Before I criticize a comment on a recent blog post by Spence Tepper, a frequenter commenter on this blog, I want to start off on a warmer note.
I've never met Tepper in person, but I like him through his words. He's intelligent, a good writer, and often makes a good case for his beliefs -- which are more sympathetic toward the supernatural and mystical experience than my own, but since I used to believe in much the same way he does, I understand where he is coming from.
It's good to have a mixture of religious believers and religious skeptics commenting on this blog. Definitely makes for more entertaining comment discussions than if everyone had the same views.
So when I criticize Tepper's perspective on how the brain works, I'm not judging him. As I often note on this blog, if people who embrace God and supernatural entities simply said, "This is what I believe," I'd have little or no problem with that, since I used to believe the same thing.
But when statements of facts are made without evidence to make them up, or when someone changes the subject when they're pressed to provide evidence about an assertion about our shared objective reality (as opposed to their personal subjective reality), then I feel a duty to challenge that person.
Here's what Tepper said that kicked off what I view as a defense of objective truth as currently understood by modern neuroscience.
And if we can go to that place of awareness within ourselves free of filters, a place where filtering and conceptual reconstruction do not function, who knows what we may experience? Maybe God? But no label would work there. Maybe reality directly. Maybe pure experience of the moment. Maybe the moment is eternity.
Those four "maybe's" don't bother me much. What caught my eye was the first sentence, an assertion that awareness can be free of filters and concepts. This simply isn't true. Again, using "true" as meaning the best understanding of neuroscience at this moment in 2023.
Andy Clark, a highly experienced and respected professor of cognitive philosophy puts it this way in his book, The Experience Machine, which I've been writing posts about recently. Clark buttresses his 228 page book with many references to neuroscientific research.
What we see, hear, and feel -- even when everything is working exactly as it should -- is never a direct reflection of the state of our own body or the wider world. Instead, the world and body we experience is always part construct: a product of your conscious and nonconscious predictions.
So there's no doubt that Spence Tepper was wrong when he claimed that awareness can be free of filters and concepts. But you might be thinking, what's the big deal with him being wrong? Here's my answer.
Tepper shared some later comments about how meditation changes the brain. Sure, it does. But neither meditation nor any other sort of spiritual practice can completely change the nature of the brain. Every experience changes the brain, not just meditation. Yet Tepper is claiming a sort of special superiority in religious experience that I find very troubling. That attitude leads to dogma and prejudice.
There's a real danger when people believe they have a special relationship with reality or God that other people lack. That's what Tepper was promulgating, and I consider that this goes against the laudable belief in equality that should be the hallmark of human culture.
By "equality," I mean that without exception, each of the eight billion humans has the same basic constituents of life. Yes, our bodies and brains differ. Some people have highly functioning brains and bodies; other people have problems with how their brain or body functions.
But we don't think that Albert Einstein had a completely different brain than anyone else. Nor do we think that a highly skilled runner who can complete a marathon in record-breaking time has a completely different body than anyone else.
And unless we're deeply infected with a religion virus, we don't assume that some people have an extra supernatural addition to their being that allows them to perceive reality from a higher perspective that us ordinary people lack.
Yet that's what Spence Tepper was assuming, apparently about himself, when he said that awareness can function without filters or concepts, and that maybe, just maybe, this special capacity allows someone with that sort of awareness to know God.
Let's consider how unlikely this is.
For in order what Tepper said to be true, the foundations of modern science would need to be overthrown. Given what neuroscience understands about experience always, not sometimes, being filtered through a mesh of our past experiences and present predictions, pure awareness of the sort claimed by Tepper would have to be supernatural, non-physical.
And there's simply no evidence of this. Sure, there's lots of talk about consciousness being separable from the body and brain, but no proof of this.
Lastly, it is false that meditation or any other practice can prevent nonconscious influences from affecting how we perceive the world, even if it is possible to become more aware of conscious influences. Clark writes:
Expectations, many of them unconscious, are always at work as our brains construct our experiences. Such effects are inevitable and can be extremely helpful.
This is obvious. What kind of life would we have if all we possessed was the sort of unfiltered non-conceptual awareness that Tepper not only wrongly believes exists, but is desirable?
You wouldn't recognize a loved one, because you'd have no concept of "this is my spouse" (or child, or friend, or whoever). You wouldn't be able to drive a car or use any sort of device, because you'd have no concept of what it was for or how it worked. You wouldn't have any sense of the past or future, since those require memory or anticipation, both of which involve concepts.
But religious believers don't think much about the implications of their crazy beliefs. Because those beliefs cause them to feel special, and superior to the poor unenlightened humans lacking their divinely inspired understanding, religions prosper by setting themselves up as places where ordinary people are transformed into Very Special People.
This isn't all that different from forms of prejudice that we're all familiar with. Which is why religiosity is so dangerous. Instead of embracing the truth that all humans are part of the same Homo sapiens family, faiths founded on supernatural myths foster division in much the same way that African-Americans have been viewed as inferior.
Whenever certain types of people are viewed as inherently different than other types, prejudice and discrimination have a fertile field to grow in. That's why I feel so strongly that religious beliefs which assume some humans have a special relationship with God or the supernatural, while other humans don't, are so dangerous.
Bluntly put, I don't see myself as anything special, because that's the truth. Spence Tepper does see himself as possessing special mystical knowledge, and almost certainly that isn't true. Again, I don't think Tepper is a bad person for feeling this way. I used to feel that way myself.
I just view Tepper as having bought into a perspective where he, and I gather others like him, have a superior way of knowing that's off limits to the rest of us. But maybe I'm wrong about this.
I'll change my mind if Tepper states that his brain and awareness are just like everybody else's: imperfect ways of understanding reality that nonetheless do a pretty damn good job of letting us live life pleasantly most of the time without anything supernatural about them.
How we talk online is much different from how we talk in person
Next year I'll celebrate the 20th anniversary from when I started this blog in 2004. But, hey, I figure that I might as well spread out the festivities by making some observations from time to time about this here Church of the Churchless.
Like, right now.
The most important thing I want to say is gratitude. Over the years I've learned a great deal from the people who visit this blog and leave comments. Typepad, my blogging service, says there have been 70,198 comments on 3,390 posts.
So that's about 21 comments, on average, per post that I've written. I read most comments, though if I'm busy, I'll just take a glance at a comment, especially if it's a lengthy one.
Those comments are my blog's way of having a conversation -- with me, and with other blog visitors. I wish Typepad allowed for editing of comments by the people who share them, and that it was possible to organize the comments in a different fashion than in a chronological fashion.
But wishes aren't reality. Anyway, I deeply appreciate the time and effort people put into their comments, though obviously the quality varies from a high quality essay to random observations that make little sense.
Which is no different from the conversations all of us have in everyday life. But otherwise, there's big differences between how people communicate online versus in person.
Online, many choose to not use their real name. I can understand why in certain circumstances. For example, on this blog criticism of a religious leader, or the religion itself, can be problematic if someone uses their real name and is still involved with the organization they're criticizing.
That's why most people who write to me with an interesting story about their faith ask that I share it anonymously. The downside of anonymity, though, is that it enables people to say things in cyberspace that they'd be reluctant to say to someone face-to-face.
I'm definitely guilty of this myself at times. So if I'm directing a blog post or a comment at a specific person, I need to do better at visualizing that person standing in front of me as I say what I want to say about them.
Another problem with online conversations is that in ordinary life communication doesn't just involve words. It also involves a tone of voice, facial expressions, body language. And of course, an ability to say things like "I don't quite understand; please elaborate on what you meant when you said _______"
So its easy to misunderstand those with whom we interact online.
I like to express strong opinions. Many commenters on my blog posts also like to express strong opinions. So we’re going to feel misunderstood by other people at times. That comes with the territory of expressing strong opinions in a setting where only written words can be shared, not the other ways we use to communicate with people.
In a way it's surprising that comment conversations on this blog are as friendly and productive as they usually are, given how many obstacles there are to understanding another person in cyberspace.
But sometimes feelings get hurt. This is unfortunate, though often unavoidable. Partly it's due to different ways of communicating between men and women. I don't want to overemphasize this. It just seems like a reality to me.
I talked about this in a 2005 post on my HinesSight blog, "Why men don't share their feelings."
“How’re you doing?” says Dennis as I walk into the Pacific Martial Arts changing room. Instead of replying with my habitual robotic “Fine, how’re you?” I have a crazy impulse to actually tell him. I’ll share my feelings!
“Well, my feet have been tingling for about a week. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve got an appointment to see a doctor tomorrow.” Without missing a beat (appropriately: Dennis is a drummer) I hear, “You’ve got a brain tumor. No doubt about it. You’re going to die.”
For the rest of our hour and a half training session, whenever I stop to check on how my feet are doing Dennis again says, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a brain tumor. Your time is up.”
Sensei Warren, our regular martial arts instructor, came in late. After telling him my tale of tingling feet I got a marginally better prognosis: “You’ve got diabetic neuropathy. No doubt about it. You’re going to lose your feet.” And I don’t even have diabetes.
Now, I know both Dennis and Warren care a lot about me. They demonstrated their manly concern by telling me that I’m either going to die or lose my feet. If one of them had given me a big hug and said “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right,” I would have begun to worry that he had a brain tumor.
If I want sympathy, I’ll tell my troubles to my wife. From my marital arts buddies I get camaraderie and support that isn’t expressed in words. Dennis taught the class that evening. He started off by saying, “Let’s work on kicks tonight since your feet are giving you a problem.”
Which is what we did. For almost an hour. The unspoken message was, “Your feet are OK. Suck it up. This is no big deal.” That’s pretty much what the doctor said the next day: “Your feet look fine; I’ll do a blood test anyway; call me in a month if you’re not better.”
I'm sharing this anecdote because it points to a seeming fact: men are more comfortable with the rough-and-tumble of online communications because they're more used to joking around with each other in some rough ways.
This is fine.
But I worry when a woman shares something on this blog, then gets attacked in an intense fashion. Mostly or entirely by men. That's when I feel protective toward the woman, since I feel responsible for providing a safe space for people to share their ideas without feeling like they're in some sort of danger.
Well, those are my thoughts for tonight. Thanks for listening. I'll get back to a regular Church of the Churchless blog post soon.
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