PM 0 points [-]

A correct analogy between records and books would be the phonograph and the text of the book written in ASCII hexadecimal. Both are designed to be interpreted by a machine for presentation to humans.

Comment author: gjm 21 April 2016 04:38:47PM *  0 points [-]

Not a bad analogy, but for me at least interpreting hexadecimal ASCII is much, much easier than interpreting images of vinyl records.

[EDITED to add:] More explicitly, I can do the former, though it would be boring and greatly reduce my enjoyment of reading, but I'm not at all sure that I can do the latter at all without electronic assistance.

Comment author: Riothamus 21 April 2016 09:15:22PM 0 points [-]

I would also have an easier time with ASCII, but that's because I (and presumably you also) have been trained in how to produce instructions for machines. This is a negligible chunk of humanity, so I thought it was equally discountable.

I suppose the spiritual analogy would be an ordained priest praying on behalf of another person!

Comment author: gjm 21 April 2016 09:39:27PM 0 points [-]

I reckon I could teach anyone of average or better intelligence to read books in hexadecimal ASCII codes in a day.

I suspect a substantial majority of highly intelligent and musically inclined people could not learn to "read" pictures of vinyl records in a day, no matter how well taught.

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 05:31:38PM *  1 point [-]

colors may not be "real", even if the experience of colors is.

Yes, that is the whole point. The experience of God may be real even if God isn't.

Also, the reason I didn't choose sheet music as my analogy is that the information content of sheet music is different from the actual music. To get from sheet music to music you have to add information (in the information-theoretical sense) like the waveforms of the individual instruments. That is not the case with the grooves on a record. They contain all of the same information as the audio waveform, but simply rendered in space rather than in time.

Comment author: kithpendragon 09 February 2016 08:10:33PM 4 points [-]

The experience of God may be real [like that of color is] even if God isn't.

The difference here is that there is something in the environment that causes the experience of color to appear consistently in many, many human minds. We can measure the waves that could enter the eye and trigger the "color" experience. The same cannot be said of God. "Spiritual" seems likely to be the best word to name the experience you have described. Religion need not be involved at any level. More simply, I'm sure these experiences exist. But there is good reason not to name the experience God. That word, and the set of words it often stands for, is far too laden with other meanings and contexts to be a helpful label in this context.

...the information content of sheet music is different from the actual music...

The information on sheet music is compressed, but an individual trained to read it can, with practice, decompress all of it into an experience of the composition. Ask any orchestra conductor of sufficient experience what that is like. Some conductors even prefer to experience the music that way; they find that the orchestra can get in the way of experiencing what the composer intended. That is, in fact, the job of a conductor. The phonograph record, on the other hand, is a representation of a single performance of a composition, interpreted by the conductor and the orchestra. And the point stands that a phonograph record cannot be read by (nearly all) humans. It is not analogous to the text of a book, it is analogous to the medium (tape, CD, MP3, &c.) on which the audiobook is recorded.

For that matter, the audiobook holds the same "additional information" as the recorded symphony: that added by the performer(s) translating the text/music into sound.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:30:10AM 2 points [-]

The difference here is that there is something in the environment that causes the experience of color to appear consistently in many, many human minds. We can measure the waves that could enter the eye and trigger the "color" experience. The same cannot be said of God.

That's not necessarily true. It's possible that we could find the mechanism in the brain which is responsible for spiritual experiences. But that's kind of missing the point. Most human interactions don't drill down this deep. Even rational people have conversation that go, "Did you see that cool fnorble?" "Yeah, wasn't that awesome?" without citing the peer-reviewed academic literature that establishes the objective existence and material properties of fnorbles. Religious people do the same: they say, "Did you feel the presence of the holy spirit?" "Yeah, I did, wasn't that awesome?"

The information on sheet music is compressed, but an individual trained to read it can, with practice, decompress all of it into an experience of the composition.

Sure, but such people are rare. You can probably also train yourself to have spiritual experiences.

a phonograph record cannot be read by (nearly all) humans

Fine, how about this then: display the audio waveform on an oscilloscope. The point is that having music come into your years is a fundamentally different subjective experience than having it come in to your eyes even if the information content is the same in both cases.

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 09:39:33PM 3 points [-]

I think the crux here is to avoid arguing against people's experiences when trying to raise the sanity waterline. If one argues against their deep experiences, there's a big danger of the backfire effect. If one acknowledges the experience of God as something real, but delineates that from proof of an actual God existing, this may go further with religious people.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 26 February 2016 07:57:50AM *  4 points [-]

Your observation is valid, but spiritual experiences of that sort are extremely rare. I was raised in an evangelical church, in a very serious, I might say fanatical, Christian family, and went to church, Bible study, and other church events regularly for many years. Spiritual experiences were a common topic of discussion. But no one in my family ever had one, nor any of my friends. They were things visiting missionaries from Africa talked about. So it doesn't explain the great bulk of religion.

Comment author: Lumifer 26 February 2016 06:06:15PM 1 point [-]

spiritual experiences of that sort are extremely rare

I don't know about that. I have a feeling that these spiritual experiences cluster and that in certain times and social contexts they are pretty common, and in other times and contexts -- not so much.

I think this indicates that there is a full spectrum of these experiences -- from mild unease at something being vaguely there to being fully and completely overwhelmed by God's presence. The extremes follow their own paths (one to being ignored and the other to becoming a full-fledged mystic), but the middle depends a lot of social expectations, priming, feedback loops, etc. The same experience could be described as presence of God and as "that was weird, my mind must be getting loopy".

Comment author: lisper 26 February 2016 04:36:13PM 1 point [-]

What can I say? I've met a lot of believers who claim that God talks to them on a regular basis. They seem sincere, but maybe they're all just really good liars (or maybe I'm really gullible).

Comment author: Matthew_Opitz 11 February 2016 02:22:55PM *  4 points [-]

Even if I am not setting out trying to disparage a spiritual person's spiritual experiences—even if I am trying to be as charitable to them as possible—it is difficult to see how I could have a conversation with them about information (their own subjective spiritual experiences) that is not publicly accessible to me. It boils down to them telling me about their private experience and me replying, "Cool story bro." Once again, not because I WANT to sound flippant or dismissive...but what else can I say about it? I'm glad they had their experience.

Usually spiritual people start with their story, and then they proceed with a conclusion that, "Because I had this experience, you should believe X and do Y." I don't see how that follows, especially when the story sounds implausible.

It is a little different if someone said to me, "I saw a rabid dog across the street, so don't go over there or else you gonna get bit." A rabid dog sounds plausible based on what I have previously concluded about the world. I could go and check for myself that the dog is there (it is, in theory, publicly-accessible information), or I could take the person's word for it if they seem like a trustworthy person with a good handle on reality. But most spiritual beliefs are much more implausible than this. Naturally, I would want to check for myself. But spiritual people are usually not able to explain to me how I could check for myself. "You just gotta believe" is not an operation that I can execute. It's not that I don't want to believe. I might very well want to believe, especially if their story sounds convenient or fortunate to me (such as, "We all go to heaven when we die.") But I really don't know how to just "believe" something.

Maybe some children are raised with the skill of "just believe this..." (For example: https://youtu.be/KPFUr1Nnk4k ) but for me (and my Unitarian background), it DOES NOT COMPUTE.

The situation is different with drug-induced experiences. In those cases, someone can tell me, "I had this profound experience. As of now, it is known only to me, but it is in theory publicly-accessible to you too IF you follow this well-defined set of steps: measure out 3 grams of psilocybin mushrooms...etc." Then I could have the experience, or at least AN experience, and we could move beyond just "Cool story bro." If my experience ended up being very similar to theirs...well, then I would naturally start to search for explanations to explain the correlation. Maybe their report of their experience before I had mine primed my brain for having a similar experience. For me to consider my experience to be evidence in favor of some supernatural reality, it would have to be very similar to theirs AND independently-arrived at. So, if they had an experience, wrote down a description of it (maybe with winning lottery numbers communicated to them by Poseidon), and then I had the exact same experience as them after following their instructions, but without having heard anything specific about their experience beforehand (and especially if I had been given the same winning lottery numbers that I independently wrote down immediately afterwards before talking to my friend), then WOW, that would be outstanding evidence in favor of some underlying spiritual reality of practical use.

If a spiritual person could tell me, "If you kneel and face Mecca 5 times a day and cry out, "Allah Ackbar!" you will achieve great contentment in life.", that is an operational instruction that I understand and could execute. Now, I'm pretty skeptical that it would work, and in order for me to expend the trivial inconvenience and social embarrassment involved with actually trying it, I would have to be pretty desperate for a feeling of contentment in my life...but in theory it is something that I could try.

But just telling me, "Pray to God with ALL YOUR HEART and you will find the strength to do X, Y, Z...", that's still too fuzzy for me.
Me: "Am I praying will all my heart?"
Friend: "You will KNOW when you are praying with all your heart."
Me: "Okay, I must not be praying with all my heart. How do I pray with all my heart?"
Friend: "Think of the thing in the world that you want or cherish the most. Think of that intense yearning. Apply that feeling to your desire to connect with God."
Me: "Okay...hmmmm...I'm sorry, I'm having trouble applying that feeling to something that just feels silly, I can't help it."
Friend: "Stop thinking it is silly, you have to really try and believe!"
Me: "I know, I'm trying, but it's just not working."

It's not just prayer. I have the same problems with meditation. Maybe it is just me, personally, but I don't find most recipes for making people's private spiritual experiences publicly-accessible to me to be very specific or comprehensible or operational. Is this typical-mind fallacy, or do others feel the same way?

Note that I'm not demanding that the experiences themselves be easily describable. I understand that the experiences themselves might not be the sorts of things that can be put into words. For example, people's mushroom experiences might be ecstatic and ineffable. But at least they could give me a clear recipe of how to get there so I could see for myself.

What's impressive is, the mushroom recipe would not require FAITH WITH ALL MY HEART. I could be thinking, going into it, "Man, this is all a bunch of hippy-dippy BS. I ain't gonna feel a thing." And then, BAM! That's impressive.

Comment author: spriteless 11 February 2016 10:26:18PM *  1 point [-]

It's not just prayer. I have the same problems with meditation.

The only meditation I can do is body-scan meditation. It is not particularly spiritual, just body awareness. If you are looking for the calming benefits of meditation, you might check it out.

Maybe it is just me, personally, but I don't find most recipes for making people's private spiritual experiences publicly-accessible to me to be very specific or comprehensible or operational. Is this typical-mind fallacy, or do others feel the same way?

I feel this way. I usually assume it's someone else's typical mind fallacy keeping them from explaining, or else certain word sounds are connected to different meanings, or else I am neurodivergent such that the explainer is used to people who don't need to have it explained better, or something to do with signalling that went over my head.

Comment author: lisper 11 February 2016 05:58:56PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, the faith thing has always seemed kinda weird to me too. But you have to understand that this is just one of many mechanisms by which spiritual experiences can be induced. It works for some people, not for others. There's a lot of individual variation in people's responses to pharmaceuticals too.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 09 February 2016 09:17:02PM *  3 points [-]

Some comments ask what spiritual experience is supposed to be and what kind of perception or altered state of mind it is.

In the spirit of What Universal Human Experiences Are You Missing Without Realizing It I propose a poll for exactly such states of mind. I think indeed we might learn something about parts we may be missing.

OK, I take the list from here:

ADDED: Sorry this is rendered longer than I expected.

ADDED: When answering myself I noticed that some rules for the answers are in order. I suggest this: Never really means never. Seldom means at least once.

nonreflective consciousness states:

Bodily feelings, which are induced by normal bodily functioning and are characterized by nonreflective awareness in the organs and tissues of the digestive, glandular, respiratory, and other bodily systems. This awareness does not become self-conscious unless such stimuli as pain or hunger intensify a bodily feeling.

I perceive these

Stored memories, which do not become self-conscious until the individual reactivates them.

I perceive these

Coma, which is induced by illness, epileptic seizures, or physical injuries to the brain, and is characterized by prolonged nonreflective consciousness of the entire organism.

I have been in Coma

Stupor, which is induced by psychosis, narcotics, or over-indulgence in alcohol, and is characterized by greatly reduced ability to perceive incoming sensations.

I perceive these

Non-rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is caused by a normal part of the sleep cycle at night or during daytime naps, and is characterized by a minimal amount of mental activity, which may sometimes be recalled upon awakening.

Sleep is

Rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is a normal part of the nighttime sleep cycle, and is characterized by the mental activity known as dreams.

I dream

The reflective, or self-conscious, states of consciousness are:

Pragmatic consciousness, the everyday, waking conscious state, characterized by alertness, logic, and rationality, cause-and-effect thinking, goal-directedness. In this level of consciousness, one has the feeling that he or she is in control and has the ability to move at will from perceptual activity to conceptual thinking to idea formation to motor activity.

I perceive these

Lethargic consciousness, characterized by sluggish mental activity that has been induced by fatigue, sleep deprivation, feelings of depression, or certain drugs.

I perceive these

Hyperalert consciousness, brought about by a period of heightened vigilance, such as sentry duty, watching over a sick child, or by certain drugs, such as amphetamines.

I perceive these

Levels or types of consciousness with varying degrees of what could be considered an altered state might include:

Rapturous consciousness, characterized by intense feelings and overpowering emotions and induced by sexual stimulation, the fervor of religious conversion, or the ingestion of certain drugs.

I perceive these

Hysterical consciousness, induced by rage, jealousy, fear, neurotic anxiety, violent mob activity, or certain drugs. As opposed to rapturous consciousness, which is generally evaluated as pleasant and positive in nature, hysterical consciousness is considered negative and destructive.

I perceive these

Fragmented consciousness, defined as a lack of integration among important segments of the total personality, often results in psychosis, severe neurosis, amnesia, multiple personality, or dissociation. Such a state of consciousness is induced by severe psychological stress over a period of time. It may also be brought about temporarily by accidents or psychedelic drugs.

I perceive these

Relaxed consciousness, characterized by a state of minimal mental activity, passivity, and an absence of motor activity. This state of consciousness may be brought about by lack of external stimulation, such as sunbathing, floating in water, or certain drugs.

I perceive these

Daydreaming, induced by boredom, social isolation, or sensory deprivation.

I perceive these

Trance consciousness, induced by rapt attentiveness to a single stimulus, such as the voice of a hypnotist, one's own heartbeat, a chant, certain drugs, or trance-inducing rituals and primitive dances. The trance state is characterized by hypersuggestibility and concentrated attention on one stimulus to the exclusion of all others.

I perceive these

Expanded consciousness, comprising four levels: A) the sensory level, characterized by subjective reports of space, time, body image, or sense impressions having been altered; B) the recollective-analytic level, which summons up memories of one's past and provides insights concerning self, work, or personal relationships; C) the symbolic level, which is often characterized by vivid visual imagery of mythical, religious, and historical symbols; D) the integrative level, in which the individual undergoes an intense religious illumination, experiences a dissolution of self, and is confronted by God or some divine being. Each of these four levels might be induced by psychedelic drugs, hypnosis, meditation, prayer, or free association during psychoanalysis. Through the ages, many of humankind's major material and spiritual breakthroughs may have come from these virtually unmapped, uncharted regions of the mind.

I have perceived type A

I have perceived type B

I have perceived type C

I have perceived type D

Submitting...

Comment author: Dagon 09 February 2016 06:28:30AM 6 points [-]

This feels a lot like a Bait and Switch to me. You haven't defined "Spirituality" well enough that I can tell what you're actually claiming, and I suspect as soon as I agree to any of your points you'll shout "a-ha!" and accuse me of some inconsistency.

I have heard nobody argue against enjoying music - I recommend it heartily. I do argue against making decisions based on incredibly wrong probability assignments (say, that there is a human-like judgement and experiences after death).

You seem to be saying that these two recommendations on my part are contradictory. I don't see it.

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 05:40:40PM 7 points [-]

I'm sorry this feels like a bait-and-switch. Let me try to state my claim as clearly as I can: some people believe in God because they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God (for some value of "God'). The nature of these experiences cannot be fully rendered into words, but it is of a similar character to that which causes even rational people to characterize the subjective experience of listening to music as somehow fundamentally different from looking at the grooves in a record despite the fact that the information entering your brain is the same in both cases.

Comment author: CCC 10 February 2016 08:48:35AM 5 points [-]

some people believe in God because they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God (for some value of "God').

This seems a fairly empty claim. I believe in the existence of trees because I have had first-hand experiences (including: walking into a tree) for which the best explanation that I can come up with is that they were caused by the presence of trees.

I don't see how this claim helps your argument.

A large part of this may be that I'm having some trouble seeing exactly what your argument is - it looks like you are claiming that you felt a sense of euphoria while having a religious experience once, and therefore have concluded that all religious experiences consist of nothing more than a sense of euphoria? How is this not a simple case of the typical mind fallacy, that is to say, the assumption that everyone else thinks in exactly the same way that you do?

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 06:51:10PM 3 points [-]

The point I am trying to make is that some people believe in God for the exact same reason that you believe in trees: they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God.

all religious experiences consist of nothing more than a sense of euphoria

No, I'm advancing the hypothesis that such experiences are (at least part of) the foundation of religious belief, just as the first-hand experience of walking into a tree is (at least part of) the foundation of your belief in trees.

I strongly suspect, however, that most of your belief in trees comes not from walking into them, but from seeing them, with walking into them providing only additional confirmation for your prior belief. You don't give this a lot of thought because the vast majority of your fellow creatures also see trees, and so your interactions with them become a network of self-reinforcing confirmations that trees do in point of fact exist. But imagine a different world, where everyone is blind except you, and the only tree is on the other side of a wide, impassable canyon. You can see the tree, but no one else can. Everyone thinks you're insane because you believe in trees, indeed because you believe that the canyon has "another side" (what an absurd notion!)

How would you go about trying to convince your blind peers that you can in fact see the trees? Well, you might start by trying to convince them that you can see. This you can readily demonstrate, because you can do things that your blind peers can't (I'll leave it up to you to devise an appropriate experiment). But you still might have a hard time convincing them about trees. "Yeah, sure, he can do all kinds of cool tricks because of this supposed "gift of sight" that he has. But, c'mon, trees? Really?"

So now go back to 5000 BC and you've got people who think they hear the Voice of God. Some of them say, "God told me there is going to be a drought." And by golly, the next year there is a drought. Can you see how some people might start to believe that there might be something to this God thing?

Comment author: ChristianKl 12 February 2016 03:02:52PM *  1 point [-]

A while ago I talked to a person studying theology at university to become a minister. I asked him about spiritual experience. He answered that he doesn't have any strong spiritual experiences and most of his classmates also haven't. A few have and he considered them a bit strange because they were than also serious about things like no-sex-before-marriage. He was religious because he was brought up with the rituals of religion and not based on special spiritual experiences. The conversation took place in Berlin with is culturally different than the US, but he still considered himself to be really religious.

On the other hand I do have experience surrounding what most people would call a near-death experience. I do meditate together with nonreligious people who teach not to take visions during meditation too seriously.

It's quite interesting that the spiritual experience of you was at a Christian summer camp and not in a church on Sunday. The Christian summer camp is not a standard institution of Christianity. The church on Sunday's is. To me the church on Sunday is not a system that looks like it's designed to produce spiritual experience. That's how people can work on becoming Christian ministers without having had spiritual experience.

When it comes to the spiritual experience of lay people I Christian's burned women as witches for going in that direction. I don't think focusing on creating spiritual experience is a traditional focus of Christianity.

Comment author: lisper 12 February 2016 05:51:38PM 3 points [-]

The Christian summer camp is not a standard institution of Christianity.

It is in the American South.

I don't think focusing on creating spiritual experience is a traditional focus of Christianity.

It is very much the focus of charismatic Christian sects.

Comment author: TheAltar 12 February 2016 06:15:05PM *  2 points [-]

There are wide variations between the different Christian denominations/groups in terms of spiritual experiences. This includes their occurrence at all and how commonly they occur. Roman Catholics, more vanilla flavored groups (Baptists&Lutherans?), and the charismatic and pentecostal groups have massive variations on this that I've witnessed first hand.

I'm confident that there are Christian groups who have zero or next to zero spiritual experiences ever while there are also groups like the charismatic church within 5 km of my house where everyone in the entire church exhibits glossolalia and believes they are being gifted special fruits/powers via direct spirit possession by the holy spirit/ghost every single Sunday. That church has at least 300 members and is not an uncommon denomination in my area either. (And yes, watching a massive room full of >300 people stand around convulsing and making weird nonsense noises while they believe they're being taken over by a non-human entity is about as disturbing as it sounds.)

The fact that people have stronger spiritual experiences at summer camps doesn't surprise me based on what I've seen. The stuff that happened at a related church's summer camp that I witnessed was even stranger and more discomforting that what I wrote above.

Comment author: Old_Gold 16 February 2016 03:43:21AM 4 points [-]

He answered that he doesn't have any strong spiritual experiences and most of his classmates also haven't. A few have and he considered them a bit strange because they were than also serious about things like no-sex-before-marriage.

This person sounds like an atheist who wants to cosplay as religious and considers the people who are actually religious to be "strange".

Comment author: ChristianKl 16 February 2016 11:23:49AM 1 point [-]

That's religion in Germany for you.

Comment author: CCC 11 February 2016 07:38:33AM 1 point [-]

The point I am trying to make is that some people believe in God for the exact same reason that you believe in trees: they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God.

Or, to put it another way, some people believe in God because they have seen evidence of God.

No, I'm advancing the hypothesis that such experiences are (at least part of) the foundation of religious belief, just as the first-hand experience of walking into a tree is (at least part of) the foundation of your belief in trees.

Well... okay. I don't really think that can be argued against. In fact, looking at the bible, Phillipians 3 verse 3:

we worship God by means of his Spirit and rejoice in our life in union with Christ Jesus

suggests that there was at the very least rejoicing, which is what one might expect from a sense of euphoria.

I strongly suspect, however, that most of your belief in trees comes not from walking into them, but from seeing them, with walking into them providing only additional confirmation for your prior belief. You don't give this a lot of thought because the vast majority of your fellow creatures also see trees, and so your interactions with them become a network of self-reinforcing confirmations that trees do in point of fact exist.

Also, climbing them.

But imagine a different world, where everyone is blind except you, and the only tree is on the other side of a wide, impassable canyon. You can see the tree, but no one else can. Everyone thinks you're insane because you believe in trees, indeed because you believe that the canyon has "another side" (what an absurd notion!)

Okay...

How would you go about trying to convince your blind peers that you can in fact see the trees?

I think I'd be more interested in trying to convince them that the other side of the canyon exists, and there's more space for houses and farms there and thus this "bridge" idea that I keep going on about is not as stupid as you think it is you idiots!

...I might lose my temper with them on occasion.

But it's really the same question, at the heart of it. How do I convince someone of the existence of something that they cannot directly observe, and that, indeed, they have a strong social pressure against admitting the existence of? I can tell them about it; they will laugh and shake their heads. I can describe it in detail - someone will ask what lies behind the little hill, and when I cannot tell him, he will laugh and say that that is why this 'sight' I keep going on about cannot possibly exist, because it is no harder to feel on one side of the hill than the other. I can attempt to build a bridge - and the Blind will work to stop me, describing how no such structure has ever succeeded in the past, even when I managed to persuade others to help me (in vain will I point out the width of the canyon, the crumbliness of the far edge, or the fact that letting a blind man lower the bridge was why it fell into the canyon last time) and it is all a waste of resources.

Comment author: lisper 11 February 2016 05:52:07PM 4 points [-]

Or, to put it another way, some people believe in God because they have seen evidence of God.

Yes. Exactly.

Also, climbing them.

Religious people have a similarly intricate web of self-reinforcing evidence for their beliefs. The "evidence" of God's handiwork is all around you, even in the trees. In fact, it is so difficult to see why all of the intricacies of nature are not evidence of an intelligent designer that it took humans many millennia to figure it out, and it is considered a major intellectual accomplishment. Evolution is only obvious in retrospect.

I think I'd be more interested in trying to convince them that the other side of the canyon exists

OK, but now consider this question: what evidence could your blind peers offer that would convince you that what you think you are seeing is not in fact real, but is actually just an epiphenomenon of some neurobiological process going on entirely inside your brain?

Comment author: CCC 12 February 2016 10:43:11AM *  1 point [-]

OK, but now consider this question: what evidence could your blind peers offer that would convince you that what you think you are seeing is not in fact real, but is actually just an epiphenomenon of some neurobiological process going on entirely inside your brain?

Hmmmm. Tricky.

I can see it. Without trees on this side - and specifically, without wood - I presumably can't build a bridge over to the other side. (And if I could, then I'd have plenty of proof that it exist and I break the metaphor) So, we can't go over there and observe it directly (by means of touch, a sense that everyone shares). The only evidence I have for the existence of the other side of the canyon is sight - I can see it.

I imagine that if the blind people could somehow convince me that sight is really hallucination - that is to say, what I "see" is entirely an internal process within the brain and not at all related to external reality in any way (except perhaps insofar that I only "see" what I expect to "see") - then that would be sufficient to make me question the reality of the other side of the canyon.

...I guess I could throw a rock at it and listen for the impact

Comment author: lisper 12 February 2016 05:48:49PM 3 points [-]

Hmmmm. Tricky.

Cool, then you get it.

Note that it is not necessary for all of your visions (sic!) to be hallucinations to sustain this puzzle. It's enough that faraway things are illusory. Maybe you're living in a "Truman Show"-style virtual reality, where the far side of the canyon is actually a projected image. (A mirage is a real-world example of something that looks very different from its true nature when viewed from far away.)

Comment author: CCC 15 February 2016 08:40:03AM 1 point [-]

Note that it is not necessary for all of your visions (sic!) to be hallucinations to sustain this puzzle. It's enough that faraway things are illusory. Maybe you're living in a "Truman Show"-style virtual reality, where the far side of the canyon is actually a projected image.

Hmmm. True, but now we're talking about a world specifically designed to produce the appearance of the opposite side of the canyon even when it doesn't exist. I think that we can, at least tentatively, discount active malevolence as an explanation for why I see the opposite side of the canyon.

Mind you, I'm not saying it can't be a mirage. If I'm short-sighted - so that everything beyond a certain distance is blurry and unrecognisable - and there just happens to be a large reflective surface partway across the canyon - then I may see the reflection of this side of the canyon, fail to recognise it due to the blurring, and claim that there is an opposite side to the canyon. (This can be recognised by a simple test, should anyone manage to produce prescription spectacles).


But let us say that my blind peers bring me incredibly convincing evidence for the idea that there is no other side of the canyon. They are very persuasive in that this "sight" business is a brain disease caused by being out and about in the heat of the day, making my brain overheat, and only in the coolness of night, when all is dark, am I sane. (And, sure enough, when it's dark then it's too dark to see the other side of the canyon).

But none of this is evidence that there is no other side. The other side could still be there - even if every argument advanced by my blind peers is true - and while I am sitting here questioning my sanity, the other side continues to sit there, perhaps visible to me alone, but nonetheless visible, and I should not throw that evidence away.

Comment author: lisper 15 February 2016 05:15:25PM 2 points [-]

but now we're talking about a world specifically designed to produce the appearance of the opposite side of the canyon even when it doesn't exist

Not necessarily. That just happened to be the case in "The Truman Show." We actually have a real-world version of this scenario going on in cosmology right now. There are two "trees" on the far side of the canyon: dark matter and dark energy, both of which are just labels for "the mysterious unknown thing that causes the observed data to not match up with the currently best available theories". (Note that in the tree scenario you would not have the word "tree" in your vocabulary, or if you did, it could not possibly mean anything other than "The mysterious unknown thing on the far side of the canyon that looks completely unlike anything nearby.")

BTW, have you ever seen a mirage? They look very convincing at a distance, even with sharp vision.

Comment author: Jiro 15 February 2016 09:55:58PM 1 point [-]

But let us say that my blind peers bring me incredibly convincing evidence for the idea that there is no other side of the canyon.

Your blind peers can't bring you convincing evidence that there's no other side to the canyon unless there actually is no other side to the canyon. It's like asking "what if homeopaths provided you with incredibly convincing evidence that homeopathy worked, would you still cling to what science says?" (The answer is that if it was possible to produce incredibly convincing evidence for homeopathy, we would be in a very different world than we are now, and science would be saying different things.)

Comment author: polymathwannabe 12 February 2016 01:59:56PM 0 points [-]

How would you go about trying to convince your blind peers that you can in fact see the trees?

Not that it should matter in a debate, but I find a metaphor that characterizes rejection of the spiritual as a form of blindness very offensive.

Comment author: lisper 12 February 2016 05:39:52PM 4 points [-]

That surprises me. Why?

Please note that "spiritual" != "supernatural". I'm using "spiritual" here to describe a particular kind of subjective experience that some people have and others don't. So there's no such thing as "rejection of the spiritual" -- that's a category error.

Comment author: Old_Gold 16 February 2016 03:50:25AM 3 points [-]

That surprises me.

It shouldn't. Unfortunately, "taking offense" is some people's standard reaction to arguments they can't refute.

Comment author: gjm 16 February 2016 12:36:50PM 1 point [-]

It's also some people's standard reaction to being insulted. And an argument can be irrefutable (1) by being right, (2) by being too vague and allusive to get a grip on, or (3) by being nonsense. Or (4) by there actually being no argument to refute. In this case, lisper hasn't made any actual argument for characterizing not having "spiritual experiences" as a kind of blindness, he's just gone ahead and done it.

(There's no shame in being colour-blind, says lisper. Quite true. There should be no shame in being unintelligent either, but most people here would be greatly displeased at being called unintelligent. There should be no shame in being ugly, but most people -- perhaps fewer here than in most venues -- would be greatly displeased at being called ugly.)

Comment author: Old_Gold 17 February 2016 06:10:13AM 1 point [-]

It's also some people's standard reaction to being insulted.

True, and unfortunately polymathwannabe seems to regard any implication that the identity he likes to dress as is less than perfect to be a personal attack on him.

Comment author: lisper 16 February 2016 07:16:46PM 0 points [-]

Being stupid or ugly is not quite the same as being color-blind or spirituality-blind because stupidity and ugliness have a more direct impact on your reproductive fitness,

Comment author: gjm 16 February 2016 11:05:24PM 1 point [-]

not quite the same

Of course it's not quite the same. Neither is being stupid quite the same as being ugly. But do you really think a thing is only a real insult if it's about something that directly impacts your reproductive fitness? That seems a very odd idea to me. (And I question whether being intelligent -- as opposed to unintelligent, rather than outright stupid -- is a net benefit to reproductive fitness; I would guess that typical reproductive fitness is no worse at IQ 100 than at IQ 140. If you think "unintelligent" implies stupider than that, feel free to pretend I said "not especially intelligent" instead of "unintelligent".)

Comment author: Conscience 13 April 2016 11:54:10AM 0 points [-]

And because stupidity have more direct impact on IQ score, uglyness on actor profession opportunities, color-blind on painter options and spirituality-blindness on inner feeling of well-being perhaps?

Comment author: polymathwannabe 16 February 2016 03:38:57PM -1 points [-]

Have you had spiritual experiences? How do you explain them? How would you convince others of the reality of those experiences?

Comment author: polymathwannabe 12 February 2016 08:03:27PM 0 points [-]

Why?

The blindness metaphor presents spiritual sensitivity as an ability that rationalists lack.

Your definition of "spiritual" is still not fully detailed here, but does it contradict the proposition "spiritual" ∈ "supernatural"?

Comment author: lisper 13 February 2016 01:24:07AM 2 points [-]

The blindness metaphor presents spiritual sensitivity as an ability that rationalists lack.

That is exactly the hypothesis I'm advancing. I'm sorry if you find it offensive.

Your definition of "spiritual" is still not fully detailed here

That's because spirituality is a subjective sensation, a quale. Those are notoriously difficult to define with precision.

does it contradict the proposition "spiritual" ∈ "supernatural"?

Spiritual experience is no more supernatural that any other subjective experience. But it can feel that way because of the manner in which it is induced.

Comment author: gjm 16 February 2016 12:16:23AM 4 points [-]

That is exactly the hypothesis I'm advancing.

Why do you characterize having spiritual experiences as an ability?

They happen to some people and not to others. For some such things (seizures, heart attacks, lapses of memory, panic attacks) we generally prefer not to have them happen to us, and wouldn't call them "abilities". For some (moments of insight, orgasms, restful nights' sleep) we generally regard them as good things, and might call them "abilities". Why should spiritual experiences -- in particular, spiritual experiences of a kind that very strongly predispose the people who have them to draw incorrect conclusions about the world -- be put in the latter category rather than the former?

One possible answer is that spiritual experiences are, well, nice. (Of course "nice" has exactly the wrong sorts of connotation here. Too bad.) But, e.g., falling wildly in love is nice too, but if you find that it happens every time you meet a new person-of-the-relevant-sex then any impartial observer would consider it more a liability than an ability. So that answer seems like it's applying a wrong criterion.

Another possible answer is that spiritual experiences really are what many who have them say they are: actual perceptions of a transcendent reality. You feel like you're in the presence of God? That's because you actually are. I agree (of course) that if that's so then having (the right sorts of) spiritual experience is an ability, and not having them is a disability. But you've already said you're not yourself a believer, and if there is in fact no god then spiritual experiences that give the very strong impression of being encounters with a god are actively misleading. So that answer doesn't seem to work.

The Christian tradition is very fond of a metaphor very much like the one you're using here: "I once was lost but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see", etc. But what Christians generally mean by it is not that the "blind" don't have spiritual experiences, but that the "blind" don't perceive the presence and activity of God in whatever experiences ("spiritual" or not) they have. That's a very reasonable usage (if we grant the Christians their premises). Yours seems quite different, and much less reasonable. If "spiritual experiences" are not perceptions of a transcendent reality, but endogenous brain phenomena, why is blindness a good metaphor for not having them, and more than for, say, not having ASMR?

Comment author: lisper 16 February 2016 07:42:05AM -1 points [-]

Why do you characterize having spiritual experiences as an ability?

I think you're reading too much positive connotation into the word "ability". Some people can roll their tongues, other's can't. It's not unreasonable to recast that as: some people have the ability to roll their tongues, others don't.

There's actually some evidence that the ability to have spiritual experience is adaptive, and that it can be learned and developed by conscious effort, so it might even be fair to characterize it is a skill. But again, don't read too much endorsement into that. The ability to hang a spoon off your nose is a skill too.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 14 February 2016 01:00:36AM *  0 points [-]

The blindness metaphor presents spiritual sensitivity as an ability that rationalists lack.

That is exactly the hypothesis I'm advancing.

If I understand you correctly, you're saying that people who strive to discipline their thinking process to constantly improve themselves, become sharper, make fewer mistakes, notice and correct their own biases, revise their opinions, and mercilessly seek their own weak points somehow lack awareness of an entire and tremendously important field of human experience?

Rationalists are the last group of people I'd expect to miss something so crucial, if it were real.

Comment author: lisper 14 February 2016 03:04:45AM *  3 points [-]

If I understand you correctly, you're saying...

Yes, that's pretty much correct, except for one very important thing.

You didn't actually say it, but there's a subtle implication in the way you framed my position that the causality runs in a particular direction, i.e. rationalists strive to discipline their thinking etc. and AS A RESULT lack awareness of an entire field of human experience. That is wrong. In fact, it's exactly backwards. (And I can now understand why you might have found it offensive.)

The causality runs in the opposite direction: some people lack (first-hand) awareness of this important field of human experience, and because they lack this awareness they tend to become rationalists. So this "lack of first-hand awareness" is not necessarily a deficit.

Here's an analogy: some people feel addictive cravings more than others. Someone who doesn't experience addictive cravings might have a hard time empathizing with someone who does because they can't imagine what it's like to have an addictive craving, never having had one of their own. So they might imagine that kicking an addiction is a simple matter of "exercising more self control" or some such thing, and have a hard time understanding why an addict would have such a hard time doing that. In an exactly analogous manner, someone who is not sensitive to spiritual experience might have a hard time understanding or empathizing with someone who does. It does not follow that not feeling addictive cravings is a bad thing.

Rationalists are the last group of people I'd expect to miss something so crucial, if it were real.

That depends a great deal on who you consider "rationalists." I've met a lot of self-identified rationalists but who are not even willing to consider the idea that spiritual experience varies across the human population as a hypothesis worthy of consideration. Heck, this article got so many downvotes early on that it almost cost me my posting privileges here on LW! Harshing on religious people seems to play a very important role in the social cohesion of many groups of people who self-identify as rationalists, and so it's not too surprising that the suggestion that there might be something wrong with that is met with a great deal of hostility. Even self-identified rationalists are still human.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2016 05:48:38PM *  4 points [-]

some people believe in God because they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God (for some value of "God').

I don't see that as a controversial claim, it looks obviously true to me.

listening to music as somehow fundamentally different from looking at the grooves in a record despite the fact that the information entering your brain is the same in both cases.

You should drop this analogy. The "information entering your brain" is very much NOT the same in both cases.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:36:50AM 4 points [-]

I don't see that as a controversial claim, it looks obviously true to me.

It seems obviously true to me too. And yet I seem to be having the very devil of a time convincing some people that it is true.

The "information entering your brain" is very much NOT the same in both cases.

Yes, it is. This is a technical claim, and it is demonstrably true. I mean "information" in the information-theoretical sense, i.e. the log of the number of distinguishable states a system can be in. That the information is the same in both cases can be shown by showing that either system can be reconstructed from the other. The grooves can be reconstructed from the audio (this is how the grooves were created in the first place), and the audio can be reconstructed from the grooves (this is what happens when you play the record.)

If you want to challenge this claim, please mount an argument. Don't just proclaim that it's false.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 February 2016 01:52:28AM 2 points [-]

And yet I seem to be having the very devil of a time convincing some people that it is true.

Yeah, so? Some people just don't want to be convinced, why should you spend your time and effort on them?

Yes, it is. This is a technical claim, and it is demonstrably true. I mean "information" in the information-theoretical sense, i.e. the log of the number of distinguishable states a system can be in.

Information in the information-theoretical sense does not "enter the brain". The audio can be reconstructed from the grooves, but not by the brain.

Simply put, the brain does not have the same information in those two cases. In particular, the brain does not care about some abstract theoretical information equivalence. It's just a brain, not an idealized infomation-processing agent.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 02:40:20AM 1 point [-]

why should you spend your time and effort on them?

I'm really beginning to wonder.

Information in the information-theoretical sense does not "enter the brain".

Of course it does. That too is easily demonstrated.

the brain does not care about some abstract theoretical information equivalence

Maybe your brain doesn't care, but mine does.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 February 2016 02:54:47AM 1 point [-]

Of course it does. That too is easily demonstrated.

Enlighten me, please.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 07:28:20AM 1 point [-]

Enlighten me, please.

This:

The audio can be reconstructed from the grooves, but not by the brain.

is irrelevant to the question of how the information flows. The information that comprises music is stored on the record, not the record player. The player merely transduces that information from one format (grooves) to another (sound). The brain can't do that transduction process, but it can (and does) process the information. The proof is that a brain equipped with suitable tools could make a copy of a record (and hence the information on that record) by looking at and making measurements of the grooves.

Comment author: Lumifer 10 February 2016 03:52:22PM 1 point [-]

The proof is that a brain equipped with suitable tools could make a copy of a record (and hence the information on that record) by looking at and making measurements of the grooves.

That's not what "processes information" means. A photocopier does not "process information" when it makes a copy of a document. It just makes a copy. Similarly, a brain could peer at the grooves all it likes, and, presumably, could make a copy of them, but that makes it no better than a record-producing machine.

Your claim is, essentially, that from the brain's point of view the information in the grooves and the information in the music is the same. However the brain cannot convert the grooves to the music (or the music to the grooves). It requires the transformation be made externally before it can process the information.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 06:03:11PM *  2 points [-]

That's not what "processes information" means.

I really don't want to quibble over the meaning of the word "process". The original claim was:

the information entering your brain is the same in both cases

And that is clearly true. It doesn't matter how (or even whether) that information is "processed".

Note that your re-statement of my claim, "from the brain's point of view the information in the grooves and the information in the music is the same" is not my actual claim. I said nothing about "the brain's point of view". That phrase is non-sensical with respect to an information-theoretical analysis.

If you really want to get technical, there is a "point of view" with respect to information content, and that is the repertoire of distinguishable states that a system can be said to potentially be in. The choice of that repertoire is arbitrary, and so can be said to be a "point of view." There is an implied "point of view" with respect to music, and that is the ability to reconstruct the audio waveform within the range of human hearing, roughly 20HZ-20kHz. With respect to that "point of view", my claim is correct, and can actually be mathematically proven to be correct by the Nyquist sampling theorem.

What is not the same -- and this is the whole point -- is the subjective experience of having the same information entering your brain through different sensory modalities. The intellectual understanding of spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology or whatever is very different from the actual subjective experience, and if you haven't had the actual subjective experience, your understanding of spirituality is necessarily limited by that.

Comment author: Dagon 09 February 2016 10:34:47PM 1 point [-]

they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God (for some value of "God').

1) (snarky response) I'm not sure why their lack of imagination should influence my beliefs. 2) (real response) the value of "God" matters a whole lot in this discussion. The bait and switch I worry about is that any personal experience gets used to justify extremely unlikely belief clusters. I don't think someone's hallucinations justifies my rejection of Occam's Razor.

The nature of these experiences cannot be fully rendered into words, but it is of a similar character to that which causes even rational people to characterize the subjective experience of listening to music

I think this is a stretched analogy, but even if I accepted it, nobody who enjoys music is telling me to accept a bunch of other supernatural bullshit.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:50:59AM 4 points [-]

I'm not sure why their lack of imagination should influence my beliefs.

I'm not suggesting it should influence your beliefs about the world. I'm suggesting it should influence your beliefs about them.

supernatural bullshit

This is exactly what I'm talking about. By choosing to call it "supernatural bullshit" rather than "a not altogether unreasonable (though nonetheless mistaken) attempt to account for real subjective experiences that they have had and I have not (and in the absence of education and information that I possess that they might not)" you miss a very important truth: you are dealing with a fellow human being who might be making an honest attempt to make sense of the world in the face of subjective experiences and other background that may be very different from your own. By choosing to label their beliefs "supernatural bullshit" you might be shutting down possible avenues of communication and the opportunity to make the world a better place, even if it is supernatural bullshit.

Comment author: Dagon 10 February 2016 06:13:44AM 0 points [-]

I debated with myself about whether to use the inflammatory or reconciliatory framing. It really can go either way, depending on what other parts of the spiritual/supernatural belief cluster is being dragged along with the personal experiences, and what the spriritualist is asking me to accept beyond just "some difficult-to-describe experiences have occurred".

Comment author: Viliam 09 February 2016 09:21:56AM 5 points [-]

You can enjoy the feelings of spirituality, and refrain to base your decisions on them. Just like you can enjoy alcohol without making important decisions while drunk.

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 09:41:00PM 0 points [-]

I like the analogy of alcohol and decision-making! In addition to "Don't Drink and Drive," here's a new slogan "Don't Drink and Decide."

Comment author: Matthew_Opitz 11 February 2016 01:38:30PM 0 points [-]

I think that what Viliam was implying was, "Don't Spiritualize and Decide." Don't get drunk on the holy spirit and then make important decisions about what you believe or how you should live your life. I'm pretty sure Viliam was comparing spiritual experiences to alcohol. They might be fun, euphoric, and they might seem meaningful, but do they give good, reliable information about the world that you can use in use in repeated fashion for positive outcomes?

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 11 February 2016 07:10:05PM 0 points [-]

"Don't Spiritualize and Decide"

That would be a nice slogan as well :-)

Comment author: TheMajor 09 February 2016 03:43:05PM *  5 points [-]

I have started writing a comment multiple times, only to remove what I wrote mid-sentence. I think I figured out why that is: your post is tempting us to argue against the existence of experiences that cannot be communicated (do you mean: 'not perfectly communicated' or 'not even hinted at that they exist'? Communication is not binary), and with the sentences:

The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot. Such arguments tend to be ineffective, which can be very frustrating for those who advance them. The antidote for this frustration is to realize that spirituality is not about logic.

you attempt to ban a whole class of arguments that might well be relevant. Your post is a wonderful piece of rhetoric (although some of the analogies get stretched a bit thin), but it hardly communicates anything. Other than

people might profess to believe in God for reasons other than indoctrination or stupidity. Religious texts and rituals might be attempts to share real subjective experiences

there doesn't seem to be a single claim in the whole text. Do you truly think that most of spirituality is an attempt to communicate a feeling of belonging that one gets also when giving up after being bullied for a week? And that this feeling is both incommunicable and easily induced with some practice (you give meditation as an example)?

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 05:53:12PM 3 points [-]

Do you truly think that most of spirituality is an attempt to communicate a feeling of belonging that one gets also when giving up after being bullied for a week? And that this feeling is both incommunicable and easily induced with some practice (you give meditation as an example)?

That's a little bit of an oversimplified caricature, but yes, I do more or less believe that this is true. Moreover, I think there is evidence to support this position beyond just the intuitive argument I've presented here. The idea that religion evolved as a way of maintaining social cohesion is hardly original with me. I'm frankly a little bit surprised that I'm getting pushback on this; I had assumed this was common knowledge.

Comment author: TheMajor 09 February 2016 10:57:35PM 1 point [-]

The strong part of the claim is not "There exists a feeling of belonging, and religion is particularly good at inducing it" or even "Religion is among the best if not outright the very best method for maintaining social cohesion", which as you say are not claims that I think would recieve a lot of pushback (here, at least). The strong part is "Do you truly think that most of spirituality is an attempt to communicate a feeling of belonging" - i.e. when the stories found in the Bible were first told, were they claims of truth or mostly persuasion tricks?

I would accept that most of the modern function of spirituality today is to provide cohesion, but at the same time spirituality also claims to have insight into some factual matters (history, for example) and moral dilemmas. I don't see how accepting that these insights were generated with the purpose/function of maintaining group cohesion is correlated at all with them being true. I think this is the core conflict of Spirituality vs Rationality, the title of the post; not that maintaining group cohesion is irrational, but that accepting answers to factual and sometimes moral questions through dogma instead of evidence cannot be reconciled with rationality.

If there was a spirituality where all the participants acknowledged that the main purpose is group cohesion, all spoken and written text is to be interpreted as metaphors at best and, say, regular church-going makes everybody more happy all around, then I think most rationalists would be all for that. But this doesnt look at all like the spirituality found in the world around us.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:05:10AM -1 points [-]

when the stories found in the Bible were first told, were they claims of truth or mostly persuasion tricks?

I have no idea. Things were so vastly different back then I can't possibly even mount an educated guess about that. What difference does it make how it started? Today, at least in the U.S., I think it's a defensibly hypothesis that what people call "spiritual experiences" are largely about community and shared subjective experience.

spirituality also claims to have insight into some factual matters (history, for example) and moral dilemmas.

Sure, but that's not the subject I'm addressing. The subject I'm addressing is the belief that many people in the rational community seem to hold (Dawkins being the most prominent example) that the only possible reason anyone could even profess to believe in God is because they are an idiot.

this doesnt look at all like the spirituality found in the world around us.

Yes, that's mostly true (though I am personally acquainted with a number of people who profess to believe in God but who are otherwise seem perfectly rational). I'm not saying that the conclusions reached by religious people are correct. I'm simply advancing the hypothesis that religious people reach the conclusions that they do is in part that they have different subjective experiences than non-relgious people.

Comment author: gjm 11 February 2016 12:33:07AM 3 points [-]

Dawkins being the most prominent example [...] the only possible reason anyone could even profess to believe in God is because they are an idiot.

Why do people feel free to write such rot about Richard Dawkins? In his book "The God Delusion" he says: "Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find through the twentieth century, but they are not particularly rare." Do you think that is consistent with thinking that the only possible reason for professing belief in God is idiocy?

Comment author: lisper 11 February 2016 02:26:13AM 1 point [-]

Well, OK, Dawkins doesn't use the word "idiot." He says that anyone who believes in God is suffering from "a pernicious delusion" (The God Delusion, Chapter 2). I think most people would say that distinguishing between idiocy and pernicious delusions is splitting a pretty fine hair. But be that as it may, the point is: Dawkins has absolutely no sympathy for religious belief of any kind for any reason. Or at least he didn't in 2006. Maybe he's mellowed since then. (But I met him in 2012 in a social setting and he told me, apropos of nothing, "I despise religion.")

Comment author: gjm 11 February 2016 10:42:39AM 3 points [-]

most people would say that distinguishing between idiocy and pernicious delusions is splitting a pretty fine hair

I think there's a big difference. "Because they are an idiot" is saying something wide-ranging about that person's nature: they're just Not Very Bright. If someone is an idiot, we can expect them to be generally intellectually incompetent. "suffering from a pernicious delusion" is saying something much narrower about one area of their life: they are wrong about this one thing. If someone has a pernicious delusion, we can expect them to make serious errors about things closely related to that delusion, but aside from that they might be wise and ingenious and quick-witted and so forth. Pointing out the difference between these is not hair-splitting.

no sympathy for religious belief

That may be true (though so far as I can see the thing you link to doesn't show that it is). But so what?

You cited Dawkins as an example of someone who believes the proposition you were arguing against: "that the only possible reason anyone could even profess to believe in God is because they are an idiot". I don't think he believes this. I know I don't believe this. I really don't think there are many rationalists who believe it.

Now, maybe what you're actually arguing against is something broader -- e.g., that we shouldn't say unpleasant things about religion, or that we shouldn't hold any negative opinion about religious people that goes beyond "they are probably wrong on such-and-such factual questions". But so far as I can see the arguments you've been making aren't of the right form to lead to such conclusions, even were they correct in every detail.

Comment author: SoerenE 11 February 2016 06:29:29AM 2 points [-]

It is possible to be extremely intelligent, and suffer from a delusion.

Comment author: lisper 11 February 2016 05:41:27PM -1 points [-]

Of course it's possible. That's not the point. The point is that "pernicious delusion" is pejorative in much the same way that "idiot" is (which is why I extrapolated it that way). Both imply some sort of mental deficiency or disorder. If someone believes in God, on this view, it can only be because their brains are broken.

To be sure, some people do have broken brains, and some people believe in God as a result. The hypothesis that I'm advancing here is that some people may believe in God not because their brains are broken, but because they have had (real) subjective experiences that non-believers generally have not had.

Comment author: SoerenE 11 February 2016 07:32:19PM 2 points [-]

I am tapping out of this thread.

Comment author: TheMajor 10 February 2016 12:26:05AM 1 point [-]

Could you taboo 'are [...] about' in your "what people call "spiritual experiences" are largely about community and shared subjective experience."?

Also your main point, that religious people reach their conclusions partly because they have experienced different things than non-religious people, is simply true. But why would you write a long metaphor-riddled piece about this, and give it the clickbait title "Is Spirituality Irrational?". And even with this formulation there is still some Motte-and-Bailey going on if you intend to reconcile spirituality and rationality - just because different experiences were a contributing factor to accepting spirituality does not strongly support that spirituality and rationality can go hand-in-hand. Most importantly your final claim doesn't seem to help in answering my 'core conflict' above.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 02:50:36AM 1 point [-]

Could you taboo...

Sorry, that didn't parse.

But why would you write a long metaphor-riddled piece about this,

Because not everyone believes it to be true. And because metaphor can be an effective rhetorical device for some audiences.

and give it the clickbait title "Is Spirituality Irrational?"

Because it was written in response to an article entitled "Religious and Rational?"

Most importantly your final claim doesn't seem to help in answering my 'core conflict' above.

I'm not sure what you're referring to as my "final claim." But my intent here is not to reconcile religion and rationality; that can't be done. My intent here is just to try to provide an alternative explanation of how people arrive at religious conclusions than the "they are all idiots" hypothesis, with the hope that this might lead to more constructive dialog.

Comment author: CCC 10 February 2016 01:46:41PM 0 points [-]

Could you taboo...

Sorry, that didn't parse.

Taboo Your Words should provide the necessary context to parse TheMajor's query.

I think.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 06:27:09PM 0 points [-]

Ah, I see. OK, well, let me begin by re-stating my original disclaimer that I actually have no idea what the answer to the question is, and that this is pure speculation on my part. But with that firmly in mind, here's my best shot at re-forumulation that speculation under this taboo.

Let's recall the original question:

when the stories found in the Bible were first told, were they claims of truth or mostly persuasion tricks?

I don't think this is an exhaustive enumeration of the possibilities. My guess (and I cannot emphasize that enough) is that they were (and remain) attempts to make sense of subjective experiences that many people actually do experience. In that sense they were more "claims of truth" than "persuasion tricks".

However...

There is some evidence (I don't have the references handy but I can probably find them if you really want to know) that the ancients view of truth and falsehood was very different from the modern conception. The ancients had at least three categories of "truth", what we moderns would roughly call "objective physical truth", "fiction or falsehood", and "myth." The ancients believed that a claim like, "And God said..." was of a very different nature than a claim like, "Achmed ate an apple yesterday." Part of the problem with modern thought -- and one of the reasons that it seems to lead to so many intractable arguments -- is that we insist on getting rid of the "myth" category and lumping all claims into two buckets: objectively true or objectively false.

It is easy to see that this is problematic in other regimes, like artistic beauty. Most moderns readily recognize that it makes no sense to try to categorize a claim like, "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon is a beautiful painting" into "objectively true" or "objectively false." (Note, however, that David Deutsch actually disputes this!) The ancients would have considered an attempt to categorize "the law was given by the gods" as "objectively true" or "objectively false" to be equally futile.

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2016 10:50:31PM 1 point [-]

Moreover, I think there is evidence to support this position beyond just the intuitive argument I've presented here. The idea that religion evolved as a way of maintaining social cohesion is hardly original with me.

What has social cohesion to do with spirituality? Why do you consider those to be linked? You don't explain that at all in your post.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:14:20AM 1 point [-]

That's true, sorry about that. I actually wrote this piece many months ago, and it's a topic on which I have written extensively elsewhere. I've made the social-cohesion argument elsewhere, and I just forgot that I hadn't made it here. But here is the argument in a nutshell: we are social creatures, and many (if not all) of our social interactions are fundamentally based on shared subjective experiences: sharing the same meal, watching the same sunset, understanding the same proof. The religious trappings that tend to surround spirituality -- the holy texts and the prayers and the rituals -- can be understood as attempts to create social interactions anchored by the kinds of euphoric experiences I describe in my piece, the kind of experience that is hard to render into words beyond something like "Feeling the presence of the holy spirit" or something like that. It's the difference between looking at the grooves (which is what rational people tend to do when the look at religion), and listening to the music (spiritual experience), and going to a concert and getting carried around in the mosh pit (going to church).

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 February 2016 12:30:45PM 4 points [-]

It's the difference between looking at the grooves (which is what rational people tend to do when the look at religion)

It seems that you refer with the term rational to new atheist or something in that direction but not necessarily with what this community means with the term.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 06:29:06PM 1 point [-]

That's quite possible. If I used the term inappropriately, I apologize. So I'll re-phrase: "which is what a certain sub-set of non-religious people tend to do when they look at religion".

Comment author: ChristianKl 09 February 2016 10:47:53PM *  4 points [-]

The reason I want to convince you to entertain this notion is that an awful lot of energy gets wasted by arguing against religious beliefs on logical grounds, pointing out contradictions in the Bible and whatnot.

LessWrong isn't a place that spends a lot of energy on arguing against religious beliefs. I don't think it makes much sense to copy every article from Intentional Insights to this place (even when Gleb isn't doing it himself) if the article is written for a different audience.

Spiritual is a word is a variety of different meanings:

1) Refering to the 5th element, spirit. That thing that goes around in circles. Planets move in circles around the earth because they are made from it. I think angels are also supposed to made from it. That notion of spirit also means that astrology is about spirituality when it's not about alterned state of consciousness.
2) Refering to sacredness. A value that's not tradeable with money. Moral beliefs are that way. But the Iranian's belief that Iran has a right to their own civil nuclear program also belongs in that category.
3) The feeling of being connected.
4) Deriving knowledge from intuition.
5) Epoché.
6) Surrendering.
7) Marveling at the greatness of the universe
8) Dealing with an immortal soul that distinct from our biological body and lives on after we die.
9) Feeling states of bliss
10) Things having meaning 11) Getting visions

If you want to write for LW, define your terms. Don't argue with vague notions but be specific about what you are arguing for.

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 11:51:06PM 3 points [-]

I will take your advice to heart in the future. This was my first post to LW, and was actually a little unsure about how appropriate it was. Now I know.

Comment author: solipsist 12 February 2016 08:48:58PM 3 points [-]

Eh, don't take it personally. I'm guessing commenters are implicitly taking the title question as a challenge and are pouncing to poke holes in your argument. I thought your essay was well written and thought provoking. Keep posting!

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 10 February 2016 12:05:02AM 1 point [-]

First, regarding InIn articles. I very much agree that not every article from Intentional Insights should be posted on Less Wrong! That would not be helpful, as most LWs are familiar with the content that InIn popularizes for a broad audience.

Only select articles are a good fit, ones that are not obvious and might reveal interesting things to LWs. This, I believe, is one of them. As an active Less Wronger myself, I gained some insights from reading it, for example here and other ones as well. I think other LWs might as well, and some of the comments on this post attest to this, I think.

Second, regarding the word spiritual. The ten things you listed also have some vagueness to them. For example, what does it mean for things to have meaning? What does it mean to feel connected? What does it meant to have a feeling of sacredness?

Communication is hard. It's difficult to translate mentalese into English, especially with vague concepts like "meaning," "connectedness," "sacredness," "spirituality." So while I personally don't prefer the term spiritual myself due to its overuse by religious people, but I am comfortable with other aspiring rationalists using it if that's the term that resonates with them and their experience. Heck, lisper acknowledges it's not the perfect term, and is open to suggestions for better ones.

I think the key is to figure out if the territory we are describing is the same, because the semantics of the mental map are less important than the territory of reality. That would be a very productive conversation, I think.

Comment author: ChristianKl 10 February 2016 11:33:45AM 4 points [-]

Tabooing vague terms is a key rationality technique. If you want to write an article about spirituality on LW, I think you should start with tabooing the term and explaing what you mean. Once you have done so, I'm fine with you continuing to use the word.

Without going through that exercise there a huge danger of being to vague to be wrong.

Heck, lisper acknowledges it's not the perfect term, and is open to suggestions for better ones.

The problem is not that it's the wrong term but that the article doesn't spend effort into trying to clarify what it means with the term.

Given that he says that he means "social cohesion" with the term later in this thread, it seems to me like he's not clear what he means with it himself.

What does it meant to have a feeling of sacredness?

I haven't spoken about a feeling of sacredness but wanted to refer to sacred values. I mean what the decision science literature means with the term. It operationalized the term. See Emerging sacred values: Iran’s nuclear program if you want to know more.

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 10 February 2016 03:46:46PM 2 points [-]

Agreed about tabooing being valuable!

I certainly hear your point about explaining more about what spirituality means, and I'm glad that the discussion here prompted lisper to clarify that more. Also agreed that the article would have been better if it went into definitions of spirituality more than it did just by comparing it to euphoria.

I enjoyed the sacred values piece, thanks for linking it!

Comment author: gjm 09 February 2016 03:40:12PM 2 points [-]

my parents sent me to a Christian summer camp

I have (to my shame) been one of the leaders of a Christian summer camp, though possibly a geekier and broader-minded one than your Kentucky one. I guarantee you that when the leaders of the camp you went to declared their belief in God, they did not simply mean that they had had euphoric religious experiences.

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 05:34:46PM 3 points [-]

Of course, just as when most people say, "The apple is red" they don't simply mean that they had the subjective experience of seeing a red apple. Most people mean that the apple is in fact red. But the reason they believe that the apple is red is because they had the subjective experience of seeing a red apple with their own eyes. Likewise, many people believe in the reality of God because they had a subjective experience that they believe to have been the presence of the holy spirit or something like that.

Comment author: gjm 09 February 2016 08:35:47PM 2 points [-]

I think you are equivocating between two claims.

One: "When (some) religious people say (some of) what they do about God, they aren't really making statements of fact, they are expressing certain internal experiences that are difficult or impossible to get across more directly."

Two: "When (some) religious people say (some of) what they do about God, they are making (what they consider to be) statements of fact, but their belief in those statements is derived from certain internal experiences that are difficult or impossible to get across more directly."

Claim One is what would have to be true to justify, e.g., your statement that arguing about religious experiences misses the point because religious talk isn't about logic but about subjective experiences. However, Claim One seems to me to be almost certainly very false as regards most of what most religious people say.

Claim Two is probably true of many (though clearly not all) believers. However, "X's claims about God have X's religious experiences as part of their evidence base" is no more reason for not debating those claims than "X's claims about God have X's sacred scriptures as part of their evidence base" or "X's claims about God have certain contentious claims about fundamental physics as part of their evidence base".

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 03:08:12AM 2 points [-]

There's also some interesting discussion of this piece on the Less Wrong Facebook page here.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 09 February 2016 08:02:23PM 3 points [-]

I'm not clear why this is downvoted so much. I think the point it is making ("some people believe in God because they have had first-hand subjective experiences for which the best explanation that they can come up with is that they were caused by God") is not obvious (except likely in hindsight) and the path via analogy and such seem suitable for people who have not had these kinds of experiences. But maybe it does target the wrong audience.

Let's tease that out with a poll:

I have had spiritual experiences

Spiritual experiences exist for some people

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

Spiritual experiences have a physiological/psychological explanation

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

Spiritual experiences are evidence for truth of religion

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

The point raised by this post is new for me

Strongly Disagree Strongly Agree

Submitting...

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:19:46AM 3 points [-]

Thanks, Gunnar! Reading the other comments (and watching my karma sink below the threshold for future submissions) I was starting to feel some despair.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 12 February 2016 03:01:31PM 1 point [-]

I'm not clear why this is downvoted so much.

People don't come to a rationalist forum to hear about spiritual experiences. The OP should have anticipated that.

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 09:41:30PM 0 points [-]

Agreed, the points this article made were only obvious in hindsight to me.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2016 04:00:04PM 2 points [-]

As people have mentioned, your starting analogy is bad :-/

Otherwise, do you think that replacing "spiritual experiences" with "altered states of mind" throughout your post would change things?

Comment author: lisper 09 February 2016 05:44:34PM 4 points [-]

A "spiritual experience" is an altered state of mind, but not all altered states of mind are spiritual experiences.

I've gotten a lot of pushback on my use of the word "spiritual", and I am mindful that this word has a lot of irrational baggage associated with it. And I'm open to suggestions, but so far no one has been able to come up with a suitable alternative.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2016 05:47:42PM 2 points [-]

A "spiritual experience" is an altered state of mind, but not all altered states of mind are spiritual experiences.

Can you define a "spiritual experience", then? What distinguishes it from other kinds of altered state of mind?

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 09 February 2016 08:36:24PM 0 points [-]

Can you define a "spiritual experience", then?

Apparently that isn't easy.

Spirituality is a complex multidimensional concept (Cook 2004; Hill et al. 2000; George et al. 2000; Moberg 2002). The concept defies clear-cut boundaries, which also applies to other latent constructs that are often used, such as character, well-being and health (Miller and Thoresen 2003). Many definitions of spirituality have been proposed from different disciplines and perspectives. For example, spirituality has been described as “the way in which people understand and live their lives in view of their ultimate meaning and value” (Muldoon and King 1995), p. 336), as “a subjective experience of the sacred” (Vaughan 1991, p. 105), and as “a quality that goes beyond religious affiliation, that strives for inspirations, reverence, awe, meaning and purpose, even in those who do not believe in any good.” (Murray and Zenter 1989). It seems almost impossible to find a description with which the majority of people would agree. Zinnbauer et al. (1999) described five studies in which various groups of people were asked to define spirituality. They concluded that differences in the responses of the participants outweighed by far the similarities. McSherry and Cash (2004) even stated that we should accept that the word ‘spirituality’ has different meanings.

-- Measuring Spirituality as a Universal Human Experience: A Review of Spirituality Questionnaires by Eltica de Jager Meezenbroek

Consequently they

have defined spirituality as one’s striving for and experience of connection with oneself, connectedness with others and nature and connectedness with the transcendent.

And I think the spiritual experience lisper is referring to is the last:

Aspects related to this last theme are awe, hope, sacredness, adoration of the transcendent and transcendental experiences.

Interestingly the hypothesis that people take these experiences as evidence for God is confirmed by the facts:

Subscales that measure transcendental aspects are moderately or strongly associated (r ≥ .30) with religiosity measures.

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2016 08:43:22PM 0 points [-]

have defined spirituality as one’s striving for and experience of connection with oneself, connectedness with others and nature and connectedness with the transcendent.

I don't find that useful at all.

Let's say I took some magic mushrooms, ran naked around the desert for a while, and experienced certain somethings. On the basis of what would I decide whether my experience was "spiritual" or "not spiritual"?

Comment author: [deleted] 04 April 2016 06:32:13PM 0 points [-]

Well, generally people call things "spiritual" when they do all that other stuff you mentioned, and then think that the resulting states of mind are about the world in some reliable-causal-link sense.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 09 February 2016 08:55:12PM 0 points [-]

If it is different from other experiences you had?

Maybe you could go thru this list and look whether anything looks unknown to you:

http://www.unexplainedstuff.com/Mysteries-of-the-Mind/Altered-States-of-Consciousness.html

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2016 09:05:23PM 0 points [-]

If it is different from other experiences you had?

Yes, sure :-D It certainly qualifies as an "altered state of consciousness". But does it qualify as "spiritual"? How do I decide?

Comment author: Gleb_Tsipursky 09 February 2016 09:43:35PM 0 points [-]

Might be helpful to check out the definition of spirituality :-)

Comment author: Lumifer 09 February 2016 10:27:16PM 0 points [-]

Still not useful.

Presumably, lisper, being the author, means something by that word, other than vague handwaving in a vague direction like Wikipedia does.

Comment author: lisper 10 February 2016 12:57:24AM 1 point [-]

Yeah, I mean something slightly more specific, but still hard to get a linguistic handle on. I mean a kind of subjective experience that can be induced by certain practices (prayer, meditation, walking in the woods...) that manifests as feelings ranging from a kind of euphoric awe to a palpable sense of the presence of supernatural forces. It is distinct from alcohol intoxication, love, lust, the qualia of eating delicious food or listening to music and a host of other things that are part and parcel of the human experience (at least for most humans).

Comment author: Angela 17 February 2016 02:26:58PM 1 point [-]

There is a specific emotion which can be induced by some types of trailer, classical and religious music, meditation, long distance running, psychedelics, natural beauty, some types of art and thinking about certain abstract topics (especially consciousness, theoretical physics, pure maths, meta-ethics, economics) - an emotion that might be described as 'cosmic sadness', 'intense euphoria' or 'being profoundly moved'.

It is rational for a hedonist to seek to experience this emotion even though experiencing it often causes irrational beliefs, because it is the most pleasurable of all emotions. The emotion is more easily triggered following a period of low mood and is subsequently often followed by a period of improved mood - the popular fallacy that 'suffering is ultimately a good thing' may occur because people notice a pleasurable emotion happening after suffering has occurred.

Until late adolescence I referred to this emotion as 'a spiritual experience' and used it as justification for cranky beliefs - it wasn't until after I stumbled across HPMOR that I learnt to experience this emotion whilst maintaining the belief that the emotion had entirely natural causes.

Comment author: lisper 29 February 2016 03:06:10AM 1 point [-]

Here's a firsthand account of someone having the sort of spiritual experience I'm referring to in the main article.

Comment author: eof-jessica 03 April 2016 11:31:07AM 0 points [-]

personal experience which is often motivated by how we interpret our beliefs based on what we have been told or conditioned to think about it should give it merit to convert us or take over our mind or think for us rather then our own mind.

Comment author: Germaine 07 May 2016 03:00:45PM 0 points [-]

Archeological evidence of spirituality goes back tens of thousands of years or maybe more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_origin_of_religions#Prehistoric_evidence_of_religion

My reading of cognitive science suggests to me that spirituality is hard wired, but how that wiring manifests itself varies from person to person. As this discussion points out, listening to music is spiritual for some people. But, for millions of Christian Americans spirituality manifests as a deeply held belief that the bible is to be taken literally and, e.g., the Earth is less than about 10,000 years old.

I used to believe that it was a waste of time to logically argue against religion because "fact-based" logic and "spiritual-based" arguments are completely different things. One observer sees secular vs. religion debates as comparing Oranges to France: http://ivn.us/2014/02/06/creation-vs-evolution-debate-two/

But now, I'm not so sure. Assuming that American society is better off with less religion in the formal Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc., sense, there is a tangible upside to simply engaging in the debate. One person pointed out to me that unless the debate is engaged people are simply not hearing the other side. Cognitive science says that repeated exposure to the same thing tends to make it more familiar and that tends to make it more believable. It may be the case that religious people who defend religion in debates will never change their mind, but that says nothing about the minds of the people listening to the debate. A debate heard years before coupled with current circumstances can lead to a change of heart for some people. It is a fact that some religious people become atheists and some atheists sometimes become religious. Minds sometimes do change.

Comment author: lisper 09 May 2016 10:09:49PM 0 points [-]

I completely agree that engaging in the debate is worthwhile. But I think you can engage more effectively if you understand how people might come to the opposing point of view.

Comment author: Vamair0 06 May 2016 07:12:33AM *  0 points [-]

It seems interesting that a lot of spiritual experiences are something that happens in non-normal situations. To get them people may try denying food or sleep, stay in the same place for a long time without motion, working themselves to exhaustion, eating poisons, going to a place of different atmospheric pressure or do something else they don't normally try to do. The whole process is suspiciously similar to program testing, when you try the program in some situations its creator (evolution in case of humans) haven't "thought" much about. And then sometimes there are bugs. And if you don't follow the protocols for already discovered bugs you either risk crashing something really important or getting nothing at all. Bugs are real and may give a valuable information on the program's inner workings, but they're not "the final truth about the underlaying reality".

The belief of the revelatory nature of spiritual experiences may be a result of a "just world" bias. When you get your reward you've been working for for years, it's easier to believe you understood something profound about the reality rather than that you've discovered an error in your brain. If that's the case then "If you spin a lot, you'll get vertigo" or "if you sit on your hand long enough, there would be strange feeling there" or "look through the autostereogram picture to see it in 3D" may be thought of as spiritual experiences, but they're too easy and mundane for that.