Everybody has feelings, intuitions, hunches, gut-reactions. They always are real for us, because we're aware of them. Individual awareness equals subjective reality.
Trouble is, many people make a big leap of faith: they assume that a personal experience reflects a universal truth. Like, God. Or spirit, soul, Jesus' love, heaven, a guru's greatness, or whatever.
Thanks to a post on The Rambling Taoist, a blog I follow, today I came across a terrific piece by Greta Christina, "Why 'I Feel It In My Heart' Is a Terrible Justification for God's Existence."
Showing that I've haven't quite reached the final stages of egoless Buddha-nature, Christina's essay made me think, "Wow, this is brilliant. It reminds me of how I write, and what I like to write about."
In other words, Christina is clear, reasonable, passionate, and -- most importantly -- utterly correct in her expose of a common reason true believers give for holding onto their beliefs.
As vivid as the experience of our hearts and minds can feel, if we're going to treat it as evidence in support of a hypothesis, we can't give it any more weight than we would anyone else's experience. Intuition is important, but it's notoriously unreliable and subject to bias.
We have to step back from it, and view it like we'd view anyone else's experience. And when we look at human experience in general, we see that our hearts and minds can't automatically be trusted.
For starters: Lots of people have personal experiences of God. And those experiences are wildly different. Even completely contradictory. Some people experience a loving God who only wants us to be happy and take care of one another -- others experience a vengeful God who rigidly judges every petty detail of our lives.
Some people experience a nebulous World-Soul God, a fluid spirit animating all life -- others experience a personal God, with a distinct personality and strong opinions and feelings. (Opinions etc. that, again, vary wildly from believer to believer.) Etc.
The feelings people have in their hearts about God are almost as varied as the people having them. And these feelings change significantly throughout history.
If all these people were perceiving the same God... why would that be true?
Christina makes a bunch of other great points, echoing themes that get a lot of air time on this blog. For example, the problem with inferring that an individual's experience points to a universal truth:
When people say they've had a personal experience of God... that's not really what they mean. What they really mean is, "I had a personal experience (X) -- which I'm interpreting as a personal experience of God."
What they mean is, "I heard a clear voice in my head telling me to change my life -- which I interpreted as the voice of God." "I saw a flood of light filling my visual field -- which I interpreted as a vision of God." "I felt a force gripping my hand and pulling me away from the accident -- which I interpreted as the hand of God."
"I had an overwhelming experience of transcendent connection with something larger than myself -- which I interpreted as an experience of God." These people had mental and emotional experiences... which they interpreted as religious ones.
This is why I keep asking people who make some grand religious, spiritual, or mystical claim via a comment on this blog to describe, in as detailed and specific a fashion as possible, what evidence they have to support it.
Frequently I have big insights into the nature of life and the cosmos. For a moment everything becomes clear. This is the way it is. Sometimes I write about my big Aha!
But I don't form a religion around it. I don't expect people to become my devotees and follow The Brian Way. When it comes to finding meaning in life, we're all our own meaning-makers. As Christina points out in another post of hers:
Even if you believe that there is a God and we're here to fulfill his or her divine plan, you still have to choose which of your religion's specific teachings you should follow, and what to do when different teachings conflict -- and of course, which basic religion to follow in the first place, and indeed whether to believe in God at all.
So it's not as if believing in God gets you off the "What is my purpose?" hook (although many believers do act as if it does). All of us -- believers, non-believers, doubters, everyone -- we all have the same freedom, and the same responsibility, to decide what our purpose is, and to act on it.
However, we don't get to decide what objective reality is, the shared world of common experience. That way lies madness ("there's a pink elephant in the kitchen, there really is!") and religious dogmatism, with all the divisiveness that entails ("according to God, homosexuality is a sin, it really is!").
For so many centuries, so many people have had so many different religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences. And what's so obvious is that they don't add up to any sort of consistent metaphysical view.
In the first Christina essay I read, she says:
When we look at a tree, we can all pretty much agree about its basic features: how tall it is, what color it is, whether it still has leaves on it, etc. We might disagree about its taxonomy, or who it belongs to, or whether it's prettier than another tree.
But for the most part, our perceptions of the basic properties of the physical world are remarkably consistent. Especially when compared to our "perceptions" of the spiritual world. Our perceptions of the physical world are pretty consistent. Our "perceptions" of the spiritual world are all over the map.
All of which strongly suggests that, whatever people are experiencing when they experience God, it's not something they're perceiving in the external world. It's something their brains are making up.
There's nothing wrong with this. This is what brains do: make stuff up.
We don't experience reality directly (whatever that might mean). Our consciousness is inherently and inescapably subjective. The brain/mind filters impressions of the external world, then acts on these through all sorts of internal neurological functions.
Result: conscious experience.
Which as Christina notes in another thoughtful piece, is marvelously mysterious. There's no need to worry that a lack of belief in God means that life is any less Wow!
There is plenty of mystery in the natural world: mystery enough for a lifetime, for a trillion lifetimes. I'm not going to pretend the world is not the way it really is -- fascinating, awe-inspiring, profoundly bizarre, but ultimately a product of natural laws and of physical cause and effect -- just because some people find it exciting to ponder the mystery of the darkness.
I love the subjective/objective dichotomy. Here's a subjective "spiritual" (for want of a better word) experience I once had...staring into the mirror one day, having that feeling of "me-ness", of identity, of plain existence that everyone seems to have when objectively comparing notes, I had a strong realisation that this very special, very singular feeling was exactly the same for everyone. I realised we are all the same thing. I suppose I wasn't conscious of it, but I had assumed that it was a very different thing for each individual. Later, having read some stuff, talked to people etc., I found out that this is often labeled "same consciousness, different content" amongst other things. As it happens, it was a useful "spiritual" experience since it tends to make others seem less apart, and less to be feared; we tend to treat each other with compassion and civility when we don't fear them. Even later, I realised that whatever conclusions I make or experiences, "spiritual" or otherwise, that I have, while they may be fascinating, intense, and full of wonder, aren't necessarily objective truth, and it doesn't matter if they are or not.
Posted by: Suzanne | April 28, 2010 at 12:40 AM
Waylon Jennings says it all!
One more verse?
Subjective/Objective? Still Gonna Die
Perception/Deception? Still Gonna Die
Posted by: Jon Weiss | April 28, 2010 at 01:29 PM
Hmmm. The Brian Way? I think the Church of Wow has a very nice ring to it.
Though I agree we cannot presume our individual subjective experience equals universal truth (nor should we presume to form a religion based on it), objective=real, subjective=not real oversimplifies.
Love is a subjective experience. Few doubt its reality. So far, the laboratory work falls way short of surefire reproducible results.
Radical objectivity is sometimes a variety of subjectivity.
Posted by: Trish Wareing | April 28, 2010 at 08:20 PM
Trish, what I said was "individual awareness equals subjective reality." So we agree that subjectivity is real. It just isn't a shared reality like the external physical world is.
As Christina notes, my wife and I can stand together and watch a sunset. We each see almost exactly the same thing (taking into account minor differences in eyesight, color awareness, and such).
This is marvelous. Beautiful. Lovely. Imagine how lonely it would be if we each inhabited our own utterly subjective world, with nothing in common with other people. Objective reality is what makes shared experiences possible.
I certainly embrace and honor subjective experience also. As you said, all of our appreciation of objectivity -- the world and other people -- comes through our subjectivity. My basic point, which is Christina's also, just is that we need to humbly recognize that what is true for us as individuals isn't also true for others.
Vive la difference. Our individuality is a big part of what makes life so interesting.
I've been married for 38 of my 61 years. Yet I continue to be amazed at how my wife and I are so similar and also so different (no matter how many times she tries to explain to me the importance of wiping down a stainless steel kitchen sink after I use it, I just can't grasp this; isn't a sink supposed to have water splashed on it?)
Posted by: Brian Hines | April 28, 2010 at 08:48 PM