Most of us like to think of ourselves as being reasonable creatures. Our decisions, choices, beliefs, values, morality, philosophy of life, political orientation, and such make great good sense.
It's the other guy who is whacked-out, irrational, out of touch with reality, a nut job. Of course, for him or her, we're the one who has embraced some far-out crazy shit.
How to make sense of all this?
After all, people manage to get around in the world just fine together. Almost always we agree to obey the same traffic laws, stopping on red and going on green. We courteously wait in line at the checkout counter. How is it that we generally seem to agree on the nature of external reality, but have such different inner lives?
That's a big question.
Jonathan Haidt points in the direction of some answers. He's a psychologist who studies the bases of morality and political ideology across cultures. My wife came across an interview with him which she found so interesting, she kept sharing parts of it with me until I decided to read the whole thing myself.
I also liked his thoughts. Though he wasn't speaking explicitly about religious, spiritual, and mystical beliefs, the same principles seem to apply here as in moral and other sorts of decision-making.
Here's his basic thesis, according to the interviewer:
We tend to think of ourselves as arriving at our moral judgments after painstaking rational deliberation, or at least some sort of deliberation anyhow. According to Haidt's model -- which he calls "the social intuitionist model" -- the process is just the reverse. We judge and then we reason. What, then, is the point of reasoning if the judgment has already been made? To convince other people (and also ourselves) that we're right.
Sounds correct to me.
And I'll readily admit that the first time I read this paragraph, I intuitively thought right on. Only later did I do some pondering about why I agree with Haidt -- basically, because of (1) my own personal experience, and (2) its consonance with other writings I've come across on this subject.
Walking across the San Jose State College campus back in 1969, when I was a junior, my girlfriend and I came across a wiry bearded Greek guy standing on his head while wearing a white Speedo. We paused to watch his yoga demonstration, which led us to pick up a flyer about his Christananda ashram.
And the rest is history (part of which I've blogged about in "My strange RSSB initiation story"). I can't recall any point when I consciously set out my reasons for embarking on an almost forty-year path of meditation, other spiritual practices, and devotion to gurus.
This all just felt right at the times. Just as now, it doesn't.
As Haidt says, first I judged that such-and-such was the meaning-of-life direction I wanted to go; then I came up with a bunch of reasons that I could use when someone asked me, "Why do you believe _______?"
In the interview, Haidt talks about an experiment where people are asked how they react to this scenario: A brother and sister have some wine. They decide to have sex. They use two different kinds of contraception but decide to never do it again.
People almost always start out by saying its wrong. Then they start to give reasons... So what's really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason.
And it's only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call "moral dumbfounding." Because they fully expect to find reasons. They're surprised when they don't find reasons.
...So it's a cognitive state where you "know" that something is morally wrong, but you can't find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what's wrong, you just say: "I don't know, I can't explain it. I just know it's wrong."
So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.
I used to think that a "spiritual science" was possible. Now I don't, because in science explanations have to support knowings. You can't say "I know..." without adding in "because..."
However, just as with moral judgments, religious believers feel entirely comfortable saying "I don't know; I can't explain it; I just know that ______ is true." Their supposed knowing really is an intuition that may or may not be correct. But since it feels so right, the intuition remains even when spurious reasons supporting it are demolished.
Occasionally I get an email from someone concerned about a loved one who has embraced a cultish belief system. "What can I do?" they ask. I'll offer some advice, yet always end up saying, "There really isn't much you can do to change their mind. This will have to come from them, in their own time."
The interviewer says to Haidt:
So your conclusion is that while we might think that Reason or reasons are playing a big causal role in how we arrive at moral judgments, it's actually our intuitions -- fueled by our emotions -- that are doing most of the work. You say in your paper that reason is the press secretary of the emotions, the ex post facto spin doctor.
Great line, reason is the press secretary of the emotions.
After quite a few years of car-lusting, I've ordered a 2011 Mini Cooper S which is a week or two away from finding its way to Portland, Oregon after being made in Oxford, England. (I'm selling my beloved Burgman 650 scooter; 5% discount if a buyer says "I heard about the bike on Church of the Churchless.")
I can offer up all kinds of reasons for why the Mini makes so much sense for me to buy at this time. But the truth is that one day my psyche urged me to drive to Portland and take a test drive, thirty seconds into which I knew I had to own the car.
Reasons came later, in exactly the same way, forty-two years ago, I knew that yoga and meditation were for me.
This is why I've come to see religiosity and spirituality as Art rather than Science. There's no reason why we have to come up with a reason for liking a certain painting, song, dance style, poem, or other form of artistic expression. If it appeals to us, end of story.
Which means, we can't expect that other people should agree with our religious choices, just as we don't get upset when they prefer to listen to different sorts of music than we enjoy.
Rather strangely, though, reasons tend to be expected for moral and religious judgments, whereas they usually aren't for aesthetic judgments. Go figure (except, this isn't possible.) Haidt says:
As we walk around the world we see many beautiful and ugly things. But we don't deliberate about them. We just see things as beautiful or ugly. My claim is that moral judgment is very much like aesthetic judgment.
In fact, whenever I'm talking with philosophers who are trying to get me to clarify what I'm saying, if I ever feel confused, I just return to aesthetic judgment, and that saves me.
I think whatever is true of aesthetic judgment is true of moral judgment, except that in our moral [and I'd add, religious] judgment we do need to justify, whereas we don't generally ask others for justifications of aesthetic judgments.
...We can tolerate great diversity in our aesthetic beliefs, but we can't tolerate much diversity in our moral beliefs. We tend to split and dislike each other.
That's too bad.
Hopefully we'll reach a point in human history where people look upon someone saying "I love Jesus" or "I love Mohammed" in the same way we look upon them saying "I love rap music" or "I love rhythm and blues."
Of course, for this to happen we'll also have to evolve into an understanding that religious belief is as subjective as musical likings, and it's equally distasteful for anyone to force a religious belief onto someone else as to force a certain musical taste onto them.
(Here's Haidt's web page, if you want to learn more about his ideas.)