During the 35 years I was a believer in an Eastern religion -- Sant Mat, of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas variety -- I spent a lot of time pondering how it was possible to know whether a description of God, spirit, soul, heaven, or something else supernatural really was true.
Meaning, that the description wasn't just a bunch of words strung together in a fashion meant to be convincing, but actually reflected the nature of an aspect of reality that transcended this physical universe.
My first book, "God's Whisper, Creation's Thunder," was an examination of how the new physics related to ancient mysticism. Of course, the mysticism I spoke about happened to be that preached by Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), since mysticism comes in many varieties.
I made fun of the notion that a religion should be accepted as true just because a holy book or holy person says it is true.
Aside from this being an obvious circular argument, I said that it was akin to someone writing to the Nobel Prize committee saying that they deserved the physics prize because they'd laid bare all the secrets of the cosmos, the caveat being that the members of the committee would have to wait until after they die to see the evidence of this person's marvelous scientific accomplishment.
A letter like that would quickly find its way into the trash.
But it reflects the core of the world's religions. The claims of a holy book or holy person are accepted on faith, usually accompanied by a belief that a person with such faith will be presented with evidence after their death that the religious teachings they followed while alive are true.
So where does that leave a believer in religion or mysticism?
I argued for the existence of an objective but non-symbolic domain of spiritual reality. It could be experienced by a meditator who, not surprisingly, given what I believed at the time, followed the meditative approach of RSSB. However, that domain couldn't be described in any fashion.
My attitude now is, good try, Brian. But unconvincing.
Well, by "unconvincing" I mean that if there actually is an objective but non-symbolic domain of spiritual reality, nothing can be said about it other than Nothing can be said about it. So religious believers and mystics should, to put it bluntly, just shut the fuck up.
Enjoy your supposed religious or mystical experience, but don't burden the rest of humanity with bullshit about how marvelous your revelation is, even though it can't really be put into words, so just believe that what is said is true -- which gets us back to the guy/gal who wants a physics Nobel Prize merely because they claim without evidence they've discovered every deep truth about the cosmos.
I'm not a philosopher of science. But I've read a heck of a lot of science books during my 73 years. There isn't a single scientific method, just a wide variety of approaches aimed at understanding what's true about our world and universe.
Some approaches are based on observation. Some are based on experimentation. Some are mostly mathematical. Some are entirely mathematical. All scientific approaches, though, must be capable of being described via words, images, numbers, something.
This enables scientists to examine a potential fresh truth, subject that claim to rigorous criticism and examination, then decide whether it deserves to be accepted or rejected, with the proviso that, either way, additional research may call into question the first determination of truth/untruth.
Science is grounded.
It makes mistakes, for sure. But the general thrust of scientific inquiry is toward an ever-increasing store of knowledge. Science works so well because it is a public enterprise, many scientific minds collaborating at learning truths about the universe that can be proven provisionally, until an even better truth is revealed.
By contrast, religions and mysticism never progress. A key reason is that they are thoroughly subjective and individualistic. A religious or mystical claim can't be proven to be true, because the claim only exists within the confines of a human mind.
There's no grounding in an observation, experiment, mathematical equation, or other communication that allows for the claim to be tested against objective reality. Almost certainly this is because religion and mysticism have no connection with any objective reality other than this physical world which we all share.
So religious believers and mystics aren't devoted to truth. They are devoted to feeling good about themselves. This makes it frustrating for scientifically-minded people, who are seeking truth about objective reality, to have a discussion with religious or mystically-minded people.
This happens all the time in the comments section of my blog posts. Someone scientifically-minded challenges a claim made by a religious or mystically-minded person. In science, that challenge would be taken seriously, because both sides share the same goal: truth.
But in the comments section (I'm thinking of exchanges between Appreciative Reader and Spence Tepper, for example), the religious or mystically-minded person is seeking to defend their personal perspective or experience.
They want to continue to feel good about their religious or mystical beliefs. So they engage in all sorts of "word salad" techniques in which all kinds of things are said, except for a saying that directly addresses the challenge directed at them by the scientifically-minded person.
And so it goes. Two ships passing in the night, because one ship is navigating toward truth, and the other ship is navigating toward defending their indefensible personal beliefs.