Thursday, June 14, 2012

Environmental Vow 22: Is Practical Philosophy Religion? Spirituality?

       This raises an interesting question, though.  If Christianity felt itself threatened by what I’ve called “practical philosophy”, was it because it is yet another religion?  Is it perhaps what people call “spirituality”?   Or is it something else altogether?   I don’t believe that these are trivial questions, because it highlights a problem that I have found in my own personal pursuit of Daoism.

First of all, it is useful to come up with a definition of “religion”.  The term generally refers to a complex belief system and how it operates within a human culture.  To a great extent, it deals with how a group of people, either at one time or over a long period of history, relate to one another.  The religion of Roman Catholicism, for example, refers to a large group of people who currently live all over the Earth, and also, who have lived from the time of the end of the Western Roman Empire up until the present day.  It includes a body of writings and traditions that govern the behaviour of individual followers of the religion, as well as a large institution that is hierarchically organized from the Pope in Rome to the altar boy in the parish church.

In contrast, “spirituality”, involves the interior life of an individual.  It comes from a person trying to make sense of the experiences of his or her life.  These experiences can arise from random events, from disciplined meditation practice, or they can be the insights and observations that the individual has gleaned from reading texts and/or interacting with other, perhaps more experienced practitioners.  It can be totally idiosyncratic and is sometimes at odds with the teachings and practice of a religion.  Or it can be completely in tune with these traditions and institutions.

Practical philosophy is often described as being from a specific “school”, such as Daoism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and so on.  But, I would argue, these schools are significantly different from religions for several reasons.  

First of all, adherence to a specific school of practical philosophy is a free choice based upon a personal decision that this specific worldview makes the most sense to the individual.  No one is born into something like Stoicism or Cynicism in the same way that someone is born into a Catholic or Muslim family.   In effect, the different tenants of a school of practical philosophy are descriptive instead of being prescriptive or credal.   People who know about such things will often talk to someone and make a decision that a person is a “a Stoic” or “a Cynic”# based on the way they look at the world.   In contrast, people are born and/or baptised as Catholics and they are trained/forced to learn to adhere to a specific definition of what it means to be a Roman Catholic.

Secondly, practical philosophy is taught through the exercise of reason.  This takes place in two ways, deductively and inductively.  The former is the process whereby someone comes to a conclusion through a logical reasoning.

For example, let’s look closely at the quotation I mentioned before from Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

What the philosopher is telling us to do is to think through what exactly it means to say that some particular being is both omnipotent and good.  If a being has both qualities, then why, for example, do children still suffer?  If there is a reason why this has to be and there is nothing he can do about it, then what does it mean to say that the individual in question is “omnipotent”?  If, on the other hand, he is able to stop innocent children from suffering and he simply chooses not to do so, what does it mean to say that he is “good”?  In either case, we would be using the words “omnipotent” and “good”, respectively, in some sort of weird way that meant that we are not using the words as everyone else does.   And if we aren’t using these words in any sort of understandable way, what have we actually learned about what we are calling “God” when we describe him as being both “omnipotent” and “good”?   If saying that God is “omnipotent” and/or “good” really doesn’t mean much of anything at all, then does the word “God” itself mean anything?  If not, then why believe in him?

Inductive reasoning comes from looking at the world you inhabit and attempting to find evidence in favour of one point of view as opposed to another.   Take this example of a pithy Stoic saying by Epictetus:  "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire."  This is a very different sort of thing in that it is making a statement of fact that cannot be either proved or disproved through logical inference.  Instead, the person who hears or sees this statement is expected to think about their personal life experiences and the people they have met, and try and decide if this statement is in accordance with his or her experience or not.  He might think about the time as a child he desperately wanted some sort of present from his parents, yet found that once he had it, it turned out that it wasn’t all that nice and that he pretty much immediately wanted something else.  He might think the same thing about the promotion he wanted at work or the woman he desired as a lover.

One important thing that should be understood about the deductive and inductive methods employed by practical philosophy is that neither one is a source of authoritative, revealed “Truth” with a capital “T”.  Instead, what the insight and wisdom that comes from this process is accumulated piece by piece as different people in a culture communicate and discuss their insights.  Eventually, a consensus emerges about what is and is not a good way of understanding the world around us.  In contrast, religious teachings are invariably “revealed” by the authority of religious prophets and sacred texts.  This is not to say that innovation and change doesn’t happen within religious traditions, but rather that those traditions will not admit that there is a process of innovation and change because to do so would weaken their authority in the eyes of believers.

To cite one example, consider the case of celibacy in the clergy.  In the New Testament most of the key figures were married and the only unambiguous statement on the matter is as follows:  “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife---” (1 Timothy, 3:2).   Various branches of the Roman Catholic church allowed marriage, until the assertion of Papal Authority in the high Middle Ages.  To this day, the Orthodox Church of Greece and Eastern Europe, which is every bit as old as the Roman Catholic church, allows its clergy to marry.   Knowledge of these facts are not widely promoted within the Catholic body, but instead, the clear suggestion is that celibacy is something that “comes from God” instead of being the result of historical political struggles within the Church power structure for practical reasons (i.e. to stop the priesthood from becoming an inherited position and to allow the Church to reassign a parish held by a priest on his death.)

The value of hiding behind the coat-tails of God comes from the fact that decisions that are made by man can be undone by man.  But if a political decision can be effectively sold as coming straight from God himself, any attempt to change a specific state of affairs ceases to be ordinary political activity and instead becomes an act of blasphemy.  This means that people who are unhappy with any specific element of the church either “suck it up” and accept that “God is mysterious”, or, leave the church altogether because they’ve “lost their faith”.  This second option is only recently available to people, as in times past this option would have led to being tortured to death as a “heretic”.  This gives whomever is in charge an enormous increase in their power.

Add together a lot of these different politically-arrived at decisions that hide behind the coat-tails of God, and you have what is known as a “creed”, or statement of faith for a religion.

Since many readers probably haven’t seen a creed, here is the “Nicene Creed”.  It was the result of a lot of wrangling and compromise at a conference (or “Council”) that was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine the First.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen

 English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC)

The importance of a Creed is as a yardstick or dividing line between heresy and orthodoxy.  As such, it is a tool for asserting dominance and control by an ecclesiastic authority over the rank-and-file membership of a religious group.  This particular creed was developed as a method for differentiating the official or orthodox church from the so-called “Arian heresy”, which taught that Jesus was not originally a part of God, but was instead created as a divine creation of God.#  As such, it was intended as deadly serious and had the effect of consigning many men and women to very painful deaths.    Not only was it intended to separate out heretics from orthodox believers, it serves as a form of thought control.  Orthodox believers who fall under the sway of a creed, are expected to live in an Orwellian world where they must learn to conform their thoughts to an official version of reality instead of following their ideas where they may lead them.

Practical philosophy is very different.  It involves thinking things through and following your insights where they lead you.   There is no physical compulsion involved.  If for some reason you simply cannot accept a specific idea, you are free to go your own way.  And people often do, which is why there are so many schools of practical philosophy.  There are many different religions and sects, too.  But they usually had to fight wars in order to gain the freedom to practice their religions.  In contrast, schools of philosophy have debates.  And success doesn’t come from winning battles and killing anyone who disagrees with you, but rather by having your ideas survive from generation to generation.  The existence of different schools of philosophy isn’t seen as proof of the devil’s ability to confuse people, but rather that life is very complex, people have very different life experience,  and people know very little.  As a result, even though people have gained hard-fought insights we know too little to assume that any of use really know any sort of “ultimate Truth”.  In contrast, even though religious believers will often make statements of humility towards the vastness of their God, they act as if they have a “lock” on absolute Truth.

So, if practical philosophy isn’t a religion, could it be a form of “spirituality”?  

It might be, but it depends on how you define the term.  As commonly used, “spirituality” refers to the individual, interior experience.  Often it is associated with strongly emotional experiences that can be called “mystical”, but at the very least are deeply meaningful to the individual.  This puts the realm of the spiritual at odds with the religious, in that as I explained above, the religious realm tends to deal with creeds and institutions.  I am willing to admit that the inductive and deductive reasoning that practical philosophy follows is ultimately grounded in the intuitions of individual people.  As such, both have some similarity to other experiences of human beings that are meaning-filled.

This might seem like a strange statement to people who assume that logic has some sort of priority over other intuitions in the realm of human experience.  But it simply is the case that the validity of statements such as “A cannot equal not A”, or “Socrates is a man, all men are mammals, therefore Socrates is a mammal” ultimately comes down to an intuition that a great many other people also share.#  And it is also the case that some people simply seem to be oblivious to logic.  For example, I have met people who argue that the Bible is totally without error and literally true.  When asked how they came to that opinion, they will argue that it says so in the Bible.  When I point out that this is circular reasoning, they do not seem to be able to understand the point I am making.#

Where what I am calling practical philosophy diverges from spirituality is that ultimately it is a collective process.   People who make decisions about the world not only think their ideas through using the process of inductive and deductive reasoning, they also express these ideas to others and enter into a dialogue about both their truthfulness and their meaning.  Authority figures in religious institutions also express their ideas to others, but they do not enter into a dialogue.  Instead, they use force to impose their viewpoint on others.  People who are following a spiritual path may not have the option of imposing their views on others, but they are not entering into a dialogue with others either.

A dialogue is a very specific sort of relationship between people.  It is based on a willingness by two people to entire into a conversation where each is willing to discard their previous beliefs if the other person can come up with a better argument.   The attitude that is brought to bear in a true dialogue makes it very different from some other things that may bear superficial similarity----such as political debates or court trials.   In these cases the parties involve may use inductive and deductive logic, but these are just two elements of a much larger arsenal of rhetoric that are designed to sway audiences to support their position.  People debating outside the “community of the dialogue”, routinely try to confuse people with complex and misleading arguments, appeal to their prejudice and feel that they have no responsibility to admit an error in reasoning when it is pointed out to them.    No political debate ends with one candidate saying about the other “He’s made the better argument and shown me the flaws in my thinking----vote for him instead of me.”   It is, however, sometimes the case that a dialogue does end with the following sort of statements by one side “You’ve got me there.   You are right.”  or “I hadn’t thought about that point.  It does make my side of the issue seem wrong, doesn’t it?”

The dividing line over whether or not someone is willing to admit error and move on has tremendous social implications.  It allows practical philosophy to be accumulative. That is to say, as human society moves through history, people are able to slowly accumulate more and more knowledge about the world around us, and build up on the work of previous generations.  This is most obvious in the realm of science and technology where experimentation can disprove a given hypothesis.  But even in the realm of something more nebulous, like philosophy, it is also true.  Almost all of the arguments that I have used in this essay originated in the minds of other people, which I have found out by reading the books that have been written on various subjects.  Because each and everyone of these arguments has been subjected to a rigorous debate whether or not they “make sense”, there has been a collective “sifting out” of the ones that are found to be false, and, a “polishing up” of others so that we end up with the very best explanations.

This essay is standing on the shoulders of giants.  And that is the big difference between practical philosophy and spirituality.  Because philosophy allows itself to enter into the community of the dialogue, and submit to rigorous appraisal based on both inductive and deductive reasoning, it offers the hope of slowly adding to the sum total of humanity’s wisdom.

In contrast, when I talk to a great many people who hold “spiritual beliefs”, I find instead a tremendous unwillingness to submit their “insights” to any sort of rigorous analysis.  They either get angry that anyone would question them, or, they simply assume an air of moral superiority and refuse to communicate at all.  Often an assertion is made that it is just “too ineffable to describe”.  But the person who makes these sorts of statements almost invariably use these experiences to make further claims that certainly do require some public discussion, such as, for example, that God exists.

Oddly enough, several philosophers have expressed that they too have had various uncanny, perhaps “mystical” experiences (for example, Socrates’ “Daemon voice” and Descartes “three dreams”.)#   But the difference between the philosophical point of view and the spiritual is that the philosopher doesn’t simply assume that nothing relevant can be said about the experience, but instead tries to figure out exactly what the experience meant.  In effect, I am asserting the when a spiritual person says that they are having an “ineffable” mystical experience, they simply aren’t trying very hard to explain exactly what the experience was like or to understand what it signifies.

I would also suggest that there is a very strong reason why many people would want to refrain from carefully exploring their spiritual experiences, one that bears close resemblance to institutional religions development of creeds.  If someone has an experience that is “ineffable”, it means that the person who has had it has attained some level of spiritual authority gives them a greater status than someone else who has not had it.  It stops people flat in their tracks when you can say “Well, if you’d had the experience yourself, you’d know I am right.”  An appeal to a special type of authority, one that by definition cannot be scrutinized for authenticity or relevance is one of the easiest ways to opt out of the “community of the dialogue”.


Anonymous said...

i agree the vast majority of people that make mystical/contemplative claims are trying to one-up people, or gain some psychological control over others.

however, as they say "with all this horse manure, there has to be a pony in there somewhere."

specifically, sam harris, one of the so-called new atheists, is actually quite friendly towards specific flavors of contemplation. an excerpt towards the later part of this speech:


[excerpt put into separate post, as it makes the post too long]

alas, i suspect his view is a minority view within the atheist community, and atheism is a minority view, and few in religious communities would likely agree with it. (and contemplatives/mystics are rather rare within religious communities too.)

therefore, while i disagree with you that the "spiritual" view can't be tested, as a practical matter so few do it that when talking about society at-large, it's barely worth making the distinction.

however, when choosing how to allocate your time to investigating such phenomenon, i think it worth knowing that there might be something worthwhile in there.


Anonymous said...

here's the second part of the comment, the excerpt i mentioned in the first post:


From the point of view of our contemplative traditions, however—to boil them all down to a cartoon version, that ignores the rather esoteric disputes among them—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.

But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.

To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.

One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.

As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness.

So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations—and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.


The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I don't make these points lightly. Like Sam Harris, I've spent a great deal of my life investigating contemplative religion. I did a Master's degree where my major investigation was on this subject and I've spent a lot of time "on the cushions". Amongst other things, I was initiated into a Daoist lineage----which is extremely rare for Chinese people and damn near unheard of for Westerners like myself.

As I grew more confident in my understanding I realized a couple things.

First of all, the term "mystical" is very vague. People use it to mean a great many things ranging from things like "born again conversions" through seeing visions and hearing voices to the "unative experience".

What I found in my research was that people who pursue this sort of thing in their day-to-day life (who should be "experts") have almost no understanding about the different types of experience and, more importantly, have no interest in gaining any understanding of their experiences. I was dumb-founded by the naivete and outright lack of curiosity that religious people have towards these experiences. Take a look at the letters of Mother Teresa for an example.

Secondly, I found zero, zilch, nada, evidence that people with high mystical attainment had gained any sort of wisdom from the experience. What is the value of a religious experience if you are still an ethical ignoramous after having had "deep discernment". See, for example, Brian Victoria's books on collusion between Zen Buddhism and the Imperial Japanese Empire. Even more revealing was the response by modern, Western Zen masters to Victoria's exposes. Almost all of them came up with profoundly bogus excuses for the behaviour of their Zen forefathers. None of them wrestled with the fundamental issue of "what is the value of Zen realization if it cannot even keep you from colluding with war criminals?"

More to the point, I am not opposed to meditation and contemplation. Indeed, I intend to write about the value of such things later on in my essay. But I do believe that it is possible to parse out the study and practice of such things in such a way that we can learn to understand their content. The problem of mysticism per ce is that it is, as I have said, almost exclusively described as being "incapable of explanation". I do not believe that this is true, and I certainly believe that it is far, far, far too often used to justify idiotic religious beliefs that it simply cannot.