It's strange that religiosity is so often associated with humility, selflessness, and lack of ego. Actually, the religious impulse is highly egotistical, as William James makes clear in his classic book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience."
The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.
There's nothing wrong with this.
We just need to remember that human nature is part and parcel of religious belief. People turn to religion in much the same way as they learned to turn toward a parent when something scared them as a child.
The warring gods and formulas of the various religions do indeed cancel each other, but there is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: --
1. An uneasiness; and
2. Its solution.
1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.
2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.
Pretty darn brilliant.
I got my copy of "The Varieties of Religious Experience" back in my college days (1967 edition, which cost me 95 cents). I haven't picked it up for a long time, so had forgotten how what James said in 1902 still rings true today.
Reading a few concluding chapters this morning, I admired James' crisp, clear, honest style. He admits in a postscript that he favors a "crasser" variety of supernaturalism which is piecemeal rather than universalistic.
Meaning, a universalistic view doesn't see the ideal world bursting into the world of phenomena -- answering prayers, guiding individual actions, performing miracles, and so on.
But even though James says he doesn't accept popular Christianity, he still believes that a higher power introduces itself into particular worldly facts/events/happenings.
I suppose that my belief that in communion with the Ideal new force comes into the world, and new departures are made here below, subjects me to being classed among the supernaturalists of the piecemeal or crasser type. Universalistic supernaturalism surrenders, it seems to me, too easily to naturalism.
Well, what's wrong with that?
Why can't we be content with the the big wide world as it is, rather than as how our little narrow egos wish it were? Can't we accept being an integral part of the natural world along with everything else in existence, not getting any special favors from a supernatural Big Man/Woman/Thing upstairs?
That said, I agree with James that generalized egotism of the subjective "I" variety is an inescapable aspect of human experience. We can't get away from our subjectivity. Even the objective facts of science are known through subjective personal consciousness.
The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner "state" in which the thinking comes to pass.
What we think of may be enormous -- the cosmic times and spaces, for example -- whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one.
...it is absurd of science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places -- they are strung upon it like so many beads.
Religions, though, enlarge our egotism.
They encourage us to believe that our "fugitive and paltry" inner state of mind can be connected with a vastly grander metaphysical presence which -- great news! -- takes an active interest in us.
James describes what happens when the better part of a man, the non-wrong part that isn't responsible for the uneasiness in (1) above, embraces religiosity.
He becomes conscious that this higher part is conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.
So supposedly the higher subjective part of a human being somehow is able to merge or meld with a supernatural "more" that is an objective reality. Here's the problem, though.
There's no demonstrable evidence of that supernatural "more." It has to be taken on faith. Many people claim to have experienced a transcendental power of some sort, but there's no consistency in their descriptions of it.
As noted above, William James believed in an unseen, yet objectively real, higher power. However, he also recognized that the human mind contains a vast unknown realm: the subconscious self.
Since everything we experience is strung on the above-mentioned cord of subjective egotism, so are our religious, mystical, and spiritual awarenesses. These can be viewed as an expanded vision of our own subjective consciousness that manifests as an external objective reality.
Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life.
Starting thus with a recognized psychological fact as our basis, we seem to preserve a contact with "science" which the ordinary theologian lacks. At the same time the theologian's contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control.
In the religious life the control is felt as "higher"; but since on our hypothesis it is primarily the higher faculties of our own hidden mind which are controlling, the sense of union with the power beyond us is a sense of something, not merely apparently, but literally true.
That sense of union, literally true as it may be, is with our own self -- "the higher faculties of our own hidden mind." Such is the scientific, or quasi-scientific, hypothesis proposed by James.
Over a hundred years later, it is still a viable hypothesis. Modern neuroscience has confirmed that each of us does indeed have a hidden mind that underlies conscious experience without being accessible to it.
How would religious belief be affected if it was known that our sensations of being connected with, of under the care of, a higher power were entirely contained within our own personal mind/brain?
The mystical and spiritual experiences would feel the same. But no longer would we believe that we were contacting a transcendent divinity. We couldn't claim a special relationship with some supernatural being, because that "higher power" would be us.
An expanded us, to be sure. An us that encompassed normally untapped areas of the mind/brain. An us that wasn't as split, searching, anxious, uncertain, and self-doubting as we are now.
This would eliminate a lot of unnecessary religious egotism. No one would be a member of a chosen people, or a special beloved of God. We'd all just be human beings, having human experiences, making the best use possible of our human psyches.
In James' postscript to his book, he admitted that the "more" which is felt in the many varieties of religious experience doesn't have to be infinite. It just has to be bigger than we are now, which certainly could be an expanded sense of self.
Nevertheless, in the interests of intellectual clearness, I feel bound to say that religious experience, as we have studied it, cannot be cited as unequivocally supporting the infinitist belief.
The only thing that it unequivocally testifies to is that we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and in that union find our greatest peace.
"Even the objective facts of science are known through subjective personal consciousness"
I'm sorry but i disagree with this.
There is an objective world around us whether or not we can individually percieve it or not. The blind person who does not see the tree will still hit it when he walks into it. There are many phenommen which are beyond our senses and experience and yet they exist. The atomic world is way beyond our experience and yet we know through objective evidence that it exits.
The chap on an acid trip who sees melting walls or floating fairies, has a subjective experience that something exists, but it does not.
There is a difference between what exists and what does not, there is a world that exists independent of our sensing thereof.
Posted by: George | April 02, 2010 at 10:26 AM
George, I agree that the world/universe exists independent of human consciousness. But the only way we can know that the world exists is by being conscious of it. And consciousness is subjective. No one has access to another person's consciousness. Our consciousness is a thoroughly private world that offers us access to an objective public world.
This is why William James said the world of our experience always consists of an objective and subjective part. This appears to be undeniable.
Consider this "thought experiment," which I've toyed with in some blog posts. Try to visualize what the universe would be like if no human beings existed. When I do this, I find myself sort of floating in a vast space, seeing galaxies and such with no evidence of life.
But wait. That seeing is what I see now with my human eyes and other organs of perception. Bees "see" differently. Bats "see" differently. Aliens might "see" wildly differently. Absent any conscious entity of any sort in the universe, how would the universe appear?
Well, obviously we can't say. That's an impossible question to answer, because it isn't possible to have a "God's eye" purely objective perspective on reality. There is no objectivity without subjectivity, no awareness of an objective world without subjective consciousness.
Your example of the blind person walking into a wall supports this. A blind person has senses, just not sight. Blind people can perceive some aspects of reality better than sighted people, just as our dog is hugely more aware of smells when I take her on a walk than I am. She and I are experiencing the same reality in vastly different ways.
So again, there is no way of knowing what the world is like absent our subjective awareness of it. We can't get outside of our subjective consciousness and know reality from some sort of external perspective. Our viewpoint is always on the inside, looking out.
Science is so successful because it arrives at a consensus viewpoint based on multiple subjective inputs. But it's important to remember that this is still a human consensus. Alien beings with different modes of perception and cognition almost certainly would have a considerably different science than we do.
Posted by: Brian Hines | April 02, 2010 at 11:30 AM
sensuality and experience are not mutually codependent, what makes you think physical sensuality is the be all and end all of any and all experience.
Posted by: hallicinating monkey | April 02, 2010 at 11:30 AM
Hi Brian, great post, and got me thinking about how 12-step programs handle the whole religion/spirituality thingy.
One is required, upon entering a 12-step program, to accept some kind of "higher power." This power can be defined in any way at all by each individual member; however, it seems that the goal of this is not so much to dismiss mind, science and understanding of the world, but to abolish the ego, and more importantly, the free will of the ego. In this, it resembles many Eastern traditions. In 12-step programs, this dismantling of the ego is purely practical; an addict left to the ego's devices always drinks. It is the nature of the (mental) illness of addiction to tell the sufferer that they do not have the disease, a conundrum that has kept problem drinkers drinking and addicted users using ever since there have been mind-altering substances. It can be debated whether this is true for all alcoholics and addicts; however, those that come into 12-step programs and manage to arrest their active addiction are the ones for whom this model rings true, and it rings true usually through years of fruitless experimentation with any and all other methods of quitting and staying quit.
Athiests and agnostics are often found in the rooms, and define a "higher power" on more humanistic terms, i.e. "God" becoming an acronym for "Group of Drunks" or simply some nebulous, undefined thing that is "not me" ("me" meaning the will of the ego, and more specifically, the will of the ego to drink or use).
Thus, on whatever terms, and on a very practical day-to-day level, the ego is deconstructed. In practice, this equates to the problem/solution model you put forth, that there is an uneasiness, something wrong, and that there is a solution, of being "saved from the wrong by higher powers." However, rather than reinforcing the ego, the ego is no longer trusted to make decisions, and even when "letting go" of the need to make decisions, decisions seem to get made anyway, generally "better" decisions, not involving using all of one's energies and resources to continue in active addiction, which is, it must be said, hard work. This "letting go" mechanism is poorly understood and expressed in many ways, but fundamentally and most frequently, is expressed as acceptance - "be(ing) content with the the big wide world as it is, rather than as how our little narrow egos wish it were."
There is very little dogma espoused beyond the some very general platitudes, such as "let go and let God" or "your best thinking got you here" or the serenity prayer, which is a small philosophy unto itself, urging the will of the ego to handle only what it is appropriate for it to handle. The main thing it can't handle is the decision of whether or not to take a drink. Of course, one's drinking and using needs to fall into the model of absolutely nothing else working to arrest the addiction despite "countless vain attempts" for the 12-step solution to work.
I guess the whole 12-step thing is successful bcause it, like science, "...arrives at a consensus viewpoint based on multiple subjective inputs." The narrowly defined subjective inputs, in the case of recovery from addiction through 12-step programs, are "I can't stop drinking/using" and "following these 12 steps seems to work for a lot of people where nothing else does." There is, to back it all up, a large body of scientific study of the 12-step model as an effective treatment for alcoholism and addiction, but individual addicts, relieved of the symptoms of their disease, generally don't give a damn whether there is scientific backup or not. It simply works, and that's good enough for them. It is purely practical and not meant to be an answer for the big "why am I here, what does it all mean" existential questions (that general uneasiness you refer to). However, as an extra added bonus, those big questions are usually answered too, the answer being "just shut up and live!"
Again, Brian, great post.
Posted by: Suzanne | April 02, 2010 at 10:38 PM
Suzanne, interesting comment. I know next to nothing about 12-step programs. You educated me a bit. I've wondered how atheists and agnostics handle the "let go and let God" thing. It's probably considerably simpler to believe that you're turning over your addiction problem to God, rather than your higher self.
But I suspect that they amount to the same thing: embracing a larger aspect of yourself than the relatively small part that relied on alcohol or drugs to get along in the world.
Yes, religions and 12-step programs do involve letting go of the ego in certain ways. However, the motivation to do so is ego-related: to get rid of distressing problems. In my experience, people who are consciously attempting to become egoless seem quite egotistical -- which isn't surprising, since focusing on giving up the ego requires attention to be kept on the ego.
"Am I acting humble? Do I appear to be selfless? Oh, good. I must be making progress." There's a lot of "I" here.
So I feel that it's impossible, or virtually impossible, to become genuinely egoless, or to let go of self will. Deciding to surrender to a supposedly higher power is still an act of i-ness, of the ego saying "this is what I want to do to make my life better."
Posted by: Brian Hines | April 03, 2010 at 12:27 AM
It is, and it isn't: impossible, that is. Ego still unfolds in a useful way, a simple, negotiating-the-appearance way. The unfolding story of "making life better" is just the unfolding story. It can change at any time. Becoming genuinely egoless is not a goal, not in 12-step programs anyway. The goal is practical: stop drinking/using, and stay stopped. The wherefores and whys of that goal coming up is just part of the story. It is what it is.
Posted by: Suzanne | April 03, 2010 at 02:58 AM
This one's for you, George
Posted by: Willie R. | April 03, 2010 at 02:06 PM
Its a very interesting question. What is knowledge (and its epistemological limits) i.e. subjectivity v objectivity. Is anything truly objective?
Such relativistic-type arguments need to be contextualised clearly. If everything is relative, and there are no absolutes, this does not mean everything is equally true or equally subjective. Rather, it means some phenomenon can have a different degree of truth or subjectivity relative to another.
Even if science is not absolutely objective, it is more objective as relatively compared to any other method of insight into reality. Indeed, the very idea of the scientific method is to make it as objective as possible, which is in total contrast to the mystical traditions of going within.
But many mystic traditions appear to confabulate their method with science, by incorrectly equating a personal ‘experience’ with scientific ‘empiricism’.
Scientific empiricism uses calibrated standardised instrumentation as the means for measurement and all results are made fully public open to peer review, whereas the mystic uses his/her trained human mind (which is not calibrated or standardised, little understood and prone to error and bias) and his experience is kept secret. The mystical process is purely subjective, there is no way of telling whether one person's experience is the same as that of another person, and indeed it is often described differently.
But more than that, to be scientific a method of inquiry must also be concerned with evidence that is measurable. The mystical experience is not even describable let alone measurable, and certainly not measurable to the extent that it may be subjected to principles of reasoning.
The deductive aspect of science, i.e. reason and logic, through mathematics is of course totally foreign to mystical traditions, precisely because their evidence is not measurable or defined in sufficiently accurate detail for any logic to be applied. Mathematics is independent of perception or experience, yet it continues to inform science and make predictive theories that are only later confirmed by experiment.
My example of the blindman was not meant to show the limits of the physical senses per se, rather to show the limits of subjective knowledge and experience generally. That is, a knowledge of reality which is mind-dependent, will always be susceptible to error as a result of not only our physical senses, but also our mind's processing of such experiences.
I have tried to be open-minded and have just read ‘the Tao of Physics’ by Crapja, which i must admit is better than I thought and the histories of both science and eastern mysticism are well presented. Unlike Chopra, Crapja does a significantly better job of providing reasons as to the supposed overlap of quantum theory and eastern mysticism. The question is whether he has made superficial comparisons, and whether it is a triumph of skilful rhetoric over truth. So far tho this is one of the best reads on the subject.
Posted by: George | April 06, 2010 at 02:06 PM
logic i.e. mathematics is by no means an accurate measure of reality, not even close.
Simply an attempt by logical brain functions to try and formulate or emulate a model that logic can relate its stepped down version of reality to. But an accurate mathematical model of reality is an impossibility. Same as a verbal or descriptive explanation of it is also.
Reality itself is something else and can only be experienced and realized directly one on one. And once experienced is best to shut up about it because logic itself is simply dumbfounded and incapable of realizing or recognizing reality in its real state of direct experience.
Posted by: halicat | April 08, 2010 at 03:00 AM
mathematics is a way of expressing reality, just as any other language, except it is more accurate than general language because the symbols have clear meaning.
Our sense are limited and our brains are subjective and prone to congnitive error, thus mathematics allows us most objectively to model reality.
You say reality can only be experience and yet you describe our sensory inputs as illusory. So by what means is reality experienced if not through our sense and mathematics? Explain by what means this direct realization comes about?
you cannot, no-one can, that is the difference between mysticism and science, science wants to have an explanation as to why the personal experience is valid and not a deulsion, whereas mystics are just concerned with the experience itself and not with the validity thereof.
Posted by: George | April 08, 2010 at 05:51 AM
George, I mostly (if not entirely) agree with your comments above. Mathematics is a tool for understanding certain aspects of reality. And isn't it amazing that the laws of nature often can be described so accurately by mathematics?
Clearly no scientist, or anybody else, believes it is the only tool. There is much more to human life than mathematics -- a point that is so obvious it doesn't need saying (but I've said it anyway).
As an alternative to "objective," another way of describing the scientific side of reality is "intersubjective." Meaning, different people agree that such and such actually exists in a certain way. Like you said, mysticism is very weak on intersubjectivity. Experiences are much more like dreams -- highly subjective, with no objectivity other than brain activity -- than observations of an external reality.
halicat, you err in saying that there is such a thing as "direct experience." This is an article of faith, not, well, experience. There is no evidence that humans are able to experience anything except through the physical brain/mind. It is well known that unconscious and subconscious factors (the "hidden brain") strongly affect how we experience both the outside and inside worlds.
Sure, people believe in direct experience, pure awareness, or whatever you want to call it. People also believe that their sight is clear, not recognizing that everyone has a blind spot caused by eye anatomy that is automatically filled in by the brain with what is assumed to be there.
Many other examples could be given of how the mind/brain operates at an unconscious level to filter/affect how conscious experience sees things. So "direct experience" is like God: a concept, an abstraction, a hypothesis -- not something for which there is demonstrable evidence.
Posted by: Brian Hines | April 08, 2010 at 08:31 AM
god almighty, only a complete and utter idiot would be blind to what mathematics has brought to the world in terms of understanding.
if it was not for mathematics and the modern sciences and those few who've decide to use their intellect, we'd still be left in the dark ages having to rely on charlatan explanations as to the order of things.
Posted by: George | April 11, 2010 at 06:52 AM
we'd still be believing in fairies and hobgobblins, and eating up all the fairy tales and poetry associated therewith. in fact, some of us still are.
Posted by: George | April 11, 2010 at 06:54 AM
I can see not believing in fairies. However, believing in hobgobblins sounds kinda KOOL. Don't knock it until ya try it.
Posted by: Roger | April 13, 2010 at 09:37 AM