We Are Of The Spirit, Truly Of The Spirit

Question from John:
My question concerns words that have such broad constellations of meaning that they sometimes seem to mean nothing at all, but are nevertheless deeply embedded in the English language.

Here’s the question: Consider the word, “SPIRITUALITY.” When you hear this word, how do you interpret it? Can you think of any common, standard, interpretations of the word which differ from your own personal interpretation? If you were asked to write an all-inclusive dictionary definition, what would it be? (Many English words have multiple meanings which are numbered by frequency of usage in dictionary listings. Do the dictionary definitions which comes to mind for the word “spirituality” adequately cover the broad variety of common applications?)

Consider how the term “spirituality” compares to the word “love.” “Love” is highly context-dependent, and the nuance of its meaning changes radically with the application: “I love pizza,” “I love you, Darling,” “I love my mother.” Nevertheless, there’s a core component of the meaning which is fixed and doesn’t vary at all: “to feel a strong fondness for.” Assuming that it exists, what is the core component of the word “spirituality” which doesn’t change from context to context?

If you were given the power to strike the word “spirituality” from the English language and replace it with a different word, what would that word be? You can use any word you like, or coin a completely new term. The only rule is that this new term MUST adequately cover ALL current meanings and nuances for the old term. It can’t overlook ANY of the popular meanings. (It’s permissible, however, to choose, or to coin, two separate words which, together, cover all of the nuanced meanings of the word “spirituality.”)

My guess is that most atheists will answer these questions differently from theists, but this hypothesis could be completely wrong. I also suspect that, though many atheists would love to strike the term from the English language, doing so is harder than it might seem.

Answer by SmartLX:
Right then.

To me, spirituality is being aware of, and attempting to nurture, the parts of ourselves that rise above considerations of survival and other mundane, primitive concerns. Our spirit is our essence, the qualities which make us sapient beings and those which make us us as individuals. It’s our sense of the transcendent and the sublime, of the beautiful and the elegant. It’s our wonder at everything and our awareness of ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a common interpretation of “spirituality” which conflicts with most of this. It’s the interpretation in terms of literal, ethereal spirits floating around – in our heads, under our beds and in separate, vaguely defined “planes” and “dimensions” – and our efforts to get in touch with and influence these entities, whether or not they are ours to control.

To reconcile the two interpretations in a single definition of the word, I would take what I must admit feels like the cheat’s way out and say that spirituality is simply actions, thoughts and philosophy concerned with spirit.  This allows the multiple meanings of “spirit” to feed through and cause “spirituality” to mean whatever it needs to in a given sentence.  I wouldn’t replace it, because I think its ambiguity can actually be useful.

14 thoughts on “We Are Of The Spirit, Truly Of The Spirit”

  1. I’m going to paraphrase and summarize SmartLX’s answer in order to distill it down to four simple definitions, and then elaborate on the first one:

    1. Being aware of, and attempting to nurture, the parts of ourselves that rise above considerations of survival and other mundane, primitive concerns— the qualities which make us sapient beings.
    2. Our sense of the transcendent and the sublime, of the beautiful and the elegant—
    our wonder at everything and our awareness of ourselves.
    3. Belief in literal, ethereal spirits floating around in our heads, under our beds and in separate, vaguely defined “planes” and “dimensions”– and our efforts to get in touch with and influence these entities.

    To SmartLX’s definitions, I would add one more (which I think was implied, but wasn’t stated explicitly):

    4. Emotional states interpreted metaphorically or symbolically as “ethereal spirits” in language and thought. Typically, a dimension of subjective emotional experience best described metaphorically and quantitatively— as being “high or low,” “light or heavy” rather than qualitatively: “sad,” “afraid,” “angry.” (For example: in low spirits, a broken spirit, dispirited, uninspired, in high spirits, spirited, inspired, inspirational, awe-inspiring.)

    This metaphorical use of the root “spirit” to describe “heavy” or “light” emotional states roughly parallels the use of the term “spirits” as a label for volatile alcoholic beverages— substances that easily turn from a liquid to a gaseous state, becoming lighter and more ethereal in the process. Similar linguistic usage of the same root is found in words like ASPIRATION (“having a desire or passion breathed into one”) and CONSPIRACY (“breathing together”) implying agreement and unanimity within a faction, EXPIRE (“come to an end,” “terminate,” as through biological death), and TRANSPIRE (“occur” or “happen” as a linguistic distortion over time of the original meaning of “leak out,” or “become publicly known”). The lesson to be garnered here is that words, being symbols with particular etymological origins, don’t necessarily describe things in explicitly literal terms.

    I’d like to explore SmartLX’s first definition, “Being aware of, and attempting to nurture, the parts of ourselves that rise above considerations of survival and other mundane, primitive concerns.” I’m going to summarize this meaning as “transcendence.” That term may sound very “woo woo,” but it really isn’t.

    I must say that I am very impressed that SmartLX not only included this definition, but listed it first. While this definition is clearly embedded in the meaning of the familiar term, “spirituality,” it seems to operate under the radar most of the time. It is almost never talked about, and is rarely mentioned when people are asked to define the words “spiritual” and “spirituality.”

    I have a lot of thoughts about this facet of the term “spirituality,” and I consider it to be THE most important aspect of the word, particularly as far as “spiritual-minded” atheists are concerned. However, I’d prefer not to monopolize the dialog. I’d really like to hear what other people think.

    I would be delighted if you would all share your thoughts and impressions about this particular dimension of the concept of “spirituality”? It seems to me that, when people talk about “spirituality,” 99% of the time they’re either talking about literal, supernatural “spirits” or a warm, fuzzy feeling— a tingle running up and down one’s spine. What about this notion of “transcendence”? Transcendence of the ego, of one’s biological programming, of the standard, mundane paradigms and common sense values that shape daily human life? (The reason why I think it is the most important and relevant aspect of “spirituality,” as far as atheists are concerned, is that it manifests as modes of perception, intellectual understanding, and action as much as feeling.)

    What do you think about this “transcendence” dimension of spirituality?

  2. I cheated and googled for synonyms … here’s a nice one – “supernal”.
    Another good one is extramundane (the extra can be interpreted as per your fancy – as “beyond” if you are fond of the word spiritual or as “more” if you are not!).
    I’d like to coin “extramental” in the same vein.

  3. What’s your experience with “spirituality” apart from religion, the supernatural, or warm-fuzzy feelings (like watching your child be born or staring at a double rainbow)?

    Have you ever had an experience in which you or someone else did something which transcended the ego– a purely selfless altruistic act, or putting oneself at risk to help another, or forgiving someone who didn’t deserve to be forgiven?

    How about an experience of transcending biological programming or socio-cultural norms out of a sense of higher or deeper truth? Quitting a job as a lawyer or stock broker to write poetry, run a soup kitchen, or volunteer in Africa. Adopting kids with birth defects, going to jail for protesting human rights violations that didn’t hurt you personally, donating a large chunk of salary to charities…

    Studying Buddhism, practicing meditation, participating in Christian charitable activities, performing random acts of kindness…

    Studying philosophical cosmology or morality, undergoing psychoanalysis– or practicing art, music, or poetry towards the end of getting in touch with deeper existential aspects of your being, understanding yourself and the universe…

    In my life, forgiveness has been a core theme. Forgiving unforgivable wrongs done by my parents, by a spouse that betrayed me, by people that exploited and hurt me in my childhood. Unconditional forgiveness is an act of transcendence not only because it goes against every instinct and impulse, but also because it sees past the limitations of others and the needs, fears, and urges of one’s ego.

    In the past, when I have forgiven someone close to me who cares about me but has betrayed me, let me down, or hurt me in some way (my Brutus, Tristan, or Guinevere), the act has often led to the “warm fuzzy feelings” that people typically associate with spirituality. Those feelings were a side effect, though– they weren’t spirituality, as such, but rather what the practice of “spirituality” felt like, emotionally.

    If you are reading this, what personal experiences have you had with this dimension of spirituality?

    1. I’ve never been a big fan of forgiveness. In my view, when we forgive too easily, we help perpetuate stupidity and selfishness in others. One has to sometimes pursue people a bit in order to make them do the right (socially and morally right) thing. One should forgive only after such pursuit and when the person who has done the wrong at-least sees/ admits to the error of his/ her way.

      Of-course the above course of action is not always feasible. And forgiveness at some point of time is necessary for one’s mental health and in order for one to move on. In my experience this tension between retaliation/ pursuit and forgiveness requires a balance.

      In my college days, I wasted a lot of time in meditation, reading holy books (or translations) of various religions, reading philosophy and philosophical literature etc.
      I say “wasted” because the fuzzy thinking that I got into a habit of during those years made me miss a lot of opportunities that were flung my way.
      During this phase, I had “epiphanies” a number of times. I remember this time when I was in a jogging park sitting on a bench after a good, tiring run. I could hear the traffic and the general whirl of the world outside the park, but could not see it due to the trees and shrubbery in the park. The clouds in the sky were moving in such a manner that it seemed as if the earth was actually rotating and the whirl that I could hear was the whirl of the giant mechanism that was making the earth rotate. At that point of time I felt like a cog in this mechanism. And then I “felt” the mechanism and “saw” how each part of it created the whirl of the world. And I felt how all this mechanism could be orchestrated by a divine intelligence. It was an uplifting experience, though I doubt anyone would consider it “spiritual”.

      Well … that was then. I now get my “highs” from thinking, learning new things, experimenting etc. Less from feeling and sensing.
      I do meet people who are in that exalted and dreamy state that I was in during my college years, and I can’t really relate to them too much, perhaps because I’ve moved on from all that.
      I now think it is a dangerous state of mind, that one. The warm fuzzy, drunk on spirituality and philosophy state. It is unproductive – because it is all unconditionally encompassing.
      I yearn now for a state of mind that is all encompassing but also nuanced and discerning. A hard-nosed, no-nonsense, demanding state that is all encompassing but based on logic and reason. No more fuzzy all-encompassing states for me.
      I don’t really know if what I am seeking is a contradiction or a real possibility. But its interesting to seek.

      1. Rohit, there’s nothing in either of your posts on this topic which I disagree with. You seem to have a very insightful and well-balanced perspective, and the two of us are clearly on the same page. My entire life has been a spiritual exploration, but not in the conventional sense. More like empirical, philosophical cosmology in which warm, fuzzy feelings and a sense of connectedness grow out of reasoned empiricism and rational analysis. (The reverse of this, in which emotion, faith, and dogma define one’s UNDERSTANDING of how things work is really the tail wagging the dog, as far as I’m concerned.)

        I embraced science and the scientific method before I had even mastered walking and talking. Fortunately, I was raised in a non-religious household, so I had no parentally-induced religious brainwashing to overcome. Even during the phase of my life when I was on a conventional, formal spiritual path, I walked it as a scientist. I spent about six years living and working in two new age centers full-time—after exploring Buddhism and Taoism for many years before that. The thing that allowed me to move through new age circles, and pseudoscientific, dogmatic religious circles, without getting the machinery of my brain gunked up with woo-woo and nonsense was FAITH— unwavering, infinitely patient faith in the scientific method.

        Yes, that’s right, I immersed myself in new age culture as a scientist. It’s a long story but, essentially, that’s what I did. It turned out to be virtually all bunk, but I learned a great deal from the experience. I’ve also worked as a teacher in a Catholic school owned and run by nuns. That was bunk, too— blatant and unmitigated hypocrisy— but I learned a lot there as well. (I was raised Catholic, with Sunday school and regular weekly mass, by the way. My parents were religiously ambivalent, but thought I’d grow up to be a baby-eating Satan-worshiper without religious instruction. I did end up that way, in fact. I’m an atheist.)

        My reason for giving all this background on myself is to demonstrate that I know exactly what you’re talking about, Rohit, as well as what I’m talking about— or rather, what I’m about to talk about. I am a spiritual atheist, and I have spent my entire life on the reasoned spiritual path. A hard-nosed, no-nonsense, demanding state that is all encompassing but based on logic and reason— with no fuzzy thinking or dogmatism whatsoever. It isn’t a contradiction, and it is a real possibility.

        Encapsulating HOW it is possible in a brief sound bite is a real challenge. One shortcut might be to use Buddhism as a concrete example. In my experience, Buddhism is one of the best mainstream, conventional paths to this sort of reasoned spirituality— though one has to take great care not to be drawn into the cultural programming and the dogma— even when that dogma is extremely subtle, as it often is in non-Tibetan Buddhism. (Tibetan Buddhism has a lot to offer, I think, but it is replete with pseudoscience and unabashed dogma. So is Taoism.) You might be more familiar with Hinduism, given your first name. I have some experience with other Eastern traditions, such as the Vedas, and other sects of Buddhism, but I’ve always preferred zen because its key tenets are empiricism and the rejection of dogma.

        So how does one avoid the dangerous exalted and dreamy, warm and fuzzy, drunk on spirituality and philosophy state? For me, the secret is to never let my feelings define my reality. Most Eastern religious traditions teach that life is an illusion, and they’re right— but it’s not a metaphysical illusion. It’s a neurological perception-based, brain chemistry-based, culturally-filtered illusion. Emotional states can’t be trusted to define reality.

        The trick to dealing with hard-wired illusions (like optical ones) is to bring multiple senses to bear on the problem. You can’t trust your eyes alone, you must test everything with your ears and hands as well. You can’t trust your emotions alone, you must check them against reason and logic as well. I have a deep disdain for warm, fuzzy feelings, except for when they mesh harmoniously with my intellectual analysis. Then I embrace them wholeheartedly.

      2. For me, forgiveness is usually a matter of accepting the limitations of others, and accepting them with their limitations. Forgiving and forgetting is viable, and the best course of action, I think, when you feel in your bones that the other person realizes that they made a monumental error– and has suffered so deeply for it– that you genuinely don’t expect them to hurt you in the same way again. In that case, the person you are forgiving isn’t the same person who hurt you. That person doesn’t exist anymore, nor does the person who was hurt (the younger version of yourself), nor does the world in which the hurtful act occurred. In that case, the best course of action is to forgive AND forget.

        When, instead, it’s patently obvious that the person who hurt you could (or certainly will) do it again, forgiving still makes sense, but not forgetting. Forgiving someone who punched you in the nose is one thing, giving them a chance to take a second swing is another. We all have limitations, and some of us have much bigger limitations than others. Forgiveness is often about accepting human limitations and weaknesses, including our own.

        I’m just going to blurt this out. We DON’T have free will; we are NOT in control of our actions. I’m not going to attempt to prove that in a couple of paragraphs, but it’s a fact. Yes, we sometimes appear to be able to control our actions. However, whether or not, in a given situation, we are capable of recognizing that we’ve done something wrong, or of controlling our behavior— THAT is not something that we are in control of. We can’t control, in any given instance, whether or not we have control. (The fact that I manage to throw snake eyes from time to time doesn’t mean that I can do it on cue.)

        Let’s look at it another way. When we DO appear to be in control of our actions, who is doing the controlling? Who decides the action? I’m sure that you’ve had times in your life when you tried to diet and failed, or tried to give up a bad habit and couldn’t. Or wanted to think or feel or act differently, and failed. It’s great when we are capable of displaying willpower, discipline, and self-control, but it’s hit and miss.

        The human mind is a collective, and most cognitive functions— including the ones that send feelings, thoughts, desires, and aversions into our consciousness— operate below the threshold of consciousness. We can’t control our unconscious. The marionette can’t control the puppeteer.

        Ultimately, if we don’t want to be miserable, we have no choice but to accept our own limitations and the limitations of others— especially those of our spouses, parents, children, and friends. We also have no choice but to accept the fact that the past happened the way that it happened. We can’t change it and, as I know you already understand perfectly, torturing ourselves with resistance and bitterness serves no practical purpose.

        Accepting the fact that a tiger killed and ate my daughter doesn’t mean that I’m going to stick my hand in the cage and say, “Here kitty, kitty.” Neither does it mean that I’m going to expect the tiger to feel bad about what it did. All it means is that I’m not going to blame the tiger for being a tiger. Tigers are dangerous and should be treated accordingly. High-strung Chihuahuas aren’t nearly as dangerous, but still need to be approached with a bit of caution. Forgiving and trusting naively are two different things altogether. Forgiving doesn’t mean we can’t give critical feedback, either, though I usually find that to be a waste of time.

        Note that reason and rationality are leading here, even though the act of forgiveness often results in expressed or unexpressed gratitude, tenderness, and intimacy– and all the warm, fuzzy feelings that come with those things. Rationality is defining the objective reality in this explanation, not a need to feel warm and tingly. The feelings result from an act, and the act grows out of rational insight. The feelings are a sort of confirmation that the reasoning and judgment are on target.

        One brain function system (limbic) is confirming the proper functioning of another (the pre-frontal cortex). Both are intelligences, but neither can be trusted on its own. Reason and logic can go astray, too. Rational-minded people can perform horrible, evil acts that make perfect logical sense. The wisdom of the emotional brain– empathy and compassion– often prevents us from doing terrible things.

        1. John, I can see that you take your experiences with religion and spirituality in a positive light. Although you discovered that new age culture was bunk, you say you learnt a lot in the process. I used to think the same regarding my experience with religion (the 5 or 7 years I spent thinking very intensely about it). But of-late I’ve come to the conclusion that it was time wasted. I think the mistake I made with my explorations of religion and spirituality (unlike you) was to approach them thinking that there must be some real insight into the functioning or the world at large at the end … of-course there is none. I wasn’t scientific or rational in my explorations. And when you have high expectations, the let-down is bigger I guess.

          It is heartening that the hard-nosed, no-nonsense demanding state, all encompassing but based on logic and reason is possible, as you say. And that this state can be inherently optimistic and not neutral/ mechanistic (or slightly negative) is good to know too. My endeavor is to reach that mental state. But I do find it requires a lot of discipline and self observation. It seems to require an awareness of oneself at all times and also a constant dialogue with and control over one’s own thought process. Otherwise either emotion or hard cold logic takes over, and neither alone leads to reality (which is at the end of the day complex, multifaceted and not at all as simple as either emotion or logic alone would have us believe).

          I like that you talk of Buddhism while explaining this state. The Buddha basically set out to solve a problem – his explanation of the root cause of the problem were the 4 noble truths. His solution to the problem was the eight-fold path (which is essentially a thesis on changing oneself and not changing the world). The teaching is brilliant in it’s simplicity. I like to compare it to signalling beacons each trying their best to tune the other beacons around them to their own frequency. Trying to do that is patently absurd and wastes a lot of energy. The Buddha seems to say (more or less) that each beacon should try instead to tune it’s own frequency to other signals. When each individual beacon does that there is bound to be (a) Lesser energy wasted in trying to make others change and (b) a more positive and quickly reached general equilibrium of frequencies.

          I like what you say on hard-wired illusions. I cannot agree more that the world we perceive and have thoughts about in our head is our sense perception of it. Our senses can be demonstrably fooled and are frail. Science & technology give us tools to look beyond our immediate perception to get a better grip on reality – be it the teeming world of organisms one sees under the microscope or the mind numbing universe out there that one sees through advanced telescopes. And study of our own perceptions through the methods of science shows us how we are often wired to be irrational.

          I agree with most of what you say on forgiveness. I was thinking of forgiveness in the human realm. If one faces a catastrophe (like a loved one being killed by a tiger) there’s nothing to do about it … that’s the nature of the beast.
          But I refuse to say this when dealing with human affairs – I refuse to say that that’s the nature of the beast we are dealing with … though in all probability it really is, given that we are just more rational and more (exceedingly more) sophisticated apes.
          I agree with what you say about not having control. We may not have free will in the mechanistic sense, but we do have choice at the macro level of our existence and experience. We always have choice – which may ultimately be nothing more than a holding back of impulse and allowing the neocortex and the limbic system to work out a solution in tandem (with neither overpowering the other).
          The human being is a dynamic, self organizing system – in both the physical and the mental plane. It uses (or can use, in theory) the external feedback it receives (in terms of pursuit/ retaliation) to change itself. When we forgive too easily, we are just allowing it to change for the worse. I’d rather not accept limitations – mine or others’. Even though this may mean that I remain slightly frustrated (with myself and with others). We owe it to ourselves to push ourselves to the most productive state of our being. Change is slow and hard – especially change in thought and action. The idea is to raise the set-point (the natural state of the system) – one’s own (difficult) and maybe of others (far too difficult).
          The practical route though is probably to tune our own beacons and raise our individual set-points instead of going after the world (as the Buddha would probably say 🙂

  4. Here’s a brief(ish) critique of two “transcendences”. It’s tinged with my personal experience so is probably not generic.

    When we think beyond our egos, step beyond our immediate mundane worries and look beyond our primitive concerns we may feel awestruck about nature, about the universe, about life, etc. This sense of wonder makes one explore further to try and understand the reality beyond one’s internal petty concerns.
    One’s thinking can take either of two paths – the religious or the reasoned.

    The path of religious transcendence offers a lot to broaden one’s horizons. If one takes the mature philosophical underpinnings of various religions (i.e. of religions that do have a mature philosophical underpinning to offer – which are few), mixes it with a dash of exalted human emotions (like love, joy, warmth, hope, awe, wonderment etc.) one reaches a state of being that isn’t bad. It can be a warm fuzzy state where one can be open, seeking, caring and giving. And religious philosophy, at its pinnacle (in my opinion) offers a good ever receding goal for one to achieve – a merging with the divine being/ intelligence, an uplifting of one’s soul into the whole/ the fount. This state can hardly be called simple minded. It typically has a lot of thought and imagination behind it. But it is a falsity – in the sense that it is not based on reality but on a concoction of philosophy, emotions and blind belief.

    The path of non-religious (reasoned) transcendence makes one investigate further the subject of the awe and wonderment that one feels when one thinks beyond one’s nose. One tries to understand the world in all it’s complexity better. But this path does not give an ever receding, resplendent goal to achieve (unlike the god-path). It is a neutral path – it makes us investigate and question as per our intellectual appetites. The problem that I’ve experienced with this path is that our appetites and our abilities are finite – we are at the end of the day limited. Without that false over-arching, resplendent goal that the god-path offers, one tends to tire out sometimes. The awe sometimes dims as one reaches and comes to know the limitations of one’s abilities. Also, as one gets to know the inner mechanism of the world through science, psychology, etc. and becomes more familiar with it, the wonder that one felt initially might diminish too. When you know something, you tend not to be in awe of it anymore, though you may still marvel at how simple blocks/ steps lead to a complicated whole. A lot of self motivation is required to continue seeking.

    I suspect that the goal of grasping the complexity of the world in all it’s nuances can be a sort of over-arching, ever receding goal that one can aim towards in the non-religious path of transcendence (given our limited abilities and the enormous complexity of the natural world). But it is an impersonal goal – unlike the personal, touchy-feely, warm-fuzzy goal of the god-path – the goal of merging with the divine being. It requires a lot of maturity, discipline and effort of the mind to remain enthusiastic about this goal. Thankfully, our normal state of being is an inquisitive state. We want to know more. So even though one may tire out sometimes, one tends to bounce back and continue. But this path is still difficult nonetheless. The crutches and the warm-fuzz that the religious path offers just aren’t there.

    1. Rohit, there’s so much wisdom and insight in your post. I really want to honor it and do it justice. I hope that I can. If I understand what you’re saying, you’re talking about a fundamental and existential reality of human experience. We are like goldfish, our “noses” pressed firmly against the glass, struggling desperately to make sense of the blurry, glare-filled flashes of light and shadow moving about on the other side of the crystal wall. From time to time, we have the sense that we’ve recognized a meaningful pattern and have understood something important— then the glary blur swallows it all up again, and we’re faced with the frustrating reality of our own cognitive limitations.

      Assuming that this is what you’re talking about when you compare the frustrations and weariness of the reasoned path with the emotionally-satisfying simplicity and ease of the religious path, I’m in the same boat. I can’t comprehend the universe. I can, however, understand the questions that we’re asking and the answers that we’re getting well enough to see that our fear, despair, hopelessness, and weariness may well be unfounded. When scientists and existential philosophers claim that life is meaningless they’re demonstrating their own foolishness. Life may, in fact, be meaningless, but our species doesn’t yet possess the necessary intellectual faculties to reach that conclusion on the basis of reason and logic alone. Furthermore, the positive (spiritual) possibilities that do exist boggle the imagination. Hundreds of billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars, in the known universe alone— it boggles the imagination. The mind-numbing complexity of life, at the cellular level alone, also boggles the imagination. The way it all fits together so perfectly and seamlessly with such incredible mathematical and logical consistency, boggles the imagination. The fact that so much evil exists in the world, in spite of the reality that most people are inherently decent— that, too, boggles the imagination. If we replace the word “evil” with “stupid” or “unconscious,” the blurry, glary reflections on the opposite side of the glass momentarily seem to take on a recognizable pattern, but not for long.

      Like you, I have trouble feeling reassured, confident, optimistic, and elated. I think that the difference in my case is that (again) reason ultimately defines my reality, not emotion. Intellect leads, and emotion confirms. On those occasions when I feel deeply depressed, the whole thing seems to work the other way around. Negative emotion seems to define my perceived reality. As bad as I feel at those times, though, I still realize that I can’t trust emotion to define my UNDERSTANDING of the universe— only how I feel about the experience. I can imagine putting a bullet through my head in my pain and despair, but I honestly can’t imagine doing so based on an assumed UNDERSTANDING of reality. Pain isn’t truth, except in one particular sense. Pain is the truth that IT HURTS!

      As simplistic as this sounds, pain is an emotional illusion. To be devoured by a tiger would be an amazing and wondrous thing if it weren’t for the physical and emotional pain. The universe consuming itself— hey, that’s what it does all the time, with every breath and with every swallow. Photosynthesis and nuclear fusion. Planet formation and cellular metabolism. A tiger is a beautiful and magnificent creature, but my horror and pain make it seem like a monster. What is the pain, anyway? A means to an end. A means to allow life to exist in the first place. I’m pretty confident that in some places in our universe, perhaps in many places, pain doesn’t exist. It seems that natural selection just happened to stumble upon it on our planet, and now we’re stuck with it. For a while, but not forever. Not for long, I think. Ibuprofen is crude and limited, but so are petroleum engines and lead acid batteries.

      There’s so much possibility, but I can’t FEEL that— not like Jason Silva (who makes me want to puke). Fortunately, my intellect doesn’t need the warm, fuzzy feelings— or the excitement and elation— to recognize the truth. The truth is that everything fits together so perfectly, mathematically and logically— so it MIGHT well all fit together meaningfully and purposefully and gloriously, just not at a simple-minded level. (Primates are simple-minded creatures— only relatively more intelligent than goldfish.)

      I ought to point out that I’m no Vulcan. I value the limbic system highly, in spite of the pain it generates. Compassion and empathy are incredibly sophisticated intellectual faculties, and should really be components of standard IQ tests. Emotional intuition is awesome. Love, compassion, and empathy are wonderful. Nevertheless, the limbic brain is not what makes humans special. It’s the prefrontal cortex. Mice and squirrels have limbic brains, too, but they don’t write poetry or philosophy. Rats don’t discuss the moral implications of eating meat. Religious people and new agers are like well-dressed and well-spoken hamsters. Their emotional and instinctive brain modules are calling the shots. That in and of itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that the various components of their brains aren’t collaborating in order to avoid deception and confirm reality. Reason is turned off, or made to serve emotion.

      I sometimes think that what atheists could really use is a good sermon. An emotionally up-lifting one, with gospel music and dancing, and lots of halleluiahs. There’s nothing wrong with singing and dancing and shouting Halleluiah, so long as it’s inspired by reasoned insight. Perhaps, in an atheist Sunday service, we could all shout “Eurika!” “Eurika, brother!” “Eurika!” “I have seen the light!” “Sure, it’s blurry and glary a lot of the time, but the very fact that a clump of mud can be having this conversation makes me want to shout and dance!” “There are more worlds in the sky than grains of sand on every beach, and a recent version of a lungfish is writing this on his iPad.” “Makes me want to shout and dance!”

  5. Would anyone else like to join this dialog? How ’bout you SmartLX? Any thoughts on the issues and ideas that have been brought up? Anyone else have any personal experiences with “transcendent spirituality”?

    1. Okay, guess I’m really late to the party here. When someone invokes the work “spiritual” I always immediately ask them to define the word. This word has been stretched to cover all sorts of things and without that definition it almost has no meaning at all. I have no personal concept of what spiritual means, so I try to speak to the person’s own definition.

      1. That’s not really a bad idea Milton. I do that too, or go the other route, which is to totally ignore that part of the conversation and focus on the more concrete aspects of what is being said. That only works of course if spirituality is NOT the main topic.

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