Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to Rationalise became the podcast where we explored the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I am your host, Masimo, and with me, as always, is my co-host, Julia Gillard. Julia, what are we going to talk about today?
Well, this might sound surprising to some of our listeners, but we're going to talk about spirituality and what.
Yes, I know. Well, so to be more precise, we're going to talk about the question of what do people mean when they describe themselves as spiritual or spiritual, but not religious.
And we'll also talk about what we're talking about dating sites now.
What are you referring to? Would you like to enlighten us?
Well, yes, of course, you may know this, that on dating sites, many dating sites, you actually put your you know, you have options at least to put your religious affiliation or lack thereof. But different sites list different options for some religious people or for nonbelievers. Some of them say it is during last because I mean, some of them have an option and says spiritual but not religious. Yeah, well, it's not just dating sites.
I mean, there there's that's I think it's a common descriptor on Facebook for people to describe themselves as spiritual or spiritual, but not religious. In fact, it's spiritual but not religious has inspired an acronym because it's so common. And so sometimes people just put SBN are men anyway.
So we we will talk about what that actually entails.
Yeah, well, my my my experience is that spiritual but not religious on dating sites means the person is a mystical new age kind of person.
But anyway, how many days did it take to reach a significant level of significance that you could publish?
I'd say that was than and greater than one.
Well, I would hope so. Mr. Empiricism over there.
Anyway, we'll talk about how that term is used, what it means, and then we'll also talk about whether there are elements of what has traditionally been the realm of spirituality that secular, rationalist, physicalist people could benefit from borrowing.
So, Masimo, I'd be happy to start off describing what I think the term spiritual but not religious means.
So it means different things. Unsurprisingly, I think that a lot of the time and this is most often, I think, the case when when someone that I know has called themselves spiritual but not religious, I think that it's not really about proclaiming any particular kind of belief system or ideology.
It's not making any kind of claim about how the world works. It's more just about signaling a bunch of traits that are considered by a lot of our society as positive. Like so saying, you know, I'm spiritual, religious means I strive for wisdom and and feeling moved by beauty and art and nature.
Right. And so there's not any claim to any kind of supernatural or irrational beliefs there.
It's just the person is making a statement about their character and what they value. And I think the word spiritual is a pretty terrible way to describe those traits. But but that does, in fact, seem to be what many people mean by it.
And then and then other times, it does indicate some sort of loosely defined set of supernatural beliefs about a goddess or some sort of like undefined deity that exists in nature.
I think that's pretty common. And then the balance in the universe and that sort of stuff.
Yeah, I mean, it's often hard to to determine what kind of claims the people are actually making about how the universe works. Like when you say there's balance in the universe, is that a prediction?
Is that like saying you believe in karma? I don't know. Probably for many people it is. All right. And then the the other main category of usage, I think, is people who are actually religious, but they for whatever reason, they dislike organized religion, have had a bad experience with it, find it sort of oppressive or constraining or patriarchal or something like that.
And so then what they do is they borrow bits and pieces from different religions and put them together so.
Well, religion by menu, actually.
Yeah. And then they'll often also sprinkle in a bunch of supernatural beliefs that don't actually come from any religion. But it is I would call that religious. You know, it's just not like limited to any one particular religion. Right.
So do you think that's an accurate description? I think that is an accurate description. I mean, it covers several of the categories that I can think of. Of course, you know, truly simple, straightforward religious people also presumably consider themselves spiritual.
Right. Well, that's why it's spiritual but not religious. So. Right. So which means, however, that then if you say that you're spiritual but not religious, does that mean necessarily that you're you're not religious?
I mean, you know, you don't believe in anything supernatural from what you said.
And that's not necessarily the case. It's just a very organized religion or a particular specified way of thinking about the supernatural. Right. Right.
I mean, that's why it's so confusing that people mean different things by it. Some people might be implying a belief in supernatural, in others might. Right now, which brings me to an interesting question, which was raised recently by the publication of a new book by Alain de Botton, who is a British author who has written often about centuries about philosophy. But sometimes, if, you know, really broad sense, he has written books about architecture, for instance.
You know, and appreciate it from an aesthetic point of view and so on. Anyway, his latest book, which I don't think it's it's out in the United States yet. It's called Religion for Atheists and Nonbelievers Guide to the Uses of Religion, which right there has actually sparked quite a controversy already in England with very positive reviews, very negative reviews.
And the negative reviews are almost equally from religious people and from atheists. And it's possible that the guy actually is doing something right if he has been able to piss off so royally both the and the fundamentalists, clearly the religious person.
Well, some religious person, I don't think that's a general statement. But some religious person find the whole idea of appropriating elements of religion in a secular fashion, which is what Don is suggesting to do more about in a minute. They find it offensive. You know, they find it some sort of disrespectful and so on and so forth, despite the fact that the baton actually starts out the book by saying that he's highly respectful of religious traditions. He's an atheist, but he's hardly respectful of religious traditions.
And it's precisely because he thinks that there is something worthwhile in the religious experience that I've read his book.
But you know, that that's the that's the excuse used by that notorious artist who he created a picture, a portrayal of the Virgin Mary using cutouts from pornographic magazines. And I think elephant dung. And what he said was, no, no, I respect the Christian religion.
And I was I was honoring Mary in my own way. So, you know, that doesn't actually tend to pacify people. If they feel offended, they feel offended, regardless of what you say, that you respect their beliefs. That is true.
But so can can you talk a little bit about what the baton was? Actually, yes.
So we borrow what are you suggesting?
Which I think is actually the reason why a lot of atheists, again, by no means everyone, but a lot of it is actually got upset.
He's basically saying that, you know, contrary to what the so-called new atheists have been, you know, now proposing for a long time, not only the aggressive face of it is is misguided, but in fact, it is really ought to learn something from the religious experience, not the supernatural part of it, but the pretty much every other part. So, for instance, let me give a particular example. It says that we should build temples to reason and humanity and things like that.
So it's a place for meditation, places where people go to think about the big questions, think about science and philosophy in contemplative way, just like you do in a temple. So this is a temple or a church. It's supposed to be certain. In part. The point is prayer. If you believe in the kind of God that responsibility. But most important just for, especially in the east, are for meditation. You go there and you contemplate you.
You relax, you do you feel awed by the architecture and by the art that is inside and the that says, you know, why the heck should we do that in a completely non-religious way? That is a good thing that we just do. And why not do that, you know?
Yeah, go ahead. I was going to say there's there's a temple fitting exactly that description at Burning Man every year. And I mean. Right.
But I don't know the examples. Right. Yeah.
I mean, and there are people in there who meditate there, people in there who pray to various types of gods. And then there are people in there who go to they take up photos of, you know, loved ones that they've lost and, you know, sit and think about them.
And and I mean, it's explicitly for any kind of contemplation or use, really.
As it turns out, this is not a new idea. It was tried already once very briefly, immediately after the French Revolution, as it turns out.
Yes, the revolutionary did turn briefly Notre Dame Cathedral into a temple of reason.
And they actually they actually replaced the altar and they had a ceremony in there. And the culmination point of that ceremony was this beautiful young woman coming out and representing the goddess of reason.
So it's like, oh, really charming. Sounds like an idea. Unfortunately, like many other things during the French Revolution didn't last that long. But so it's not a new idea.
But the modern is suggesting that we do this and, you know, on a widespread scale. And he's, by the way, is putting its money where his mouth is. He actually has founded a few years ago.
Think of something, a school of philosophy, I think it's called the School of Life, actually, in London and is actually now actively pursuing. Some of the ideas that he presents in this book, another one which I find kind of intriguing, is this he says you often hear something on the lines that art museums are the modern art, the modern equivalent of churches, meaning that they are, again, places where people go for contemplation in order to get a sense of are there something bad about Jim's, actually.
Well, people people go, you know, perform rituals and and worship the God of fitness. Right. I mean, you can stretch this anyway. You really. But I'm sorry to interrupt.
No, that's right. So so now here's the idea that Baton has I found intriguing. He says, look, the problem with museums as they are typically conceived these days. Now, let's talk about a simple standard art museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York or the MOMA.
They are organized still in essentially what they call an academic fashion. That is, you know, you find the Renaissance and then you move on and you find a baroque period and then you find the distinct, distinct areas that are separated by periods or schools or location, that sort of stuff.
You know, the Dutch Masters and Center.
And this is why not reorganize the whole thing with themes that actually are meant to educate and help people meditate on things. So, for instance, you know, a whole room dedicated to paintings that explore the question, the issue of life and death.
I love that idea. I've I've made that exact same suggestion to any of my friends who will listen. Actually, yes.
So it seems to me eminently sensible idea.
Yes. I don't know that that has to do with religion, but. No, no, no, it doesn't.
In fact, I think that the way he means it is that museums, if in fact the aesthetic experience is in awe inspiring spiritual in the broad sense of the term experience, it is one that is clearly secular, that has originated in recent in recent Western history, certainly does have roots in religious iconography and religious paintings and sculptures and so on and so forth. Of course, art existed before that. But a lot of what we see in museums today, it's sort of the originator during the Middle Ages and in the period of religious art and religious art had according to the world on those particular ngs.
It is one of these examples is, you know, you see a painting of Jesus on the cross and, you know, that represents, you know, suffering and that represents courage and so on. Or you see a painting of the Madonna feeding the baby and that represents the maternal instinct and, you know, care for others and that sort of stuff.
The evidence is rightly so, I think. Well, why can't we do this without the Jesus in the Madonna and just turn art into a more secular way of thinking? Exactly the same results. I think it's a great idea. And I think actually it's an idea that also religious people would would enjoy. I mean, there's nothing about being religious that says that you have to see art in the way in which artist audiences and, you know, you can you can see in different ways.
So the book is full of these kinds of suggestions.
And it is controversial because as I said on the one hand, because some religious people are objecting to the idea that this guy wants to hijack the values of religion or the good ideas, which I don't see why not? I mean, the history of human culture is all about hijacking good ideas and throwing out the ones that don't work. So as if it turns out that religions did produce some good things and then produce some bad stuff, why not keep one and get rid of the other?
But the thing that surprised me, I guess initially and perhaps in hindsight shouldn't have surprised me was the fairly strong reaction of some atheists in England that don't like this idea and think that somehow this is a cop out or a cheapening of 80s or something. And that and that that part is the part that I really don't understand. I don't know. Interesting.
Well, my interpretation of that, I have a I have a bit of the same reaction to using the word spiritual to describe attempts to inject thoughtfulness and meditation and feelings of awe and and I don't know, thinking about one's place in the universe relative to the vastness of space. And like these are all experiences that religion tends to induce.
And and I think they're very valuable and fascinating experience and fulfilling experiences to try to seek out.
But using the word spiritual to describe them seems to me to be, I don't know, ceding too much ground to religion. Like it almost seems like I don't like.
The idea that religion has sort of a monopoly on the experience is that when we have these experiences, we should, you know, call them spiritual, right?
I mean, of course, you can claim, you know, the word spiritual just means things and do and reverence or contemplation or whatever. But that's a lost battle. I mean, the word spiritual basically belongs to religion and mysticism for the most part.
At least that was my impression. But I've been surprised that at how many skeptics and scientists use the word spiritual. Yeah, now that is true.
But it's also a matter of they simply aren't that many other good words out there. I mean, I find myself often saying things like, oh, this is good for my psyche. I don't believe that I have a psyche yet.
But what I mean, it's not good for my body, it's good for some and it's not good for my brain in the sense of the thinking. Part of my brain is good for the general well-being of my psychology.
How do I call that? Right. Well, you know, different different tenses or variations of the word spiritual have vastly different associations.
Like if I said this is good for the spirit, it's clear that I'm not talking about religion and.
Right, although that is still the root is the same.
I know. I know. That's what I'm pointing out.
But it's funny that there's such differences and even the difference between saying that, you know, you feel spiritual when you look at a sunset or contemplate the vastness of space, even that, I don't know, feels different than spirituality.
But, you know, so I was reading I was reading a piece recently by Michael Shermer, who's a leading figure in the skeptic movement, and he talked about viewing a painting by Van Gogh as a spiritual experience.
And Sam Harris certainly talks about a lot of things that I wouldn't have called spiritual and spiritual, like contemplation, like meditation.
And then, you know, some of the great scientists and science popularizers have also used spiritual to refer to being excited and feeling of the greatness and magnificence of the universe.
Again, from Carl Sagan. Absolutely.
And I don't know whether they're doing that because they they want to sort of make they they want to make science appealing to the people who think that it doesn't have like people for whom spirituality is very important. And see, science is like lacking all of those traits. So maybe they're trying to appeal to those people.
But I don't know. I mean, there is so so so, for instance, both Sagan and Dawkins have actually made that argument. You know, Dawkins wrote and Within the Rainbow, which I think actually is one of the best books a number of years ago. And it was exactly about how science doesn't rob us of, you know, the sense of, oh, if anything, it enriches.
Did he use the word spiritual, though? I don't that I don't remember. I doubt it, although this was a number of years before the God Delusion. But but the point I was trying to make was the same point that Sagan had made several times before, which was that just because you add knowledge to say, I don't know, you're looking at the moon, you're contemplating the moon, and there is this sense of, oh, you're looking at a different planet and so on and so forth, and it's orbiting, you know, hundreds of thousands of miles away.
And then you also know because of science that really it's a it's a massive rock that has been, you know, bombarded for forever by meteorites and got a bunch of craters and signs of the point that both Sagan and and Dawkins made made over and over. Was that. Yes. But the second bit, the deformation, the knowledge that you have about that thing doesn't necessarily have to spoil the art or the sense, the experience or the I would say it's an aesthetic experience that you can that you feel when you're presented with that object.
In fact, if anything, it can actually increase it.
Well, I think this varies from person to person who depends sort of what's fueling your sense of. Oh, yeah. I mean, if it's if it's just the magnificence that's feeling your sense of oh, then yeah, I don't think understanding, you know, where the magnificence came from and how it works would diminish that. In fact, I would expect it to increase. But I think for a lot of people the sense of awe is also borne out of mystery.
And and so that that would reduce I mean, scientists and science popularizers claim all the time what you just claimed, that understanding the world, the universe doesn't reduce your sense of excitement or.
But I think that's a person to person thing. I don't think that they can make that claim. That blanket statement.
No, no, that's right. It doesn't. Well if the same if the claim is that it doesn't necessarily diminish the experience, that isn't really.
But I don't even think they can have a good point, of course. And if somebody is after a mystery for mysteries sake, which a lot of people seem to be, then yes, science.
That's part of the game.
I mean, if like, obviously it's damaging to your ultimate ability to understand things, probably your ultimate. If you prefer mystery to knowledge and understanding, right, but, you know, I guess that's different from enjoying mystery. Like you can enjoy mystery, but still prefer to know as much as you can about the world. Right.
I mean, you can enjoy there's a sacrifice of some enjoyment there for for this other thing you want, which is understanding.
In fact, I mean, at least the way I and I think about these kind of things, I enjoy the mystery in part because I think that we can get to the city. I mean, it's like reading a mystery novel and then somebody says, you know, sorry, I ripped out the last two pages because I didn't want you to see the culprit.
I know, but I want to know who did the whole thing.
I wanted to talk, however, about something interesting that came out and did my readings in preparation for this episode. Which episode? Which was the idea of a spiritual path.
OK, so a lot of certainly religious traditions, but also spiritual, not necessarily religious traditions have this concept of a path, meaning that spirituality is about. It's a quest. It's it's about going improving yourself in some fundamental way. Now, it's interesting that one of the example, you know, typical, of course, the examples of a spiritual path are either or some kind of Christian tribulation or, you know, the Buddha's path to enlightenment and that sort of stuff.
But actually, one of the first examples that I found was Plato's allegory of the cave as a allegory for as as the idea of a spiritual path.
Can you explain the allegory?
The allegory is one of the most famous in philosophy in the Western tradition, and it's presented in the Republic by Plato and actually by Socrates. But, you know, it's it's really Plato writing.
Socrates is talking. And we were allegedly and so Socrates presents these allegory. This situation is a hypothetical situation where these people are living inside a cave and they're facing their change in a way that they face a wall in the outside world, projects, images on this wall, you know, these lights coming from the outside and they see shadows of the real world. But they think that that is the world. That's the way it is, because that's the only experience that they have.
They cannot conceive of anything else. They never seen anything else. Now, one of these people at some point is able to get rid of the shackles, basically climb out outside and take a look at the real world. And in the allegory, the person that is capable of doing that is the philosopher and the philosopher gets out. And first of all, he is blinded because now there is sunlight. You know, you can't actually make anything out because it's a completely different reality.
Gradually, he understands what's going on here, just his vision to what's going on. If he sees how the world is much more complicated, colorful and two dimensional and all that sort of stuff. And then he goes back and wants to tell his friends in the cave and tries to start explaining how the things really are out there. And of course, nobody believes him. They will think is a crazy cuckoo that they're just making up stuff because, you know, it's clear to everybody to see that the world is made of two-dimensional, shadows.
That allegory is as it has been interpreted in a variety of ways.
But certainly one way you can interpret it is the idea through the idea that philosophy today we will say philosophy and science certainly is itself a path to enlightenment, that it's a path to better understanding, not only of the way the world is from a physical perspective, but also the way in which you want to relate to the world. A lot of Plato was one of those philosophers who actually was very interested in very uninterested in natural philosophy. Unlike Aristotle, he was very interested in morality, ethics, that sort of stuff.
But at any rate, that is that is the allegory. And it's an interesting, entirely secular allegory because gods don't enter into the into the whole idea at all.
So I think that using words like enlightenment or like meaning or purpose or or path.
To me, that sums up the the difficulty, the precariousness in adopting spiritual language and practices in a secular and naturalistic context, which is that there are meanings of those words which are perfectly legitimate and important concepts. But but they're they're buried among other meanings, which are completely supernatural or or mystical.
And it's often I think it's really easy when you're using using spiritual language, like the goal of using spiritual language to describe these things is to is to emphasize the the power and beauty and an importance of the things that you're talking about and to create to sort of meditate on the your small place in the universe or to meditate on the poetry of science.
And there's nothing inherently irrational about that. It's just that the language like occupies a sort of fuzzy zone between poetic and actually distorting. So I'll give you an example.
Here's a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about one of our guests. Yes, yes, yes, Anderson.
All around, awesome person. So he says it's quite literally true that we are stardust in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don't know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.
So so the line we are not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us.
To me, that occupies the pretty safe, poetic section of of spiritual language. So he's not actually saying anything untrue. He's just saying a true thing in a particularly poetic and moving and inspiring way. And and so that's fine.
But then there's this is, by the way, exactly the kind of things that Carl Sagan looks for, a good quote from Sagan as well. Yeah. Even a metaphor, OK? Yeah.
And so but then there's there's language about such feeling connected to the universe or communing with the universe. Communing with the universe is a good one.
OK, because what the hell does that mean.
Well, I mean, there's.
There's a really legitimate interpretation of it, which is that are no contemplating the universe in your place in it, and then like as long as it's clear that the process by which you're communicating with the universe is only occurring in your own brain as opposed to you committing communing with the universe involving some something happening outside of your brain.
That reminds me of a famous quote by an American psychologist whose name, of course, escapes me at the moment. But he said something on the lines of it's OK if you talk to God. The problem is if God cancer's back.
Right. And so, I mean, like your discussion of the path and enlightenment, there's a perfectly legitimate use of the word enlightenment, which is sort of a feeling that you understand things and reaching an understanding about what you what you value and you know, what you want to do with your life and so on and so forth. But it also occupies this ambiguous territory that suggests that there's sort of a right answer about what you should value or what the purpose of life is, which I think are philosophically incoherent concepts.
I would agree, and that brings me to yet another sort of treacherous territory, perhaps even actually easier, easier to dismiss. And it's written from a certain perspective. But the concept, the concept of the sacred. So obviously, again, this is another word that in a religious context makes perfect sense.
If you're religious believer, you know, things that are connected to your scriptures or to things that your God does or does not do of those are those are sacred, you know, in the original fundamental sort of way of meaning of the word.
But there are other more sort of fuzzy concepts of sacredness. For instance, one, I find the reference to ecological spirituality.
So these you know, this is the idea. It's a little bit of a new agey idea, but it's the idea that the Earth sometimes referred to as Gaia is a living system in itself and that it is sacred. It is inherently worth preserving. You know, the environment is anything worth preserving, not simply as a good place for us to live, which I would think it's more than reason enough.
But as you know, intrinsically persay, it's it's it's its own thing and needs to be respected. There's this sense that in some of these people actually do use the word sacred and some some don't. But they come pretty close. And that's that's an interesting one.
So is there anything for a secular person, truly secular person, for an atheist or second unit that really is sacred in that sense? And I'm actually having a hard time coming up with one, but it's possible that some atheists do think that there's something sacred.
Yeah, I don't think that's broader sense, not in the religious sense, obviously.
Or do we need an equivalent of that word as well? I mean, there are things that I there are some principles, for instance, or some ideas that I have a very, very high degree of respect that almost comes to the point of sacredness.
Well, reason, the value of reason, for instance, or in politics, the value of democracy or that's sort of inherently valuable.
Well, that's that's the problem. Yeah. Well, what do you mean now? They're in some sense for me, they're all instrumentally valuable. Not the right reason is valuable because I think it's the best guide to reality. Democracy is valuable because it's the best system of government, or at least the least worst is different from what we've found in terms of facilitating even flourishing.
But they are. So I can I can see what I'm saying is that I can see how you can value something even instrumentally to such a degree that it comes pretty close to, you know, a sacred thing.
Yeah, although I wouldn't use the word. Yeah, I know.
It's just whenever you try to pin down and be precise about what you really mean, then the the poetry and the the, I don't know, inspiring ness that you get from the spiritual language starts to disappear oftentimes. I mean as I was sort of trying to articulate earlier, there are some cases where you can be absolutely precise about what's going on and still have it be incredibly inspiring and feel sacred. And then there are other cases where the only way to get that feeling of sacredness is to kind of be like fuzzy and take some artistic license with the facts about what's actually true in the world.
Like, you know, if you really want to be precise, you say, no, I you know, I don't really think reason is inherently valuable. I just think it's really useful to achieve your goals. And so then the magic is gone.
When you move to instrumental, then it's like now.
Yeah, you were talking earlier about the idea of or maybe was I learned about Button's idea of having temples to reason and. Yeah, so I have a friend actually who tried to do that, not build a temple, but he I mean, he's in a community of people devoted to.
Studying rationality and trying to become more rational, and he wanted to create a ritual like a ceremony that would basically do what you were describing and and not only sort of reaffirm a commitment to the to the value of reason and our devotion to being rational, but but also to various goals that that rationalists have and that aren't necessarily that easy to to make yourself fervently care about using just your intellectual, deliberative reasoning system like so goes about doing good in the world or goes about helping people who are sort of abstract numbers in your head because you've never met them and they live across, you know, on the other side of the world.
And you're not even helping particular people. You're just sort of, you know, adding some element of higher probability to the fact that some people somewhere who you don't know and will never meet might have a better life. Those are things which rational people often care about intellectually. But it's hard often to translate that into intellectual carrying, into like genuine passion that actually causes you to do things.
And so he was he was doing two things at once, like celebrating vision and also trying to tap into that part of our brain that really responds to ritual and song and and poetry and the reaction of the community.
It was mixed. I mean, I think that people appreciated yeah, people appreciated the goal.
And I think there's a lot of agreement that it can be hard to it can be hard to really keep in mind what you intellectually value and motivate yourself to pursue it without just relying on intellectual reason, without the art and poetry and so on.
But people were also concerned and there was a lot of interesting discussion about this in the community about whether it would, for example, start to dull the rationality of people because they were, you know, by like chanting your devotion to reason again and again.
It's sort of like it is. Goodness.
Yeah, it is, you know, rational thinking as something that you automatically value without thinking about it any any time that you're you're being induced to automatically do things or automatically value things, which is sort of what ritual does it seems like a departure from something that reminds me of a famous scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian, where when when Brian turns to his followers and he doesn't want and says you're not cheap.
And they in unison respond, we are not cheap.
And then he says, no, you are all individuals. And they respond. We are all individuals. Exactly. Except for the one guy who pipes up. I'm not probably my favorite, but they capture. Exactly.
But that captures something where you're talking about a minute ago. It captures, I think, the sense of uneasiness perhaps that has that often accompanies the ideas like the ones that we talked about it by by the time that is they sound forced.
They sound like a bit of a caution, a little bit unnatural maybe to you and me.
Like I had kind of that reaction to this idea, too. But maybe there are other people for whom this this way of motivating themselves in this process of feeling fulfilled feels much more natural to them and less contrived. Yeah, that's right.
And it's clearly the case that not not everybody have reacted in the same way and has the same needs and so on. But but my experience in the 80s, humanist and skeptic communities, which of course are partly overlapping but not entirely, they're not the same thing, tends to be over and over that, you know, these are communities. They're made up mostly of people who are fiercely independent from an intellectual. But I mean, they value reason. They they value their own independence, their own.
You know, I make up my mind about these things based on evidence and reason, which means it seems to have these I don't know if it is, in fact, actually or perhaps an underlying cause.
It's interesting it be interesting to inquire empirically on what which which direction because it goes. But it seems like it does make a lot of these people not particularly interested in, you know, social things. I mean, I was living for a couple of years, for instance, in Brooklyn, right literally around the corner from a local chapter of the ethical society.
Mm. Nice bunch of people.
I actually went there and gave a couple of talks from time to time. And, you know, occasionally I thought, oh, OK, well, maybe I'll bring my daughter there on Sunday morning just to have, you know, the social experience.
And so and every time that that I thought actually about doing this, it really no, let's cook some eggs and, you know, go for a walk in the park. And we actually never did it. And I suspect that, you know, the idea was kind of interesting. But when it came down to it, I thought we had better things to do them than going into group, into a group. Where people were doing this kind of community building thing that I thought I could do with my friends or with with people that I that I care about, I have I have a community.
I don't need a structured one. Yeah, I have an unstructured community.
Well, maybe that sort of thing is really useful for people who are coming from religious backgrounds. So by leaving their religious background, they're leaving a community.
And they it would be nice for them to have a new one, sort of, you know, premade as opposed to having to build one gradually, which is what we do when we, you know, pick friends and get to know them over time.
We create our own communities.
I have I have another friend named Scott who's involved with the New York City skeptic's.
Oh, yeah. And here he embarked on this long project.
I don't know if it's still ongoing, but he blogged about it. He called the project spirituality.
And it was his he comes from a religious background. And he he was basically trying to go through all of the various rituals and practices from like a spiritual context and trying to see which ones of them he could get something useful out of, even though he's secular.
So, for example, praying he went through the benefits of the praying has for the people who pray both that it's comforting and that it helps them, I don't know, make meaning out of what happens in their life and sort of, you know, settle on narratives to tell themselves about how their life is going. And so he was asking himself, can I can I get the same benefits without actually doing, like, saying something that I think isn't true or doing something that I think is false.
And so he he details his experience with that. He's tried various versions of praying, adapted to, you know, a secular nationalist framework.
So, for example, he tried telling the story of his day in his head, as if to an audience of one or more people talking about what he thinks he could have done better and things that he's proud of. He tried picturing personages both fictional and none, like talking to Carl Sagan or Dumbledore.
And and then he tried talking to quote or having them talk to each other.
That would be more interesting if that all sounds interesting, but getting away from the original idea of the enterprise zones.
And then he says he also tried talking to my heart, which is an idea put forth in the Alchemist by Hello, hello, hello. And he says, even as a non-religious person, I love the metaphor, continuing in conversation with a part of me, more in touch with my deep desires and wellbeing than my conscious mind. His eventual conclusion, after all these different versions, was that they all felt a bit forced. I'm not sure what to do with that.
I mean, when I when I feel like having a conversation with Carl Sagan, which I do, I pick one of these books up and read. I know that's not a conversation, but in fact, in some sense it is obviously, because he's talking to his readers. And you are reading is not a passive activity. You know, you think about it, you react to what you're reading and so on. When I feel like doing some of the other things that Scott was doing, I usually head down to the Bible, a couple of friends and have a martini.
And yeah, I have a similar effect. And it's not forced.
Yeah, I mean, like, personally, I agree with you, but for me it's still an open question to what degree these things could benefit people who might be a little, you know, have a different mindset.
Now, we can't we can't do an episode like this without a little bit of a bubble just to refer to a bubble, neuro babble neuro bubble, just to refer to a topic that we cover of another episode.
So, you know, whenever people talk these days, there's a lot of, you know, the neurobiology of and certain Putri. There's been one of those those things that neurobiologists have attacked, attacked not in the sense of criticize, but in the sense of work done it.
And so I find this really interesting article, if somewhat maddening, and our listeners can judge for themselves because we'll put a link to it on the website. But the article is it's on NPR National Public Radio, a piece from June 3rd, 2009 by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who actually does often pieces on spirituality or religion for NPR. Anyway, so she was talking about the title of the article is Our Spiritual Encounters All in Your Head, to which the answer I would think is, well, yes, short.
They have to be no, they have to be right in some sense. Even if there were a spiritual world that even if there were a God up there that we're talking to you, it would still it would be still talking to you through your head. So, yes, in some very important sense, they ought to be in your head. What did they are out there or not? It's a different question.
Well, then it's semantic. You're quibbling with your choice of words. No, I'm coming with what I what I have noticed. This is that is a trend in interpreting, I think, in a facile way, research in neurobiology. For instance.
Let me let me give you the example from this specific case. So.
The article talks about this guy. His name is Jeff Schimel, and he was a writer in Los Angeles, was raised the conservative Jewish home, but never bought into into God until he was touched, as Barbara Haggerty says, by a being outside of himself.
What actually happened, actually, is that that this guy had a problem with his brain. Literally, he had an overgrowth with his left temporal lobe, was completely different from the way it was before the surgery. He had surgery. As a result, they had scar tissue. This scar tissue had interfered with certain areas of the brain that started generating these auditory hallucinations and these these, you know, messages from outside, which he interpreted actually as interestingly, at some point he actually had a visual hallucination.
You remember lying in bed and he was looked at. He looked up to the ceiling and saw this swirl of blue and gold and green colors that settle into a shape.
And he said, oh, my God, it's the Virgin Mary. OK, now.
Well, you can say that was he counted that as a as a spiritual experience. And interestingly, this guy who was not religious and not interested in religion became religious leaders as a result of these experiences.
Yeah, I mean, I think it's like that fascinating. But I'm not sure how much they tell us. I'm not sure how useful they are to explaining spiritual experiences in general, because a lot of people have what they like, consider that they hear the voice of God or that they feel God reaching out to them.
And we can explain those with, you know, brain tumors or anything like that. And we can't I mean, certainly not.
But but but one of the things that can happen, actually, is that there is no there's it's not that uncommon for people to actually have micro seizures in micro seizures in the brain can cause that kind of hallucination not on a regular basis, but on an occasional basis.
But people say that they hear God talking to them even when they're just, you know, meditating or praying or something. So I think we need a broader explanation of how this stuff happens. Not that those cases aren't fascinating in their own right they are.
But my point in bringing this up was this, that, you know, as a secular person, my obvious reaction to this kind of experience as well.
What do you mean you were touched by God? Clearly, this was the result of your operation. Your brain was malfunctioning, and that's why you had essentially hallucinations.
Even so, the solution is those hallucinations have actually changed his whole attitude toward life and spirituality in general and so on and so forth, which means that they and apparently the change was largely positive, meaning, you know, he's become you know, he feels happier, he feels like a better person and so on and so forth.
Now, so the explanation for what triggered the thing, it's physically pretty obvious, biologically pretty obvious. And that doesn't seem to be much of a mystery to me in there.
But it's interesting that it did have a sort of cascade of other effects that apparently were largely positive now. Yeah, the secular person can say, you know, second person in me says, well, here's the explanation for what happened, the scar tissue in your brain.
But, of course, as I mentioned earlier, when you were making fun of me every day that I ever made fun of, you never know seriously that that since every single experience that we have about the world has to be mediated through our brain in a very complex and totally nontrivial way.
I mean, our brains are sort of essentially building these virtual reality all the time. And we navigate this virtual reality that the brain builds, not not the actual we don't have actually any physical direct access to the way the world is.
So when somebody says, well, here's what happened, you know, your brain fired in a particular way as a way to explain what happened, it really isn't much of an explanation under normal circumstances.
In this case, it was clearly pathology, but it's hard to say, well, this is not a real experience because it was in your brain all of the experiences in our brain that if they're real or not, it doesn't matter.
They have to go through our brain. Otherwise, we're not going to have experiences, period.
And so I guess the question is, you know, with someone else having the experience of talking to you. Correct. Or were you the only person having the experience of that conversation? That's all correct.
But on the other hand. But even that one, of course, has limits, right? Because, I mean, we have all sorts of private experiences or private thoughts that we don't share interpersonally. And that doesn't mean that they're not real meaningful or whatever it is. Sure.
So what I'm saying, I guess, is where I'm going with this is that neurobiology is largely irrelevant to these these kinds of questions in terms of, you know, it can tell us, of course, how is it that the brain generates certain experiences?
And that's interesting from a scientific perspective and it's interesting right now, but it really doesn't tell you anything about the meaning or the value of those experiences, not even, in fact, literally about the actuality of those experiences in a way, in a sense external to the individual.
I don't think that that there is any such thing as an external sources, spiritual experience in the sense of a supernatural being or anything like that.
But if somebody is doing transcendental meditation and they have these feeling of unity with the rest of the universe, you know, I can point to their brain scan and say, well, yeah, of course you have that, because all the areas in your brain that deal with proprioception are shut down. So you don't have a feeling of what your body is ending. And so in some sense, meditation is essentially bringing out a malfunction of your brain. That's why you feel at one with the universe.
And, you know, I think to me that expression makes perfect sense, but it doesn't diminish the value of the experience for the person who's actually meditating.
Right. Right. Indeed. We are about to move on to the rationally speaking picks. But first, I just want to remind all of our listeners that the fourth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism is coming up this April 21st and 22nd in Manhattan, New York. Masimo and I will be there recording an episode of the rationally speaking podcast Live. And there will be a great lineup of other speakers and panelists and performers who you can check out on the Nexus website where while you're going there to register and buy your tickets, the website is NextG.
That's an iceberg. We hope to see you there. And now we'll move on to the roughly speaking, next.
Welcome back. Every episode, Julie and I pick a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our irrational fancy. Let's start as usual with Julia Icepick.
Thanks, Massimo. My pick is an article. It's from 2007 from the American Educator magazine, and it's called Critical Thinking. Why is it so hard to teach? I thought it was a fantastic and really enlightening explanation.
You know, I know you have experience. I teach a course on it. Yes, it is difficult to teach. So what was the article's point?
Well, the point wasn't so much getting people to understand the concepts that you're trying to teach them when you teach them critical thinking. It was more about getting people to be able to apply those concepts outside of the classroom environment.
And and people have a terrible track record of that.
I mean, even giving people who have taken a critical thinking course and learned about a concept like, say, selection bias, giving them a reasoning question on a test two weeks later where selection bias is clearly in effect.
But the question involves some context, other than the one in which they learned about selection bias, like say it's I don't know about a question about how successful singers overestimate the the ease with which you can succeed in thinking there's a selection bias there because you never get to talk to the unsuccessful singers anyway.
That's an example of the phenomenon. But a lot of people won't even it won't occur to them that regression to the mean is sorry, that selection bias is happening there because they don't know people.
The point of the article, which I thought was such a good one, is that our memories are are very domain specific.
And so when we're when we're looking at a problem or a situation in one context, like the context of singers, we when we're thinking about that issue, we search our brains for concepts that are relevant to singing. And that's how our brain does searches essentially for the most part. And that's why critical thinking so hard to teach, because critical thinking principles are these abstract principles which are not particular to one domain or situation. And so whatever situation you use to teach people about them, people may remember to use them in that situation like, you know, teach people about the gambler's fallacy.
And people remember it when they're gambling, hopefully.
But but it's hard to get them to think of that concept.
Yeah, well, they haven't necessarily learned about the fallacy, but but it's hard to get people to recognize the relevance of the principles and context that they didn't learn them on. And I think that's a fundamental challenge that we're going to have to face as we figure out how to teach critical thinking. Right.
Well, my pick is also an article, and it's also not that recent, actually. It's called Buddhist Retreat. Why You Gave Up on Finding My Religion by John Horgan. And it was published in February 2003 in Slate magazine.
At least your pick is much more relevant than mine if you win the relevance. OK, that's good. But so you hear a lot these days, even among secular people, that Buddhism, unlike other religions or maybe it's not even a religion, it's got it's different. It's got some something to teach and some values and some approaches and so on. It's worth their value even as a value in a secular world.
And Horgan basically puts it very clearly on paper, in my case, electronic paper, what I always thought about, but is not knowing as much as he has done it because he's actually practiced it and done research on it, which is that that's really not true.
First of all, it is, in fact, the religion. There is a variety of forms of it, of course, but it does share a lot of interesting and not positive. I think aspects of other religions are.
One of his examples was, you know, this is the idea that Buddhism started with Buddha living his family. Hmm. Which is a thing that actually you find also in the New Testament and in Christian tradition, it doesn't come up very much in the family values continue of the political spectrum.
And that's exactly these others point is like, wait a minute. But what that means is that there were people left behind or sort of suffering and, you know, and all that sort of stuff goes through several examples, several of these reasons for why it's become disenchanted with Buddhism.
It does that in a critical but interesting way. And he's not dismissive of the whole thing. You tried it and he's telling us what he learned. And I thought that was pretty interesting the way he ends the article, which is, you know, Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality.
And he's referring to, of course, you know, the idea of the consciousness is really an illusion and that sort of things, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective.
The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.
And it's an interesting question. I learned that the additional question is. Whether any form of spirituality up to it is spirituality in the same business as a science in terms of answering a question, because if the answer is yes, then then you've got a problem.
But if the answer is no spirituality, some way for me to make sense emotionally or aesthetically or whatever it is of the world as it is and how science tells me that it is, then then that is not the question. Then then it's a separate question.
Oh, that's no fair raising. Really interesting discussion questions at the very end of our of our episode time. We are unfortunately all out of time for this episode. So this wraps up another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.