When I press on certain keys on my MacBook Pro keyboard, magic happens!
Which you can see. Because I can touch type, words form on my laptop's screen. After I publish this post, the words appear on my Church of the Churchless blog.
Of course, all this isn't really magic. There's a chain of causes that leads to the words appearing in a blog post. Underlying those causes are hidden mechanisms -- software, hardware, internet functions, and such -- that most of us don't understand very well.
But what we're certain of is the overall way someone typing out thoughts at home can share those ideas on the internet, or worldwide web, even if we don't grasp the finer details of this.
When it comes to the realm of the supernatural, though, and religiosity in general, both causes and mechanisms are lacking. Well, let's make that believable causes and mechanisms with a foundation in demonstrable evidence.
This is a big reason why, after 35 years, I couldn't continue believing in the India-based religion that I once embraced wholeheartedly.
I became a devotee of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) because I liked the supposedly scientific nature of this mystical approach to meditation and God-realization. However, over time the RSSB teachings made less and less sense to me.
I was asked to believe that I had a soul that could be separated from my body. But there was no evidence of this soul. I was asked to believe that the RSSB guru could know what his disciples were doing from afar, but there was no reasonable cause or mechanism that allowed this to occur.
Many other examples could be given of how the RSSB teachings basically involved a lot of mumbo-jumbo, ideas that made sense only if you didn't think about them very much. This "science" actually turned out to be as much of a faith-based religion as Christianity.
Now, it's true that science often doesn't completely understand the mechanisms underlying causes. For example, gravity causes apples to fall from a tree. Einstein figured out that the mechanism is curved space-time.
But quantum theory doesn't have its own explanation for gravity that fits with Einstein's. So many physicists suspect there's a deeper mechanism that explains gravity which is compatible with both relativity theory and quantum theory.
Still, modern science is hugely better at describing how the world works than religion and supernaturalism is. In large part this is because science seeks causes and mechanisms that can be tested empirically, not just talked about in vague ways.
RSSB taught that consciousness is immaterial. That allows the conscious soul to survive the death of the material body. Left unexplained was how immaterial consciousness was so obviously affected by changes to the material brain such as being hit on the head with a baseball bat or undergoing anesthesia.
If the soul goes offline when you have surgery, how does it survive death? If the soul is who we really are, why doesn't it manifest when consciousness is temporarily absent from the brain?
In his book, "Rationality," Steven Pinker speaks about causes and mechanisms.
Even once we have established that some cause makes a difference to an outcome, neither scientists nor laypeople are content to leave it at that. We connect the cause to its effect with a mechanism: the clockwork behind the scenes that pushes things around.
People have intuitions that the world is not a video game with patterns of pixels giving way to new patterns. Underneath each happening is a hidden force, power, or oomph.
Many of our primitive intuitions of causal powers turn out, in the light of science, to be mistaken, such as the "impetus" that the medievals thought was impressed upon moving objects, and the psi, qi, engrams, energy fields, homeopathic miasms, crystal powers, and other bunkum of alternative medicine.
But some intuitive mechanisms, like gravity, survive in scientifically respectable forms. And many new hidden mechanisms have been posited to explain correlations in the world, including genes, pathogens, tectonic plates, and elementary particles.
These causal mechanisms are what allow us to predict what would happen in counterfactual scenarios, lifting them from the realm of make-believe: we set up the pretend world and then simulate the mechanisms, which take it from there.
“Supernatural beliefs lack both causes and mechanisms”
……….Enjoyed the excerpts from Stephen Pinker that you’ve presented here, Brian, and your own discussion around this.
This is one common enough characteristic of woo woo beliefs and people who harbor them. Ask them about the precise mechanism how something fantastic they believe in actually happens; and/or even ask them about the exact mechanism how they or their teachers/preceptors/“masters” might have come to know of those fantastic things that they believe in; and often enough they are left without answer.
And this, I guess, is either because this is something they’ve not considered at all, themselves, in arriving at whatever superstition they believe in. Or it could be that the answer highlights the ridiculous nature of their beliefs, which they try to gloss over --- to others, and perhaps even to themselves --- by refusing to discuss this exact mechanism.
Posted by: Appreciative Reader | December 01, 2021 at 06:08 AM
It's always interesting to talk about people's supernatural beliefs. Usually those are connected to other beliefs about cause and effect. If it was pleasant, folks think it is a blessing. If was painful or frightening, folks think they have been cursed. But this also applies to how people judge events in their lives.
The view of Spirituality is that it can't be interpreted accurately at our constrained level of awareness. It's a mystery. Here is where science and spirituality agree: Much of the workings of the world are a mystery.
But as for cause and effect, ...Pinker explains...
"These causal mechanisms are what allow us to predict what would happen in counterfactual scenarios, lifting them from the realm of make-believe: we set up the pretend world and then simulate the mechanisms, which take it from there."
Make-believe is the world people invent, they make that in their imaginations. And in those cases there is a reason they are constructing it that way.
As scientists, we construct in our minds a model for the purposes of forecasting and testing ideas, that we can then build testable real-world hypotheses around.
And science often invents explanations for things it cannot experience / measure / record directly, but only imagine. We try to imaging how the invisible is connected to and affects the visible. We may only be able to test the effects those invisible things have on other visible, testable things. Like gravity. No one yet has measured any particles or energy that connects the earth to the sun and pulls the earth around the sun. Yet, we can calculate precisely that movement because of the properties science has confirmed for gravity. We still don't have a clue as to what exactly gravity is, other than the proven effects it has on matter.
It's like religion in this way. We can't prove that any version of God actually exists (if it does, like gravity, it must be invisible, that much we can prove), but we can test the indirect effect that worship and belief in God has on people, and the hard sciences have demonstrated that the effects are very healthy, very positive in most cases
Theoretically speaking, we can see and test the properties of God, through the practice of faith, though God is invisible.
You could say that God is a property of matter, without any detectable presence of its own, just like Gravity.
If the effect is measured as hypothesized, the evidence exists, indirectly, that the mechanism of the theory is at least partially correct. It's an indirect approach, but is the basis of most science.
But in the case of not make believe, but actual witnessed experience, there is no explanation necessary to prove the event occurred, as is the case with most events in the physical world. You see it, feel it, hear it, and your brain does the reality testing it does for every other experience.
And there doesn't need to be any theorizing about that, unless we are trying to interpret what and why we saw, heard, felt what we did.
But whatever explanation we provide, that is after the fact, using our best judgement. The event is a separate matter from any thinking or imaginging about it.
People experience all sorts of things that have no scientific explanation.
It is in the effort to prove or discredit that experience by others that the burden of proof falls onto the shoulders of the one making the judgement, attempting a proof one way or the other.
In short, there is a lot of mystery out there. If you need an explanation, you will need to become a better scientist.
But if you just wish to enjoy the reality you are presented with, no explanation is needed.
And if you wish to raise your awareness to witness more things, there is always the amazing instruments of science, like the Mars rovers, like the Hubble telescope and other astronomical space observatories, the electron microscope, the large hadron collider, and deep meditation.
Posted by: spence tepper | December 01, 2021 at 12:01 PM
Well said Brian, RSSB is nothing but mumbo jumbo.
It's aim is to expand as fast as possible and suck in as many gullible sheep with the nonsense mental brainwashing virus called "science of the soul". They take in beliefs from Sikhs, Christians, gita, soni muslims, to grab as biggest audience possible. They accept everyone and anything. However , if your rich, popular /influential, a politician, a business man then you are certain to get special treatment / privaledges / seva (slavery). Gurinder Dhillon your days are numbered - a bed for you with Ram Rahim MSG , is waiting for you.
Posted by: Uchit | December 01, 2021 at 01:40 PM
@ Brian [ Many other examples could be given of how the RSSB teachings basically involved a lot of mumbo-jumbo, ideas that made sense only if you didn't think about them very much. This "science" actually turned out to be as much of a faith-based religion as Christianity ]
RSSB Rep : Do you solemnly swear to believe in your immortal soul, a
transcendent realm, the five holy names, master and his omnipotence,
omniscience, and supreme woo-woo status?
Candidate: Nah, not really. There's just a certain vibe I like. Call it the
"meditative" state or what-not... I loved a short mindfulness session
I had once too.
RSSB Rep: You've agreed to all the vows I see. [gazes inward briefly]
Welcome... you're in!
Posted by: Dungeness | December 01, 2021 at 10:30 PM
What is a supernatural belief?
How about life as a human being? Can science explain even the formation of a zygote? Can science explain the package which every live sperm is carrying to the far off ovum and, more importantly, why the sperm has a motive power, guidance system and life of its own? Can science explain the inexplicable harmony and collective working of 37 trillion INDIVIDUAL living cells in every human being?
Nope. Nor will material science EVER isolate the Life-Force, Brian. That is the obvious grand miracle and sole monopoly of the One Who has set this vast creation into motion and placed the living Soul (You and Me) within it. When that blessed essence called Soul departs the body...
...that body becomes road kill and is scavenged by living predators.
I humbly inform you that Life, Itself cannot be created, measured, modified or destroyed.
Posted by: Albert | December 02, 2021 at 07:52 AM
I only read the title of this blog post, but it is so spectacularly accurate that I had to praise it!
Yes, the supernatural belief that consciousness is an epiphenomena of matter, or that consciousness will be (or, in the most delusional cases, already has been) explained by reductive materialist models is SPECTACULARLY lacking in both causes and mechanisms.
And yet the mindless meat automatons continued believing, as they have been programed to do.
How sumptuous the gourmet of absurdity is!
Posted by: manjit | December 02, 2021 at 09:44 AM
And? People have understood the material function of cause and effect for at least the past 10,000 years.
Also, what claims has RSSB made that contradict the sciences? None, but you wouldn't know it from reading this essay. I guess we're supposed to be outraged that RSSB has taught that we're more than just meat zombies, as if holding the ideas that life has a higher meaning and that we survive death is somehow intrinsically harmful to humanity, other creatures, and the planet.
Is holding metaphysical ideas harmful? Will someone make a case for that, or do we continue with these strawman essays of triumphalist nihilism?
Posted by: Tendzin | December 02, 2021 at 01:37 PM
You people seriously think that just because life is complicated and science cant explain the formation of zygote (it can btw), that god exists? Sigh...
Posted by: Neon | December 03, 2021 at 12:04 PM