You may have seen a recent cover story on Newsweek in which Eben Alexander claimed that his experiences while in a coma provided evidence of the existence of heaven. For a neurosurgeon, Alexander seems to know remarkably little about how the brain actually works. This post by Steven Novella at Neurologica explains the brain science involved. Sam Harris also wrote a longer piece on Alexander’s story. I’m sure the experiences Dr. Alexander had were lovely, but I don’t think they had anything to do with heaven, except insofar as heaven is a state of mind.
As I said in my last post, we’re not the angelic robots that E.O. Wilson says the ants are, and we wouldn’t want to be. We’ve evolved to be flexible in our behavior (compared to creatures that operate mostly or entirely on instinct). We experience this flexibility as free will, which we value very highly (although maybe we don’t possess it to the degree we think we do, but that’s another story).
In his talk at the Consilience Conference, Michael Rose laid out an evolutionary argument for limits on our free will; he sees these evolved limits as closely related to religion. (Rose, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine, mostly researches and writes about aging.) What follows is based both on his presentation at the conference and on a paper he co-wrote with John Phelan, Gods Inside, for the book Voices of Disbelief, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk.
Last week I wrote that science enriches rather than impoverishes my worldview. I thought it might be useful to describe more precisely what I mean by this. It’s easy to speak broadly about science, meaning, and beauty, but it’s not always very clear exactly what these words mean in terms of the real-life story of how someone came to adopt a particular philosophy of life. I hope you will excuse me for a longish digression into the personal.
There’s a joke about Catholicism that everything is forbidden unless it’s compulsory. I grew up in a devoutly Catholic home in which life was hedged about by prohibitions ranging from the absurd to the devastating. The thing that bothers me the most, looking back, is that these prohibitions were never questioned, even if human well-being or thriving had to be sacrificed to them. God had set up the rules long ago, and the chain of command ran from him to the pope to the priest to my parents. Don’t ask why. (I mean, come on: we were primates! Healthy young primates are born to wonder why, and “The pope said so” is not a very good answer. If humans are lucky, they make a lifetime habit of asking questions.)
Religion felt to me like a constant presence nudging me to examine everything I did, said, or thought and check for wrong-doing. The classic complaint of ex-Catholics is the church’s attitude toward many normal desires, and that was certainly part of the problem, but it went way beyond that. For example, before church on Sundays, we were supposed to fast for an hour before taking communion. That’s not that big a deal, once you get past the mental contortions required of the trusting young mind when beloved elders present utterly bizarre beliefs about eating god. The silly thing about it was that we were also supposed to remember to brush our teeth at least an hour in advance, lest we accidentally swallow some of the toothpaste and thus break the required fast. It’s easy enough to laugh at it now, but given all the other things I was taught (that god could visibly leave the host and shame the intended recipient if he were offended, for example), which I was unfortunately unable to question when I was a kid, this prohibition was yet another source of existential dread, a way that you might be offending an all-powerful, irritable force without even realizing it, on grounds that seemed hazy at best. (OCD, anyone?)
As I was growing up, I didn’t learn all that much about science. I read randomly here and there, particularly in astronomy, but still, my science education was incomplete enough that I did not have to confront the discrepancies between my belief in the Biblical story about the creation of the world and the things we had learned about that topic since the Iron Age. Frankly, my memories of exactly how my youthful brain dealt with this subject are a blur, but I do remember that my conception of the history of humans, the earth, and the universe was constrained by the story told by the Bible and the Catholic church.
My scientific ignorance didn’t matter all that much, though, because there was plainly no chance of being a scientist. Dream as I might about observing the stars, it seemed that women weren’t really cut out for science anyway, or even any job other than motherhood, teaching grade school, or nursing. Not to knock any of those jobs, but that’s a limited set of opportunities. (It may sound like I’m 90 years old and talking about the prejudices of a bygone era, but I was born in 1961, so my era is not quite as bygone as all that, and I’m sure this sort of approach to young women’s potential is alive and well in fundamentalist churches today.)
My problem wasn’t just that I needed to learn to disagree with my parents about the meaning of women’s lives and find my own place in the world. With the best of intentions, they described my role in life and the possibilities open to me in terms of obedience to the will of a strict, all-powerful being who had little truck with women’s liberation and evidently little use for me except as a potential mother (unless I wanted to enter a convent and worship him unceasingly all my life, of course). Their claim to have god on their side distorted the power balance and the ordinary course of human generational differences. (This is why I am utterly opposed to any distortion of normal human interactions that arises from one side claiming to be speaking for a deity of any type. Sorry, no dice. We’re all just primates, and we speak for ourselves.)
I married and had children very young. The marriage had some wonderful moments, and my sons are an enduring source of joy. However, it was not a happy marriage. As it ended, quite predictably, after a few years, I began to think about going back to school. I took a correspondence course in astronomy and felt my mind boggle at the scale and complexity of the universe that I began to learn about. Once I removed the narrow framework of the story I was taught as a child, the cosmos seemed to expand in a heady rush.
I did the classic thing of walking around a lamp with a globe and a ball to figure out how the seasons and the phases of the moon worked (it’s embarrassing to admit that I was 21 before I learned that). I saw a partial solar eclipse, went out and looked at a new comet I had learned about in the pages of Astronomy magazine, and caught a few episodes of Cosmos on TV. I learned about the Big Bang and the synthesis of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen in stars and the dispersal of those elements throughout surrounding space when stars died. It’s a cliche by now to say that we and everything we know are star stuff, but grasping the truth of this was a powerful, permanently mind-altering experience. I learned enough to understand, at least in the most rudimentary outline, how life had evolved on this planet, and to begin to comprehend, as well as a short-lived creature can, the astonishingly long time periods involved.
My sense of both the timeline on which humans appeared and the vast space in which we found ourselves shifted dramatically. It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Before the huge panorama of space and time that unfolded before my delighted, awestruck eyes, the constricting walls of thou-shalt and thou-shalt-not were reduced to a manageable, even ignorable, size. Faced with the vast and intricate story of the universe as we know it so far, the stories I had been told of guilt and sin and redemption, stories that justified all the limitations enforced by worry and fear, began to look faded, childish, parochial, and distant. It was the most tremendous relief. I felt a dark weight rolling away from my mind, which became more and more free to move about in a much larger and more brightly lit space.
One thing I remember vividly about this time period after the divorce was spending summer evenings sitting outside and looking at the stars. I borrowed a small cheap telescope and looked at the moon, whatever planets were out, and various star clusters and nebulae. Late in the evening, I would put the telescope aside and simply watch the sky. If you sit long enough, you get a wonderful sense of the earth’s rotation. At that time of year, the Milky Way slowly crosses the sky; the spring constellations that were low in the west at sunset give way to the stars of summer, and eventually fall stars creep into view over the eastern horizon in the small hours before dawn.
I remember sitting out there one night and feeling a light breeze pass by as I watched the face of the night sky wheel by overhead. I found a deep pleasure in understanding, in rough terms anyway, the source of the wind (ultimately, the sun, which heats the earth unevenly), and knowing enough about what I was seeing in the night sky to feel like I was part of a fascinating universe and was able to comprehend it. The wind moved my hair, and it moved the leaves on a small tree nearby. I felt a sense of communion with the living world around me and the cosmos from which it had arisen. (It was eerily perfect, a couple of years later, to run across Kenneth Rexroth’s beautiful description of a similar experience in his poem The Heart of Herakles.)
More importantly, I felt like I had a right to be there. I was just another carbon-based life form, just like the tree. Far from feeling reduced in rank by realizing that I was an animal, I found it glorious to realize that I was not born sinful and flawed; I did not have to justify my existence by living up to someone else’s standards for perfection, masquerading as the divine will. I did not even need to bother any more about the censorious words of busybodies at church. Whatever kind of person I was, whatever my needs and interests and desires were, I needed to honor and fulfill those without hurting anyone else. That’s it. I felt like I had a place in the world that I could occupy without apology.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I was transformed overnight; I wasn’t. It took years to unravel the worst of the knots in my mind, and doubtless the people close to me can identify places still in need of work. (One of my sons said to me recently that a fundamentalist religious upbringing is a good way to create atheists and freethinkers, and this is true, but I think there must be easier and more humane ways to do it.) But the knowledge that the true story of the universe was vastly more intricate and wonderful than I had been taught, and the feeling of being part of a beautiful, totally natural universe that we can explore using science, is priceless to me and remains at the core of my belief system today.
Well, it’s spring (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) and new life is bursting out everywhere you look, but again I’m going to talk to you about mortality.
Specifically, I’m going to talk about a recent paper that looked at the way that thoughts of death affect people’s beliefs about science. Like the paper I discussed in a recent post about tolerance, and mindfulness, this one uses terror management theory to frame an investigation into how people react to an existential threat. According to this theory, contemplating our own deaths produces anxiety that we ward off by various psychological defenses. Among these defenses is a stronger belief in worldviews that provide meaning, order, and perhaps a promise of immortality in some form or another.
Three researchers examined how thoughts of death affect people’s acceptance or rejection of evolutionary theory, the foundation of biological science, and intelligent design (ID), which is often couched in scientific language but in fact is not well founded in science. Evolutionary theory is obviously incompatible with belief in a literal instantaneous creation by a deity and arguably with any form of belief in an orderly world created with some purpose. Unfortunately, many people also see evolutionary theory as draining the meaning and purpose from human life. ID is essentially a response to this perception, and as such it offers a more obvious and more traditional sense of meaning.
In a series of studies, the researchers asked participants to write about either their own death or dental pain (which also arouses negative emotions but presumably does not tap into existential anxiety). Then the participants read brief selections from Michael Behe, arguing for ID, and/or Richard Dawkins, arguing for evolutionary theory, and answered questions about how they rated the author’s expertise and how much they agreed with what he was saying. In three studies with a range of participants (some undergrads, some older people from a variety of backgrounds), the authors found that by and large those who had written about death were more likely to agree with Behe than with Dawkins. This was pretty much what they had expected; they figured that ID bolsters the psychological defenses that people tend to draw on when confronted with thoughts of their own death.
The really fascinating stuff comes in the fourth and fifth studies. In the fourth, some of the participants were also given a brief reading from Carl Sagan in which he describes science as providing not just knowledge but meaning and comes down squarely on the side of being courageous enough to accept the universe as it really is, to the best of our current knowledge, and to make our own meaning. The fifth study used only the Behe and Dawkins readings; participants were all college students in the natural sciences. In both, the participants did not tend to accept ID or reject evolutionary theory even if they had written about their own deaths; in fact, they were more likely to reject ID.
I thought these were exciting results, particularly the study that included the Carl Sagan reading. I think our ability to use reason and careful observation to understand the world around us, and to be, as Sagan put it, courageous enough to accept the truths we find, is one of the greatest things about us as a species. The rejection of not just scientific findings but also the values that underlie scientific research is deeply troubling for a number of reasons. I don’t think that accepting science leads to an impoverished worldview; in fact, for me it’s exactly the opposite. Presenting science in a way that is unflinchingly honest about the situation in which we find ourselves and its implications for traditional religious beliefs and at the same time nurtures the deep sense of meaning that people hunger for is crucial. When I read the passage from Sagan that was used in this study, I was impressed at how well he did this. The fact that his words can change the way people react to an existential threat is heartening. A current debate in the online atheist community centers around whether unvarnished, honest rejection of the supernatural is compatible with (a) changing people’s minds or (b) persuading people of the beauty and meaning to be found in science. Although this study involves only a snapshot of people’s reactions to various readings, I think it suggests that science can be presented both honestly and compellingly. Now we need to understand and apply the best techniques that people have found for doing this.
This paper was published in PLoS One, so anyone can read it: Tracy JL, Hart J, Martens JP (2011) Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17349. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017349. Published March 30, 2011.
Just a quick note: David Weisman has written an opinion piece at Seed about how some (not all) of the tenets of Buddhism match up with what neuroscience is teaching us about the brain. It’s at least somewhat relevant to some of the discussion here lately, particularly because he talks a bit about the differences between Eastern and Western religious thought.
I mentioned that I’m reading Philip Goldberg’s American Veda. I’m noticing some interesting things about the ways that Westerners think about the Eastern spiritual ideas they adopt (and adapt).
For example, a chapter about several high-profile guru scandals concludes with some thoughts on how these scandals, painful as they were for many of the people involved, helped spiritual seekers become more savvy. Despite the continuing presence of “dewy-eyed zeal” around gurus, Goldberg says that Westerners looking to Eastern spiritualities for guidance have become “more autonomous” and “less vulnerable to flawed gurus and oppressive institutions.” One reason for this, he suggests, is the ability to look at gurus as practitioners of a science of consciousness rather than as religious figures, so “their teachings can be viewed not as divine truths but as hypotheses to be tested” (and presumably rejected if they are found wanting).
What I am curious about is whether it is something intrinsic to Eastern spirituality that enables Westerners to view its teachings as hypotheses to be tested, or whether this is possible because most Westerners were not raised to view its teachings, practices, and leaders as sacred or in touch with the divine. (I suppose it might be some of both.) The Catholic sex scandals come to mind here; people who demand that the pope be called before an international court for his part in the cover-up are denounced by some as disrespectful, but it’s hard to see on what possible grounds the pope could have earned the right not to be held responsible other than simply by being a religious figure that people have been taught not to question. What would it take for a culture-wide shift, in the more religious parts of the West, to the belief that Western religious teachings and leaders should be evaluated by the same standards of agreement with physical reality and decent behavior as other beliefs and people?
Another interesting example is the Western attitude toward meditation and yoga. The mainstream scientific establishment has focused on the health benefits of these practices, both physical and mental (reducing the stress response, lowering blood pressure, increasing the ability to focus, etc.). For many Westerners, “yoga” means only the postures, whereas in its homeland, the postures are only one part of the practice of yoga. Some yoga advocates and meditators don’t approve of this stripping away of the spiritual qualities of these practices. (The description of this in the book reminded me a bit of the Christians who complain about the largely secular meaning of Christmas to many people.) To me, though, this development strikes me as being positive overall. For those who seek transcendence, I can’t imagine it’s hard to find someone who will offer to help you get there. For those who don’t, narrowing the focus to the physical and mental effects is a way to understand and apply some useful things the species has learned about how to live well in a human body with a human mind, while dropping (or relegating to the status of myths) the parts that contradict what we know about how the world works. And again, I wonder if it’s easier to follow this process, which in my opinion is beneficial on the whole, with a religion that you were not raised in.
Although I do not believe in any of the gods proposed by the world’s religions, I do have feelings of wonder, awe, connectedness, and transcendence that might reasonably be described as “spiritual.” However, describing and sharing these feelings in the absence of belief in a deity can be difficult. For one thing, as soon as you use the word “spiritual” to describe yourself, the word “supernatural” comes to many minds. And in my experience, there is some reason for this: the word “spiritual” is too often connected with some kind of belief in the supernatural, AKA woo (or in the longer but in my opinion more descriptive version, mumbo-jumbo). It’s enough to make an atheistic primate wonder whether it’s time to stop using the word “spiritual” altogether.
I’ve long been interested in certain Eastern ideas of spirituality, which often seem to offer practical advice for living well without a lot of dogma (at least as they have been presented in the West). As a bonus, some of these approaches also treat the body gently, as something to be cherished, rather than as an enemy to be conquered or disciplined. (The word for this in the Catholicism of my girlhood was “mortified,” as in “the mortification of the flesh.” Ugh.) The problem is that you can generally only get so far into any reading on Buddhism or yoga before bumping up painfully against woo (reincarnation, karma as a true causative agent, levitation) or a renunciatory spirit (celibacy, avoiding alcohol) that is one of the more unfortunate aspects of religion, IMO. If enlightenment is attainable only on the mountaintop away from real life, it has little value for me. (I have found a few non-mumbo-jumbo books about Buddhism and mindfulness; see the list at the bottom of this post.)
So I was very interested in Philip Goldberg’s American Veda, which chronicles the spread of Eastern spiritual concepts in America, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to today. (He specifically investigates only the broader spiritual concepts of what he refers to as Vedanta-Yoga—e.g., “one truth, many paths”—rather than religious ceremonies, deities, and such.) I may have more to say on the book as a whole later. For now, I’m going to focus a couple of things that struck me for what they say about how science is related to Eastern spiritual ideas.
In a chapter on the founding of the Esalen Institute, the famed retreat center that explores humanistic spirituality, Goldberg quoted Jeffry Kripal as saying that Esalen offers
“a kind of secular mysticism that is deeply conversant with democracy, religious pluralism, and modern science.”
Sounds good, especially when compared to fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, which are often opposed to religious pluralism and/or modern science. There are echoes elsewhere in the book of this suggestion that Eastern spirituality is suitable for a modern secular society. However, a little later, in a chapter on the influence of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (guru to the stars, most notably the Beatles), Goldberg quotes Harry Oldmeadow, a theorist of religion:
“The interest in Eastern spirituality met some deep yearning for a vision of reality deeper, richer, more adequate, more attuned to the fullness of human experience, than the impoverished world view offered by a scientifically-grounded humanism.”
I initially interpreted the first quote as implying that people were actively seeking a spirituality that was compatible with other things they valued, e.g., science and democracy. The second quote seemed contradictory: it seemed almost to imply that even if people accept science and humanism, despite the relatively shallow, less adequate world view they offer, they remain hungry for something more. I’ve encountered this attitude before, and I still find it discouraging. Some of my most powerful feelings of wonder, and some of the deepest, richest, most mind-opening thoughts I know, are profoundly connected with our scientific understanding of the world. To me, the quest for an adequate spirituality is about finding a way to make room in my life for those feelings and nurture the experiences that give rise to them (not getting too caught up in the daily round of work and chores) and trying to share them with others. It is not about supplementing the inadequacies of a scientific-humanist world view because I don’t find that world view inadequate.
Goldberg’s book is not specifically about science and Eastern spirituality (although he does have a chapter about that topic, which I’m just about to read), and he certainly doesn’t delve very deeply into what “compatibility with science” might really mean. The people and events he describes often seem to involve a fair amount of woo (e.g., after making a hit with transcendental meditation, the Maharishi went on in the 1970s to try to train people to levitate). The picture overall is fascinating but definitely not one of a mumbo-jumbo-free spirituality, and reading this book is leading me once again to question my use of the word “spiritual” in connection with myself. I’d love to hear what others think. Do you describe yourself as spiritual or as “spiritual but not religious”? Do you think it makes sense for atheists/agnostics to describe themselves as spiritual? I’d be especially interested in hearing from anyone who grew up with the original ideas behind Eastern spirituality and religion in these ideas’ native habitat.
Here are the non-mumbo-jumbo books on Eastern spirituality:
- Confession of a Buddhist Atheist
by Stephen Batchelor
- Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening
by Stephen Batchelor
- The Feeling Buddha: A Buddhist Psychology of Character, Adversity and Passion
by David Brazier
- Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness
by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston
- Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness
by James H. Austin
- Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom
by Rick Hanson
I mentioned yesterday that I’m interested in some of the mental constructs that thinking meat has created, like science or art or religion. I’m particularly interested in areas where these things intersect: what science has to say about how and why we create and enjoy art, for example, and, on the other hand, art that is based on scientific ideas or scientific data. Another particularly exciting intersection these days is the relationship between the world views and approaches of science and religion. In the past, I haven’t exactly hidden the fact that I’m an atheist, but I haven’t been explicit about it either. Consider me fully out of the closet (see that nice red atheist “A” over in the sidebar?).
By “atheist” I mean that I see no reason to believe in any of the deities proposed by the world’s religions, and that I believe that the physical world is all there is: we do not have supernatural souls that predate or outlive the body, and every phenomenon we experience, from hunger to love to lust to transcendence, is based firmly in the physical world. I’m not unsympathetic to metaphorical uses of the word “god” in the sense Einstein used it, as a description of the sum total of the universe and its laws, but overall I tend to avoid such use myself. The main reason for this is that I believe it can foster confusion. Also, in my own case, I found myself using it that way to try to build a bridge between myself and people who believe in a more traditional god. This eventually began to strike me as a dishonest attempt to gloss over a deep difference in world view, and it became important to me to articulate my views more clearly.
The decision to be direct about my views on this topic coincides with a gradual realization that in order to understand each other and live together well, humans should be able to respectfully and honestly discuss religious ideas with the same rigor and intellectual standards we bring to discussions of any other aspect of the world or of human behavior. We can’t leave a large chunk of human behavior outside of the realm of rational discussion. I’d also say that as a species, we would be much more successful at getting along with each other and not trashing our planet if our actions and decisions were evidence-based and concerned solely with what we know about the physical world here and now (which of course includes the emotional world of human interactions and relationships).
Tomorrow: Spiritual but not religious: what does that mean?