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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Awesome Words: The Failure of Mysticism

Whenever you get far enough into discussions about religion, spirituality, or metaphysics, you eventually start running into what I will term Awesome words.  These words are not used to convey a clear, well-understood meaning.  They are not used provide an accurate description that strongly correlates to observables.  In fact, they are not used to help further legitimate inquiry and provide useful answers.  Rather, these words are used to provoke a strong emotional response.  They are used to generate a sense of awe that leaves the listener feeling like they’ve received some sort of deep wisdom without actually giving that listener any genuine information.  They aren’t used to answer questions; they’re used to stop the questions from being asked.

Here’s a short list of the most common Awesome words I can think of off the top of my head (in no particular order).

Void, Chaos, Abyss, Infinite, God, Spirit, Interconnectedness, Timeless, Eternal, Divine, Self, Soul
Several of these words have perfectly legitimate uses in “down to earth” fields (or in literature).  But any time you see one of these words come up in a discussion of religion, spirituality, or metaphysics, keep a sharp lookout for profoundly vague statements.  In these contexts, the use of these words will make it feel like something wise is being said.  And yet, at the end of the day, they will have left you with nothing but a sense of awe.

Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with a sense of awe.  Many scientists have told of how awestruck they were at finally understanding some basic principle of the world.  But the difference between the the scientist and the man who's told that “The spirit lives on,” is that the scientist has received more than just a sense of awe.

When Einstein developed the theory of relativity, many scientists were awestruck.  Yet at the same time, those scientists were able to use the theory to make predictions and post-dictions.  They were able to take their awe-inspiring answer and use it to change their expectations.  We now expect that faster than light travel is impossible (or at least extremely tricky, not just a matter of “push harder”), that clocks on satellites will run differently than identical clocks on earth (and satellites take this into account when they tell you what time it is), and that time dilation will allow very short-lived particles to travel exceptional distances.

All of these expectations are different than what our old system, Newtonian mechanics, would have predicted.  It allowed us to anticipate things we wouldn’t have otherwise anticipated.  So in addition to a sense of awe, this new scientific theory brought us new expectations.  And in fact, the awe came not from the mysteriousness of the physics, but from the fact that we understood it.

Many people look at the unknowns in life and get a sense of awe at just how big, complicated, and mysterious everything seems.  There are typically two responses to this sort of thing.  The first, which I think is fairly characteristic of “intellectuals,” is to think something along the lines of “Oh boy, a mystery.  Let’s solve it.”  And by solve it, the intellectual basically means “understand it well enough that it stops being mysterious.”

This is the key.  When you understand something, and I mean really understand it, it isn’t a mystery anymore.  It can’t be.  If there was any mystery left, it would be indicative of some aspect you haven’t yet grasped.  However much an Awesome answer might feel like a legitimate answer, if it doesn’t actually remove any of the mystery involved then it isn’t actually increasing your understanding of the subject.  And this is the heart of the problem.

The second response, which I shall term Mysticism, is to generate a statement that sounds like an answer, but actually serves to keep the mystery around.  Some people just get so enamored with the mysteriousness that they stop trying to legitimately answer the question.  Instead, they come up with a whole bunch of profoundly vague statements like “humans have souls” that look like answers, but don’t actually reduce the amount of mystery involved.

And worse, many of these people then claim that they have a legitimate answer.  They talk as if the question is already solved, and yet still a mystery.  They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too.  They love the mysteriousness so much that they want to keep it around.  But if you really want a legitimate answer, you can’t keep the mystery.  If you really truly completely understand a phenomenon, then there’s nothing left to be mysterious.

As an example, consider two possible answers to the question “How does human consciousness work?”  The scientific answer, which we haven’t quite finished figuring out yet, will have a lot to do with neurochemistry and neuron connections.  Since human brains are built out of the same material as, say, dog brains, much of this science will immediately help in the study of dog brains.  And dolphin brains.  And chimpanzee brains.  Despite the fact that we still don’t have the whole answer yet, we have already seen many changes in expectations as a result of brain research.  The fact that memory of fear is stored differently than other memory (as evidence here) is a new fact.  It wasn’t known before scientific investigation.  It has somewhat reduced the mysteries involved in brain function (like why rats can retain some fear memory when they lose other memories) by showing us why the previously unexpected should have been expected.  This is how we come to understand a topic.

Contrast this with the religious man, who is inclined to attribute human consciousness to souls.  What does this “answer” tell us?  What changes in expectations does it generate?  Sure, you can come up with all sorts of explanations about how the soul hypothesis is consistent with the observations, but can you generate anything new?

You can’t use the soul hypothesis to predict the observed discrepancy between the effects of amnesia on different types of fear memory.  You can’t use it to predict the amount of sign language a chimpanzee will learn, or even whether or not chimpanzees can learn sign language at all.  After you observe chimpanzees learning sign language, you can “explain” this by postulating that chimpanzees have “pseudosouls” or whatever, but this still isn’t going to give you anything new.  It’s just a re-description of what you already know, phrased in a way to make it feel like it’s an answer while still leaving the mystery untouched.  You talk as if you’ve explained some phenomena, when in fact you are just re-describing it.

You can spot these Awesome non-answers quite easily, if you know what to look for.  One common situation is when you’re given an “answer,” and yet a very simple rewording will allow you to ask what is essentially the same question that you started out with.  When someone tells me that humans are conscious because they have souls, it is immediately apparent to me that we ought to start asking about the nature of souls.  And the first question that comes to mind is “How do souls give rise to consciousness?” which, when you think about it, is basically the same as asking “how does human consciousness work?”

(Contrast this to the scientific answer, which will tell not just that consciousness comes from brains, but how it comes from brains)

Another common situation is when the Awesome word is used to basically hide the fact that the speaker doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about.  I pulled this trick on my mom shortly after a friend of mine died.  She was trying to convince me that some part of my friend, his “spirit,” was still out there, (she apparently thought that if I believed it, it would make me feel better about my friend’s death).  I proceeded to ask her what the spirit was supposed to be.  Was it some part of my friend’s body?  No, she insisted that it was not a part of his body.  Nor was it supposed to be some aspect of his mind or personality or emotional make-up.  It was at this point that I started thinking “Gee Mom, if it doesn’t have his mind or personality or body or emotional make-up, then in what way is it supposed to make me feel better?"  I translated this as “Then what part of him is it?”

My mom couldn’t answer that question.  She kept insisting that his spirit was still out there, and yet she had no idea what a spirit was supposed to be.  She was able to tell me only that it wasn’t some aspect of my friend’s mind, body, personality, or emotional makeup.  But she wasn’t able to give me a description of what it was she wanted me to believe still existed!

And when I asked how she knew that my friend’s spirit was still out there if she didn’t even have a clear idea of what a spirit was, she started talking about some feeling she got after her brother died.  She couldn’t describe this feeling (except to say that it wasn’t intellectual or emotional, but spiritual).  She was literally trying to convince me to believe in something she couldn’t describe, based on evidence she also couldn’t describe.

And that’s what mysticism does.  When you take a question like “What happens when we die?” and you plug in a non-answer like “the spirit lives on,” you end up convincing yourself of something you don’t even understand!  And when an inquisitive smart-ass like me comes along, you’ll find yourself unable to answer simple questions like “What is this spirit which supposedly lives on?” or “How do you distinguish spirit from non-spirit” or “Why can’t God explain his plan in a simple, easy-to-follow PowerPoint?”

This is all indicative of the fact that you still have a mystery on your hands.  For all their talk of having deep, profound wisdom, the mystics have sacrificed genuine, applicable, useful information in favor of maintaining the mystery.  They stare in awe at the cosmos, and they want to keep staring in awe, so they tell themselves they’ve found the answers, and yet at the same time, they’re still surrounded by mysteries.

And that’s how mysticism fails.

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