Belief, Communication, Cultural Traits, Deity, God, God(s), Ideas, Language, Mysticism, Quotes, Religion, Transformative Experience

Was the Concept of God an Error in Translation?

“The concept of ‘god’ was originally an error in translation committed when some ancient sage tried to reduce the mystical experience to words.”

Or, alternatively…

“The concept of ‘god’ was originally an error in translation committed when some ancient sage tried to reduce an experience of the weirdness to words.”

Paul Sunstone

Abrahamic Faiths, Allah, Belief, Business, Christ, Christianity, Cultural Traits, Culture, Deity, Education, Fundamentalism, God(s), Humanities, Ideas, Islam, Judaism, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Language, Learning, Life, Management, Memes, Mysticism, Philosophy, Professionals, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Spirituality, Taoism, Work, Yahweh

About Your “God”, Jeff…

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul discusses how the concept of “god” varies from one religion to another with the focus on Christianity, Judaism, and Taoism.

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THE CRITICS EXCLAIM! “It is absolutely certain that Paul Sunstone will someday come to a rich and full understanding of God.  That is sure to be the day Our Altogether Righteous and Just Lord mercifully condemns Paul Sunstone to being eternally chained to Justin Bieber’s buttocks in the hottest regions of hell. Until that day, his opinions and views of deity cannot possibly rise above the ignorant, thoughtless slime that is his post, ‘About Your Gods’.”  —  Merriweather Sterling, Blogs of the Day, “The Daily Burtie”, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England, UK.

Continue reading “About Your “God”, Jeff…”

Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Buddhism, Christianity, Deity, Enlightenment, Free Spirit, God, God(s), Hinduism, Human Nature, Islam, Judaism, Life, Love, Mysticism, Religion, Satori, Science, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-determination, Self-Integration, Self-Knowledge, Spirituality, Taoism, Transformative Experience, Wisdom, Zen

If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman

(About a 3 minute read)

If I were a theist and believed in gods, I would be an insufferable theist.

Indeed, my opinions might be a tad insufferable already.  At least, I think that could be a reasonable conclusion based on the number of encouraging emails I get from my loyal readers that include a pic of someone’s buttocks, along with the usually brief message, “Thinking of you, Paul!”.

Continue reading “If I Were a Theist, I’d Still be a Madman”

Deity, Faith, God, God(s), Happiness, Human Nature, Infatuation, Life, Love, Passion, Poetry, Quality of Life, Religion, Self, Spirituality

A River Runs Beneath Us

(About a 2 minute read)

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ― Rumi

A river runs beneath us called “Life”
That we sip from but do not drink
That once flowed abundantly above ground
When our short legs ran fast
So fast we believed we could
(In just a week or so)
Chase bullets and jump high to catch
The winged wonders of the air.

Strange how it went
The other way.

Something changed.
We became adults long before
Our bodies did,
And the flow of life
Sank beneath our feet,
Feet that were growing and slowing.

Now we are devout

In mimicking thoughts of strangers,
Men and women we call sages,
For the protection their words give
Least we look for ourselves again.

Our gods protect us too
Now that we have buried them
Between us and the river.

We look away from life
With radiant upturned faces,
Though we say we look to find
Eternal love and bliss
In the forever-closer distance.

Our loves protect us now
That we have buried them too.

They lurk in the earth,
Indistinguishable
From co-dependencies.

We discover in both
Our pleasures and our pains
Useful entertainments
And distractions
From the sound of water.

The water we recoil from,
Preferring a few dry stones:
Remnants of the hours
We come close
To making love.

We hide our fears,
Wrapping them in anger,
In hatreds,
And in anxieties;
Watching screens,
So many screens these days,
While beneath us
The river still flows.

Some day we aim to touch the stars,
Become the cosmic heroes of our dreams
On the soaring mound of lies
We’ve heaped beneath us.

Only the fresh smell of water
Grows fainter by the hour.

Alienation, Alienation From Self, Allah, Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Belief, Christ, Culture, Deity, Fundamentalism, God, God(s), Hinduism, Humanism, Nontheism, Self Identity, Self-determination, Society, Spirituality

You Have Days

(About a 2 minute read)

You get older, your voice rasps now
Your hair has whitened,
And your patience with people
Has grown thicker,
Much thicker bark.

They are so rarer now
But you still have days
You want to risk falling
Off your cottage roof
To climb up there,
Take your stand on the peak
And roar, just roar:

“By the gods of fools and of sages,
By the spirits of the living and the dead,
I’m an atheist, you people,
You citizens of the same earth,
An agnostic atheist and no,
I’m not about making you me,
And stealing you from you
So as to compound
The miseries and misdirections
Fated by God and Darwin
For our human lives.

“So let us agree,
Let us de-weaponize our words
To each other.

“Let us from this day to forever
Again speak in civil terms
As brothers do, for both of us
Are doomed to end in a day of tears,
The final gifts from our friends.

“Go your own way,
I’ll go mine.
Don’t meddle with my spirit,
I won’t meddle with yours.

“Let us be true to ourselves,
Brothers and sisters, let us be true.”

But you have journeyed
Long miles from your childhood,
And the road’s lessons have been hard,
So you’re leagues from a total fool.
You know how they would see it,
You’ve seen it before,
Too many times before.

“Look! Atheists are madmen.”
“More like demons, I think.”
“See how he shouts at god, the hypocrite.”
“You can’t trust him, he’s obsessed.”
“How insulting he roars at us!”
“Get the children inside. Umm…The ducks too.”
“His hair’s a mess.”
“When’s supper?”
“I think he’s nice.”

You’re a prophet
Who has seen
Our age is weak,
Most people not strong enough
To endure differences.
And anyway you’re worn
And you’re weary
And you just want to be alone.

So you quietly scratch yourself,
Yawn and shrug in your seat,
And you vow merely to keep
To your side of the road,
Hoping no oncoming driver
Plays chicken with you.
But if one dares test you,
You’ll give him hell.

Anxiety, Art, Boredom, Deity, Goals, God, God(s), Gratitude, Homeless, Human Nature, Late Night Thoughts, Life, Obsession, Poetry, Quality of Life, Television, Unconditional Love, Wisdom

Late Night Thoughts: Personalities and Ecosystems, First Dates, Thinking Gods, and More (July 21, 2018)

(About a nine minute read)

It’s becoming evident to me that our personalities are in some ways like ecosystems.  One thing affects another, and if we aren’t careful when we go about improving things,  we can run into unintended consequences.

Back when I was in business, I became obsessed –there’s no other word for it — obsessed with time management and achieving or exceeding my goals.  For some years, I worked hard to improve myself along those lines, and it paid off quite well at first.

Each day, I would, while eating a quick  breakfast, review all my goals, both business and personal, both short and long-term.  By the time I got to the office, I was so focused that very little could completely distract me from what I intended to accomplish for the remainder of the day.

But I took it too far.  One day, I was sitting at a stoplight when it turned green while a pedestrian — an woman perhaps seventy or even eighty years old — was still in the crosswalk.  She was using a walker, you see, and quite a bit slower than I wished.

I didn’t honk at her, creep my car forward — nothing like that.  I had plenty of time that morning.  Besides, it had of course happened many times before that I’d had to wait on a pedestrian.

But this time I became aware, as I never had before, just how harsh were my thoughts towards her.  I was basically treating her in my head like a treat a fierce business competitor.  She was between me and what I wanted to accomplish, and with a bit of genuine shock, I realized what it really meant that I was not seeing her as fully human.

Of course, after that, I began to see other unintended ways my assiduously cultivated ability to focus my efforts had altered me.

♦♦♦

Have you noticed how felt gratitude possesses in some much smaller measure the power of unconditional love to renew us, to make us born again?

♦♦♦

How to save money on a first date…

GLORIA (At Door):  Hello!  You must be Paul, yes?  Well, here I am, Gloria!

SUNSTONE: Welcome, Gloria!  I’m so pleased to meet you!  Did you have a hard time finding my place?

GLORIA:  Not at all, but I must admit, I was a bit taken back at first that you wanted to meet up at your cottage.  That’s quite unusual you know, for an online date.   But then you explained you don’t own a car.

SUNSTONE:  What convinced you to come anyway?

GLORIA:  I was reassured when you said you wouldn’t insist I came in.  Nothing personal, you know, but you can’t be too cautious on a first date.

SUNSTONE:  Thank you so much  for coming. I’ll be ready in just a moment, Gloria.  I have to make a quick phone call to animal control.  My cat has escaped and I’m sure she’s in the neighborhood somewhere.

GLORIA:  Of course please make your phone call.  I’ll wait here.   What does your cat look like, in case I spot one while I’m waiting.

SUNSTONE:  She’s got green eyes, short tawny fur, big paws, and weights about 300 lbs.  You might actually spot her:  She never goes much further when she gets loose than the first pedestrian she spots.

GLORIA:  Three..hundred…pounds?  I can see in your eyes, you’re not joking, or are you?

SUNSTONE:  Oh no, she’s quite the mountain lion.  I raised her from a kitten.

GLORIA:  Oh My God!

SUNSTONE:  You’re welcome to wait inside if you’d like.

GLORIA:  Yes, yes, I think that would be a good idea.

SUNSTONE: By the way, I have Netflix and, even though I’m not much of a cook, it won’t take long to make some of my deep-fried mac and cheese….

GLORIA: I cannot believe this is happening!

♦♦♦

A petite homeless woman knocked on my door one night last winter, the day of the first snow of the season.  She had about twenty reasonable requests of me, not more than one of them that I granted her.  Five dollars for cigarettes was all I gave.

“Uncharacteristic of me”, I thought after I’d sent her away.  But while she still was there, the thought had crossed my mind, “She might steal from me if I let her in, and turn my back”.

It wasn’t much more than a mild self-caution, but it had been enough.

♦♦♦

I have long been uncomfortable with the notion that a god — if one or more exist — thinks.  To be sure the notion is an anthropomorphism: That much is granted.  But it seems to me an especially preposterous anthropomorphism — much on the same level as believing a god had a beard.

For one thing, what we humans mean by “thought” is essentially symbolism.  That is, our thoughts bear much the same relationship to reality that a map does to its terrain.  When we think of a house, we’re not doing anything greatly different in principle from what a cartographer does when he or she places a small dot, a star, or a square on a map to represent that house.

But suppose that’s the same as what it means for a god to think.  Wouldn’t that place god at least partly outside nature — outside the natural universe — in much the same sense a map is separate from its terrain?  I think so, and that rather alarms me.  I’m not a theist, but if I were one, I would believe in a deity that was co-extensive with the natural universe, rather than in any way outside of it.

Yet my preference for a pantheistic deity is merely personal.  There’s no reason to hold that view other than for one’s own reasons.  To me, a more serious criticism of the notion that deity thinks begins with the recognition that thinking takes time.

The thought, “I’ll go to the store, buy some milk, lace it with Colorado weed, and sneak it back onto the shelf — fun, fun, fun!”, doesn’t normally present itself in our minds all at once unless we’ve previously come up with it.  Rather, it takes time for those thoughts to unfold.

But what would that mean to a deity?  Would it not mean the deity was subject to time?  Subject to past, present, and future thoughts?   Or if Einstein was correct in suggesting that time is an illusion, then for the deity to think like a human, it too much suffer from the same illusion.

Moreover, if it is the case that deity is subject to time, then doesn’t that imply the deity is at any given moment (except, perhaps during the very last moment of its existence) not omniscient, not all knowing?  For it would not know what it’s next thought would be.  And if is not all knowing, how can it completely know what it itself is?  As an example, if it was external, it would not know it — being subject to thinking within time.

There are many implications besides those, but I think you might see the point now:  To say deity thinks like we think is at least to say that deity is limited in knowledge and perhaps subject to at least one illusion.

Then beyond all that, you would have the problem that humans have cognitive biases, are notoriously imperfect at predicting the future,  entwine thought with emotion, and can’t keep their minds off the studly guy or beautiful gal next door, etc, etc, etc.

♦♦♦

Fragment of a poem in progress:

How many souls would we need
If we needed one for each soul
Stolen or lost by us
On the way?

And what sum of souls is tallied
By thirty years without loving —
Without loving freely?

♦♦♦

Tonight, it strikes me as curious morality and wisdom are not the same thing.  I often hear people defend the practices of distant ages by saying something along the lines of, “Well, given the morals of that time and place…”.   Perhaps.  But have some things always been wise?

 ♦♦♦

In a novel written in the 1920s,  a woman is planning a dinner party she’s giving for about a dozen guests.  Carefully, very carefully, she considers each of several seating arrangements,  imagining as best she can the conversations the different arrangements will prompt.  She pays little attention to who has the honor of sitting next to who: It’s the conversations she’s focused on.  And she goes further than that.

She plans how she will prompt each guest at key moments through-out the evening with questions she’s selecting just for them.

My father was born in 1900.  In the early 50s, he noticed the conversations among his circle of friends had begun to shift away from a wide range of (probably pre-selected) topics and towards talking about the high points of the past night’s or past week’s television shows.

“The art of conversation is dying”, he told my mother, “It will be buried soon.”

♦♦♦

“There are no boring speakers.  Only bored audiences.”  — Speaker forgotten, but an English lord, circa 1890s.

One day, an old couple in their 70s came into the restaurant where I had just begun waiting tables.  It was my first day, and I didn’t yet know who the regulars were, but it didn’t matter in their case, because they very quickly told me they’d been coming to that restaurant for lunch almost every weekday for the past forty-two years — ever since the day or so after they’d gotten back in town from their honeymoon.

Before I had time to fully digest that incredible news, the woman pleasantly instructed me, “Just tell Amie” — she was the cook —  “we’ll have our usual sunny-sides-ups today.  And, young man, I’ll need the jar of salsa you’ll find on a shelf in the mini-refrigerator at your waiter station, please.”

It wasn’t until after my shift, and I had time to reflect, that it fully sank in how odd  anyone would spend forty-two years going for lunch to the very same restaurant!

As the days turned into weeks and months, they certainly did come in nearly every weekday, excepting only the weekends.  I noticed they had almost no conversation between them.  They would more or less routinely invite others — usually semi-regulars — over to their table and then they might chat lively enough.  But on those occasions when they sat alone, they were almost totally silent.

Sometimes it seems quite curious to me we get bored with the people we love the most.  After all, isn’t boredom so often a form of turning away, of withdrawing from people in practice, if perhaps not actually in principle?

♦♦♦

Was it television that did in the art of conversation during the 1950s?  Or was it the decimation during the war of the upper classes — the people mostly responsible for sustaining the art?

Behavioral Genetics, Belief, Consciousness, Cultural Change, Culture, Deity, Enlightenment, Evolution, God, God(s), Human Nature, Mysticism, Neuroscience, Religion, Religious Ideologies, Thinking

Rationalism and the Immanent Death of All Religions

(About an 11 minute read)

When I was growing up, there were arguably few good fantasy novels.  Lord of the Rings was yet to become popular in my home town, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything because science fiction attracted me like no other genre.  Hardcore science fiction.

No unicorns, no dragons — and usually no gods.  Just stuff based on the science or scientific speculations of the day.  Issac Asimov and Author C.  Clark.  In fact, I believe it might have been in Clarke’s book, The Deep Range, where I for the first time came across the notion that rational science was replacing irrational religion in the hearts and minds of all the world’s peoples.

I simply assumed Clarke had a point.  After all, he surely knew more about it than me.  A few years later, I carried the idea with me to university, where I signed up for my first course in comparative religious studies at least half convince religion would be taught as part of the history department within twenty years or so.

I have since then been thoroughly disabused of that notion.  I was actually a bit surprised the other day when someone brought it up again.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to believe that religion is on the decline in the industrialized world.  Numerous surveys seem to demonstrate that beyond doubt.  For instance,  a 2016 Norwegian study found that 39% of Norwegians “do not believe in God”,  while a 2015 Dutch Government survey found that 50.1% of the population were “non-religious”.   And even in the US, which remains the most religious industrialized nation, younger people are notably less religious than their elders.

Yet, to me these studies are very difficult to interpret for at least two reasons.  They don’t always seem to have clear enough categories, and they often seem to have too few categories.

I’m out of my league in any language but English, so I haven’t studied the non-English language studies, but  I’m suspicious of categories that get translated as “non-religious” or are based on questions that get translated as, “Do you believe in God?”

“Non-religious” can mean so many different things to different people.  I would describe myself as “non-religious” meaning not an adherent of any organized religion, but I’m also a bit of a mystic, and to some people, that’s quite religious.

Beyond that, there are usually not enough categories to these surveys to satisfy my insatiable appetite to categorize things.  Don’t believe in god?  Fine, but do you consider yourself,  an atheist, an agnostic, someone who believes in spirits, ghosts, etc, a Christian atheist (big in the Netherlands), a believer in a “transcendent reality”,  or do you perhaps feel “there just must be something out there”, etc.

But putting aside my uniformed suspicions about the studies I’ve seen, I think there are at least two compelling reasons to suppose religion will survive rational science so long as we’re Homo sapiens.  Both reasons are rooted in the origin and nature of religions.

Now, anytime you speak about the origin and nature of religions some folks are bound to bring up the traditional ideas about that.  Religions began as proto-sciences that tried to explain nature, such as thunder, in terms of supernatural beings.  Thunder becomes a thunder god, in that view.

Freud thought religions began as a desire for a father figure that turned into a god.  Feuerbach, following some ancient Greeks, thought religion began as an idealization of a great man, such as a notable leader, following his death.  Others have argued that religion was begun by people seeking a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  And so on.

I myself would not actually argue against any of those traditional notions.  For all I know, they and many other such notions at least played some role in getting religion off to a start.  But I do think there are two more influential candidates.

There is general agreement these days among cognitive scientists that religion involves the architecture of the brain.  That is, religion is based in our genes, and most likely evolved early in our history.  Beyond that, there is much debate and a handful of theories about exactly what our brain’s architecture has to do with religion.

For reasons of space,  I’ll stick to the one theory I favor.  According to its view, we evolved functional brain modules, such as modules allowing us to think of others as having beliefs, desires, and intentions (Theory of Mind), organize events into stories or narratives (Etiology), or that predispose us to respond to danger signs in ways that might save our lives if the danger is actually real (Agent Detection).  Depending upon who you consult, there are up to two dozen or so such modules.

One way these modules might come together is this:  You’re sitting around a campfire one night, partying over an antelope carcass, when you hear a rustle in the bushes and perhaps even an indistinct growl that you might only be imagining.  You startle, the hair on your neck rises, and chills run down your spine.  “Something is out there!”

That’s Agent Detection speaking.  The rustle could be from a breeze or a harmless small animal.  The growl might only be imagined.  But the key thing here is that you react with fright just as you would if it were known to be a lion.

A few minutes later, you and your buddies pick up your spears to investigate.  Can’t very well get to sleep with a possible lion that close in.  But you find nothing.

This is repeated a few times during the night.  Each time you find nothing, but then it happens the next night, and so on.  Sooner or later, your best story-teller cooks up a narrative (Etiology)  in which a malevolent spirit is “out there”,  prowling around your camp,  perhaps waiting for the moment to strike.  But your sense of Agent Detection predisposes you think there must be something there.  Being a spirit, you cannot see him, but you don’t need to — what else could explain something making noises that have no body behind them?

Last, as time goes on, you start ascribing more and more beliefs, desires, and intentions to the spirit (Theory of Mind), until one day you have perhaps a god.  Or maybe not, maybe you and your buddies are devout spiritualists without any recognizable deities.  Whatever the case, you’ve now got something “religious”, in at least some sense of the word.

If the above is true, then we now have one deep root of human religiosity.   A root so firmly grounded in our brain’s architecture that it must be genetically based.  A clear implication is that, having evolved it, we would need to evolve out of it to be entirely free of its influence on us.  Until or unless we do that, we will be born with a predisposition to some kind of religiosity.

But is there another root, as equally well grounded?  It seems curious to me that a second root of human religiosity seems so often ignored.  Even if one dismisses mystical experiences as “rare hallucinations”, that would not actually demonstrate they were of little or no influence on the world’s religions.  Indeed, they seem core to at least Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and a significant theme in others, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Now, there seem to be about 12-16 different kinds of experiences that are commonly called, “mystical”,  so I should take special care here to clearly distinguish what I mean by the word.  I mean only one quite specific kind of experience, which I call “the mystical experience”,  for lack of being inspired to come up with any other name for it.

The problem here is that, while it is easy to come up with words to describe the  content of that experience, it is impossible to come up with words capable of communicating that content to anyone but people who have had the experience.

Buddhists sometimes describe nirvana as a “cessation of suffering”,  and Christian mystics describe their experiences as “experiences of God”,  but neither phrase is able to communicate what those things mean to anyone other than the people who use them.  The problem is the nature of words themselves.  Words are symbols that ultimately depend on shared experiences to communicate much of anything.  If you had a barn, and I had never seen anything like it,  you would be reduced to describing your barn in terms of what I had seen.  “It’s like your mud hut, Paul, only much, much bigger.”

However, I have had some luck describing mystical experiences as involving a dissolution of subject/object perception, replaced by a perception of all things being in some sense one.  The key is to grasp that subject/object perception is perceiving the world in such a way that you divide the things you perceive into self and non-self.

That is, I not only see the tree in my yard, but I see the tree as “not me”.   That’s the normal, everyday mode of waking consciousness.  But if and when that breaks down and you perceive — if only for a moment or two — the tree and you as unified by some sense of oneness, then you’re having a mystical experience.  The sine qua non of those experiences is that breakdown into oneness.

In addition to that, there is much other content typical of a mystical experience, but it’s much harder for most us to understand how mundane joy differs from mystical bliss, than it is for us to understand we have suddenly lost or abandoned our sense of things being either “me” or “not me”.

Hence, I am only concerned with that one kind of mystical experience, but that’s not to say there are no other kinds — most of them probably more interesting than the mystical experience.

As I said, Christian mystics tend to interpret their experiences as experiences of the Christian God, but so too do most people around the world, and through-out the ages (except they aren’t usually talking about the Christian god).  Not the Buddha, of course, nor Lao Tzu, but so many others use “god” or virtual synonyms for god.  So, although there are an appreciable number of atheists and agnostics who have had mystical experiences, it’s easy to see how the experience could create a sense of deity.

Mystical experiences seem to be as deeply rooted in our genes as the other kind of experiences.  The neural sciences have revealed that they are associated with at the very least changes in the activity levels of the parietal lobe and the thalamus.   There seems to be evidence that they might also have something to do with “brain chemicals” like dopamine.  So, I think despite our understand of them is still quite limited we do now know enough to safely say they are genetically rooted in us.

Of course, the implication is that “god won’t go away anytime soon”.   But I think that can be more clearly seen when we consider that the sciences have no means for disproving the notion god might be behind, or the ultimate cause of, such experiences.

Even if we knew everything about their natural causes, we would have no means of knowing anything about whether or not there were supernatural causes to them also.

Now, if all of the above is true enough, then I think its safe to say the imminent death of all religions is not exactly “around the next corner”.  We would most likely need to evolve so far as to become a new species — with a new kind of brain — for that to happen.  So, while people may shift from one form of religiosity to another, I think most of us will retain some kind of religiosity.

I hope the future brings us ever more benign forms of religiosity.

Belief, Deity, Enlightenment, Epistemology, God, God(s), Knowledge, Mysticism, Observation, Philosophy, Religion, Satori, Self, Spirituality, Thinking, Transformative Experience, Vacilando

Can a Mystical Experience Tell Us Anything About God?

(About an 18 minute read)

One of the greater joys of older gentlemen of an intellectual bent such as myself is cackling at younger people in the park is discovering obscure philosophical problems that most likely won’t be solved within our own lifetimes.  As it happens, that’s not so easy to do these days, since all the really good problems have already been discovered.  Problems like, “If deity exists, then how do we know it exists?”,  “What does it mean to live a good life?”,  and of course, “What is the maximum number of chickens that can cross the same road in the same joke?”

But why indulge oneself in attempting to solve unsolvable problems in the first place?

As it happens, the world population can be divided into two kinds of people:  Those who love their journey more than their destination, and those who love their destination more than their journey.  If you are someone who most loves his or her destination, then you probably are not attracted to unsolvable problems, for such problems are pretty much all journey and no arrival.

Yet, if you most love — and perhaps even crave — the thrill of traveling in and of itself, then perhaps you are one of those relatively rare individuals who cherishes the way pondering an unsolvable problem can get you thinking creatively beyond the common assumptions we all have about things.  And at least sometimes, you will be rewarded — not with a solution to the problem — but with a greater understanding of the issues involved.

As for myself, I fall into the latter category of humans.  I savor the journey quite often more than the destination.  At least when it comes to philosophical problems.  In fact, I have taken to heart Kenko’s maxim, “The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty”, and all but find offensive most efforts to bring philosophical journeys to safe and secure destinations.  Give me the climb, but not necessarily the mountain’s summit.  I like the changing views on the way up best of all.

Now, despite how hard it is these days to discover new philosophical problems that are virtually insolvable, I myself am proud to say that I believe I may have found one.  I’ve actually been mulling it over for a few years, and I believe that anyone who properly understands the issue will agree with me that it has no easy solution, if it has any solution at all.

Yet here’s the rub: The problem takes some explaining.  The explanations are simple enough, once you grasp them, but they run to a little length.   Let’s begin, however, by stating the problem: “Assuming that god exists, is there any guarantee that a mystical experience of god imparts knowledge of god?”

Put differently: “If you somehow first knew that god existed, and you had a mystical experience that at least appeared to you to be of god, could you say with absolute certainty that anything you learned about god during that experience was true?”

Once again, “Even if we were certain that god existed, are self-proclaimed prophets like Pat Robinson justified to believe that the messages they receive from god provide genuine knowledge of god’s will, character, etc.?”

To be sure, there is an easy answer to the question.  Unfortunately, the easy answer seems to rest on a misunderstanding of the question.   The easy way out is to say “no” on the grounds that we cannot know for certain that our experience of god is not a delusion, hallucination, brain fart, etc.  But that answer ignores that the question asks us to assume we know god exists.  Although most people will not make such a silly mistake, my experience of people says some are bound to.

Having said that, let’s now get on with my awesome explanation of the problem.  We should first define “mystical experience”.

People commonly mean upwards of a dozen things by “mystical experience”.  Things like clairvoyance, mind-reading, near death experiences, out of body experiences, and so forth.  In this beautiful essay, however, we will mean one, and only one, thing by “mystical experiences”.  Namely, one’s first cup of hot, fresh coffee on a chilly morning the experience of “oneness with everything”.

The experience of oneness is famously difficult to describe to anyone who has not themselves had it.  Yet, the experience seems to lie at the root of the notion there is some such thing as “spiritual enlightenment”.  That is, moksha, samadhi, nirvana, satori, kensho, etc.  It also seems quite likely to in many cases inform or influence notions of god — especially those notions commonly found in Hinduism (e.g. Brahman), but also in other religious traditions, such as mystical Judaism (e.g. Ein Sof), and even the Christian God.  While many people who have had a mystical experience do not claim it was an experience of god, very many others do.

Now, I’m just enough a god-snob to believe that — if there is a god — the mystical experience is in all likelihood the purest, most authentic experience of that god that our noble and esteemed species of spear-chucking super-chimpanzees can have.  I cheerfully peer down and sniff my perfectly handsome nose™ at auditory or visual “experiences” of god.  How can any sensible person compare merely hearing the voice of god, or simply seeing an image of deity, to the overwhelming,  earth-shattering,  life-transforming, supreme experience of oneness?  The very thought of it!  Tsk. Tsk.

Like most snobs — whether god-snobs, social-snobs, or some other kind of snob — I myself have no extensive personal experience of the superiority I claim to be the highest available standard that can be aspired to.   What modest experience I do have, I recognize as being anything but definitive of the whole range of mystical experiences that humans seem capable of having unless you count that purely blissful moment when  I first saw Terri’s breasts by the moonlight.  So I am quite cautious about defining the mystical experience.

However, after 35 or so years of interest in the topic, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that all mystical experiences I’ve heard of have at least one thing in common.  That is, they involve a specific, defining change in our perception of reality.

Now, grab hold of your seat, strap yourself in, for here comes the core description of what makes an experience “mystical”.  A mystical experience can be distinguished from a non-mystical experience by the simple fact that it (1) involves an abrupt cessation of our normal, everyday, “subject/object perception”, and (2) its replacement by an awareness or experiencing of the oneness of all things.

I can only imagine, dear reader, that you are now in awe of the sheer elegance of my description.  The experience of god, summed up in 41 words!  Only my scurrilous two ex-wives would seek to distract you from the glory of my accomplishment by daring to suggest that I stole the description from someone!

Which, of course, I did.

I confess the basic idea is derived from the writings of Sam Harris, who — whatever else he is — is an author of beautiful, clear, and concise prose, genuine wit, and sharp insights.  In fact, I am so struck by Harris the author, that I believe his only major flaw as an author is that he’s not me, poor man.  But putting all that aside, what do we mean by “subject/object perception”?

The concept is simple enough once you get it.  Merely look at whatever device you’re reading this on, and then observe that you have a sense or feeling of that device being distinct from your self.  Or take note of anything else in your perceptual field, whether that something else is a sight, a sound, a taste, a touch, or an odor.  Without usually thinking about it, you divide the world into self and non-self.  “I see a tree, but do not see the tree as me.”  “I hear a plane, but I do not hear the noise as part of myself.”  That’s subject/object perception, which is our normal, everyday way of perceiving the world.

Now, it’s relatively rare — but it is still possible — for subject/object perception to come to an abrupt end while yet some form of awareness or experiencing continues.  When that happens, the division of the world into me and not-me breaks down, and you are left with a perception that all things within your perceptual field are really, in some profound or fundamental sense, just one thing.  Or, as Robert Plant famously sings in Stairway to Heaven, “When one is one and one is all”.

It is quite easy to interpret such an experience as an experience of god.  For instance, what could be greater than that oneness?  Absolutely nothing you perceive lies outside it, apart from it.  Everything is included in it.  Everything is embraced by it.

Second, that experience of oneness almost invariably comes with an overwhelming sense or feeling that it is real.  Indeed, our normal, everyday sense or feeling that something is real pales in comparison.   Were you to lower your head, snort like a raging bull, and then charge at full tilt and head first into a brick wall you would — if you survived the experience — have a nearly unshakable conviction that the wall was real.  Perhaps you could later on intellectually convince yourself that it wasn’t real, that you were really a brain in a vat, and that the wall was a delusion, but I think it’s highly unlikely that you could convince yourself of that much beyond an intellectual level.

The experience of oneness is that feeling of realness on steroids.   Which, I think, largely explains why so many people who’ve reported having it come away convinced that our normal, everyday reality is an illusion, and that the reality of oneness is the True or Ultimate Reality.

There are a few other generally present attributes to the experience, such as a feeling or sense of infinity, an experience of bliss or ecstasy, an experience of unconditional love, and so forth.  Some people come away from such experiences convinced they have assured knowledge of god, such as that “God is infinite”.

But how can they be certain that god is infinite?  Please recall that we are assuming god exists: Our question is only whether on not we can trust an experience of god to tell us something about the properties of god.

Now some — but not all — mystics are inclined to say the mystical experience is so convincingly real that it cannot possibly be the case that it is misleading.  “My experience of X as real convinces me that X must be real.”  But we know we can be convinced something is real without its actually being real.  Many people are convinced the sky is blue, but we know the blueness of the sky is not an actual property of the atoms and molecules that comprise the atmosphere, but rather an effect of the diffusion of light through it.  No matter how great the sense or feeling is that something is real, we cannot be certain on those grounds alone something is actually real.

Something else that might incline us to believe our experience of god has given us assured knowledge of god’s properties is the simple faith that “seeing is believing”, or put more precisely, “Experience or observation is conclusive evidence of fact”.  But this too is quite obviously not the case.  The floor lamp beside my desk looks solid, but we know from physics that it is comprised of atoms held in a matrix with more space between the atoms than there is space occupied by the atoms themselves.  In other words, far from being that solid matter that I observe, my floor lamp is largely empty space — much like the mostly empty inside of a politician’s cranium.

So neither the conviction that something is real, nor the observation that something is real, can assure us that something is real.  Hence, the experience of god as infinite cannot be certain evidence that god is infinite on either one of those grounds.  Does that leave any other grounds for such a claim?

As it happens, some mystics make the curious claim that their experience of god is immediate.  By “immediate”, they seem to at the very least mean that their experience of god is not mediated by the senses.  Instead, they have a direct awareness of god, perhaps in somewhat the same sense of our having a direct awareness of the thoughts in our head.

Now, if it is true that mystics can have an immediate experience of god, then that would provide a different sort of grounds for the claim that an experience of god as infinite is conclusive evidence that god is infinite, for how can an unmediated experience be anything but a true experience?

To say that it could be a false experience would be like saying my experience of thinking could be a false experience, and that I might not be experiencing any thoughts at all even when I think I am thinking — a logical contradiction that, so far as anyone knows, has only been accomplished by the membership of the Ku Klux Klan.

Hence,  we cannot say that an immediate experience of god as infinite could be false on anything like the same grounds that we can say the conviction that an experience is real could be false, or the observation that something is the case could be false.  But does that still leave us with good grounds to doubt our experience?

When I think I’m thinking, are there ever any grounds to doubt that I’m thinking?

The answer is quite obviously, “no”.  And yet, there remain good grounds to doubt that my experience of thinking accurately reflects or represents thinking itself.  To illustrate, suppose I think about the most ecstatic experience of my first wedding night: The three fulfilling, blissful hours I spent in bed intimately lecturing my new wife on the epistemology of carnal knowledge.  My thoughts of that taste of heaven on earth appear to me as their content.  But I know from the sciences that in actuality those thoughts might somehow be the product of biological events in my brain, the mass firings of neurons.  In which case, there is a crucial gulf between my experience of thinking, and my thinking itself.

Of course, that gulf is normally hidden from me.  I have much less awareness of neurons firing in my brain than normal, healthy teenagers have of their mothers asking them to do their chores.  Yet — assuming it is the case that all thought is ultimately the product of those neurons, and there is no such thing as a consciousness that exists independent of them — I have here sufficient grounds to doubt that even a direct, unmediated experience of god as infinite necessarily proves that god is indeed infinite.

After all, if there be a gulf between my experience of thinking and thinking itself,  there could be a quite similar gulf between my experience of god as infinite and god’s “infinity”.  For all I can know, my experience bears no or almost no resemblance to god’s infinity.

A somewhat imperfect analogy here might be colors.  Most of us commonly see the various objects in our perceptual fields as having colors.  Green leaves, pink sunsets, purple flowers, and so forth.  But colors are not properties of those objects.  Instead, they are manufactured in our heads.  The objects themselves have no colors at all.  Because they are manufactured in our heads by tiny tiny little elves trust me! we can say we have an immediate experience of colors.  But even the immediacy of that experience does not entail that they really exist apart from us.  In somewhat the same fashion, it seems possible that god’s infinity might be manufactured in our heads.

So, even if we grant that god exists, and that our mystical experiences are somehow of god, we cannot be certain that any knowledge those experiences impart to us is true knowledge.  But if that is indeed the case for what we have been calling here “mystical experiences”, it is also the case for merely auditory or visual experiences of god.  To say — as a Pat Robertson might say — “God spoke to me last night and said, ‘I will send an earthquake to devastate Utah for I am angry with the Mormons who live there’.” is subject to the same uncertainties as mystical experiences.  We have no way of knowing whether that message is assured knowledge of god’s will, character, or intentions.

But why stop there?  If we cannot say with absolute assurance that god is infinite or that god is angry with virtually anyone who fails to contribute lavishly to our TV ministry, can we say that an experience of god imparts any certain knowledge of god at all?  I think not.  Even if we assumed something exists apart from our own brains that is the ultimate cause of our experiences of god, we could not say with complete assurance that we knew much of anything about that something.  For all we could really know, god might be some as yet undiscovered combination of natural causes.

To be sure, quite the opposite of what we’ve been saying could also be true.  Maybe an experience of god as infinite quite accurately reflects or resembles god’s infinity.  The point here is not that such a thing is impossible, but that it is uncertain.

I do not wish anything I’ve said here to be misunderstood as poo-pooing the notion of god, nor as hostile to the notion that mystical experiences can be immensely life-affirming, to say the least.  I have plenty of doubts about the notion of god, and plenty more doubts about certain specific notions of god, but I have far fewer fixed and firm convictions about god than perhaps most of us.  And I have personal experience of how life-affirming seeing Terri’s breasts in the moonlight mystical experiences can be.

Yet, like Jiddu Krishnamurti and some others, when it comes to these things, I believe certainty is largely or even entirely counter-productive.   You might find the god you set out to find, but that god will be a projection of your own convictions about what a god should be.  Or so it seems to me.

So what do you make of all this?  What am I missing here?  Your comments, questions, rants, and mouth-watering insights are welcomed!


For a larger and more general discussion of mysticism, see “Mysticism is a Whore: Allow Me to Introduce You“.

Deity, God, God(s)

Let Us Suppose There is a God…

Let’s suppose, for the sake of discussion, that there is a god.  Let us further suppose, that god is genuinely beyond understanding.

In other words, we are not merely paying lip service to the notion that god is beyond understanding — while we all the while ascribe one trait after another to that god.  No, in this case, let us suppose this god is genuinely beyond understanding.

Given those two conditions, would it make sense to conduct our lives in any way differently than we would conduct them if there were no god?

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Deity, Evolution, Genetics, God, God(s), Human Nature, Ideologies, Late Night Thoughts, Myth, Neuroscience, Psychology, Religion, Science

Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.

__________________________________

Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Allah, Christ, Deity, God, God(s), Krishna, Religion, Shiva, Yahweh

Does God Look Like You?

At the moment, there happens to be an invisible, undetectable squirrel in the tree beyond my window.  Although the squirrel is undetectable, I have been debating all morning whether it resembles a real squirrel or is more of a spirit.

Personally, I don’t see how my inquiry into the undetectable squirrel in my yard is any different from the dialog I recently witnessed between two believers.  One was accusing the other of lacking a sophisticated view of god because the other thought god looked like a human.  “There’s a difference between a physical body and a spiritual body”, he said, “God is a spirit.  Do you really think He looks like you?”

It’s beyond me how you can posit an indivisible, undetectable squirrel, and then argue over what it looks like.  But what am I missing?

Abrahamic Faiths, Alienation, Belief, Deity, God, God(s), Guest Authors, Judaism, Religion, Religious Ideologies, S.W. Atwell, Spiritual Alienation, Values, Yahweh

“They Find in Religion an Aggressor”

Please Note: This is a post by guest author, S.W. Atwell.  The views and opinions expressed in her post are entirely her own.  If you would like to post as a guest author on this blog, please contact me at the email address posted on my contact page.

— Paul Sunstone

I’m writing this blog piece in response to some of Paul Sunstone’s musings about people who blog about leaving the religion in which they grew up.  According to Sunstone, some people lose their childhood religion because of an intellectual disagreement with doctrine.  “Typically, their doubts began to mount until one day some point in particular became the straw that broke the back of their faith.”  Others found their religion personally repressing, even destructive to the development of their selves.  “They find in religion an Aggressor.

I cannot resist blogging about my loss of faith, not the least because Sunstone feels that loss-of-religion blog pieces usually “outclass” religious blogs.  How can I resist an invitation to be “classy.”  Oh, yes, and Sunstone finds it especially “moving” when the reason for leaving one’s religion was the discovery that it was working against them personally.  So, now I simply have to blog about my little faith crash.  I want to move my readers and do so with at least a little class.

When I was seven, my moderately observant Jewish parents placed me in a school for Hasidic girls.  Hasids are the “old style” European Orthodox Jews, easily identified by their clothes.  The men wore dark suits, long beards, sidelocks and black fedoras.  The women dressed in long, dark-colored skirts and never rolled their sleeves higher than the elbow.  Once they married, my classmates covered their heads with wigs or kerchiefs.

I liked the school well enough at first.  I did not even mind learning that I was not observing Jewish ritual “correctly.”  Learning to follow the customs better did not seem all that different to me from learning to read better in the second grade than I had in the first.  Where I got stuck, however, was on this God (usually referred to as “Ha-shem” or “the name”, because Orthodox Jews avoid saying God’s name) who knew everything that was going to happen and could do anything about it that he chose.  As a child getting crunched under a heavy load of disapproval from parents and teachers, I could not understand why he did not intercede on my behalf before I screwed up.  How about making it easier for me to learn to spell?  Or putting a thought in my mind that would stop my big mouth before I insulted my big sister?  Or even prompting the adults to be a little bit kinder when I made mistakes?  How could an all-powerful God make it so easy to sin even when you didn’t really mean to.  The story of Lot’s wife was simply terrifying.  What small child has never peeked through her fingers when told to cover her eyes?  Unkind adults and an uncaring God make for a bad psychic combination in the minds of the young.  I still remember one little girl who was scolded by her teacher for making mistakes at math.  She waited until recess to whisper her greatest fear to her best friend, “Ha-shem must really hate me,” she wept, “and I don’t know why.”

There is not much of a line between god and parent in the mind of a small child.  The parent can get the child to believe in god, or not.  The parent can get the child to believe anything, or not.  Sometimes, there is not much of a line between god and the parent in the mind of the parent.  My own mother was a religious fanatic.  She was sure she knew what god was thinking.  It was, of course, whatever she was thinking.  God’s desires were her own.  One of her desires was to quelch my growth into any sort of person who thought for herself.  She had this right, because it was what God wanted.  While I did not grasp all this until I was in my thirties, I certainly felt unable to live in some sense by the time I was twelve.  My breath would nearly stop at times against her unyielding wall.

This was also the point in my life when I became really aware of the most faith-testing circumstance faced by modern Jews, the Holocaust.  I asked my mother why God had not prevented it.  She responded, smugly, that God always had a reason for allowing bad things to happen and that the Holocaust had paved the way for the modern State of Israel.  In that moment, I decided not to believe in God.  Either he did not exist, because such bumbling could hardly be credited to the Omnipotent One, or he was not all-powerful.  If he couldn’t prevent babies from being gassed, he did not deserve to have people believe in him.

That last was a primitive reaction, but there was something even more primitive going on.  There were three people in the room that day, my mother, God and me.  My mother wanted to tell me the most terrible things so I would know I was never safe with anyone other than her.  God was her weapon.  If I accepted what she was saying, I would somehow no longer exist.  In short, one of us in that room had to die.  I was too stubborn to be the one, and I was too frightened of my mother to make her be the one.  Only God could die that day.

It would make quite a headline, wouldn’t it?  “Jew Kills God.” Now, where have I heard that before?

© S.W. Atwell (2011)