Monday, April 21, 2014

Spiritual experiences

The naturalist has to say that spiritual experiences are illusory. It is bad enough that the naturalist has to say this about such a large class of human experiences. But these experiences are central among the experiences that give life its savor, they are among the deepest and most significant of human experiences. Indeed, all of the deepest and most significant of human experiences include an aspect of the spiritual: the person I have encountered is seen clothed in a a significance that organic chemistry could never have, the vista stretching out before one in the night sky bespeaks a mystery beyond the merely puzzle, and so on. The naturalist has to say of the deepest and most significant of human experiences that they are illusions. And that is surely a problem.


John Moore said...

Your definition of "spiritual" seems far too broad. The naturalist can feel emotions just as powerfully as you, while understanding that emotion is a purely physical phenomenon. The naturalist can see great significance in things, even though the mechanism by which significance gets attached to a thing is a straightforward neurological process.

Scientific understanding does not diminish our experiences. It greatly enhances them.

MiloŇ° said...

Actually significance, feeling as phenomenal consciousness are all hardly explained in naturalistic terms. Significance is pure example of normative concept and it is very hard to understand how naturalism can accommodate normativity (some naturalists believe that this is possible but their proposals are mostly noble failures).

Hard naturalists like Churchlands, Dennet and Rosenberg eliminate phenomenal consciousness and some naturalist (more reasonable, like Kim) believe that it can be reduced but all those reduction programs failed (and in last his writings Kim wrote that phenomenal consciousness can not be reduced, it can takt eliminativist or soft naturalist route).

And there are more routes fot naturalist. McGinn for example think that our basic, common sense views are real and important and they certainly have naturalistic explanation but we are somehow unable to understand how it really work. Second route take John Searle (on my opinion the most important philosopher of mind now writing): free will, consciousness, intentionality are all real and not reducible but somehow all them are biological phenomena (but at the same time not reducible to parts of biological system like neurons). For Searle, brain is naturalistic soul (and Chalmersview is similar), it does all this but there are no further question how it works.

This post is to long now, and I have no place for exposition of Thomas Nagel's views, who is naturalist but not materialis. For short Nagel holds not only that mental is real and important but even that teleological notions are real and non-reducible but, somehow they can be fit in purely naturalistic worldview. And those naturalist (Searle, Nagel) are far away from materialist orthodoxy.

Mark Rogers said...

There are those qualia it would seem that are only experienced as part of a shared relationship. True deep love between a man and a woman for example. The problem for the naturalist is they are like the crotchety old spinster who proclaims love that unexpectedly strikes with the electrical power of a lightning bolt  does not exist, it is solely a matter of raging hormones. To be known at all some things must be experienced with another.

MiloŇ° said...

I don't think that phenomenal consciousness is only problem for hard naturalists (materialist like Dennet, Stich, Churchlands etc). Every teleological notion including every notion about human actions is deeply problematic. Some naturalist believe (like Armstrong) that if in our adequate description of reality there is some teleological notion it show falsify of naturalism.

Of course we don't know what is last word of physics and we don't know does our ordinary notions about intention, will, values etc are meaningful or not but I think that we have strong reasons to believe that naturalism in its hard form if false or at least its truth is not knowable. Does it mean that theism is true? Of course not, but theism is not subject of this blog post :)

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I am an aerospace engineer, and I will be completely, bluntly honest about why I once held "naturalist" views on spiritual experiences. I was simply afraid that the spiritual experiences were true. That they pointed to the God of the Bible and that that meant that I couldn't just go on doing whatever I wanted to do. This was against my notions of individualism and personal freedom, and that I would have to give up my individualism and freedom which I didn't want to do. I was really very afraid of Hell and of going there. A close friend of mine had passed away at the time, and I sensed that he may have gone to a place of torment. This was something very difficult for me to handle so I decided that there was no life after death and that made things easier. As a result, I read the Skeptical Inquirer and other literature by skeptics including James Randi and Joe Nickell. I also read about near death experiences from the skeptical point of view. I didn't want there to be a God or an afterlife, because if there was no Heaven and no God, then there was no Hell either. To me it was more important that there was no Hell, even if it meant that there was no life after death, no Heaven and no God, and even if spiritual experiences were no longer a sign of a Higher Power, just neurons in my brain. At that time, I actually found great comfort in atheism. At the time a co-worker was doing a survey for his church and he asked me if I believed in a life after death. I told him that it would be best for me if there was no such thing. Back then, I could dismiss all spiritual experiences as neurologic in nature. Even if I was surrounded by believers, I could chalk all their experiences up in this manner. I was hostile to the religious and the supernatural because I was afraid of it and was looking for all evidence to debunk it. I also reasoned that I was a mature adult and could let those who believed in such things to continue to do so even if from time to time I was made uncomfortable. I was that way, until my dad ended up in a Catholic hospital with serious problems with carotid arteries. To visit my dad, my family and I had to go through the lobby of the hospital past an icon of Our Lady. In every ward and room there was a crucifix. Initially I maintained my agnosticism/atheism/naturalism, even to the point of refusing to pray while my dad underwent surgery and had serious complications afterward. Then at one point sitting in my dad's hospital room which had a crucifix in it, I sensed as if some one was telling me that I should study my dad's religion, Catholicism, and if I did so, not to be surprised if I converted. As a result I went through RCIA and was confirmed in the Catholic Church the following Easter. The above statement by me is 100% true.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Dagmara: Thank you for sharing your moving testimony.

A quick philosophical remark: "Back then, I could dismiss all spiritual experiences as neurologic in nature." Note that even if all spiritual experiences were neurological in nature, that wouldn't be reason to dismiss them, since on the other naturalist's view all experiences are neurological in nature.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


I was discussing some of this with a person who does Christian counseling. Both of us have tried to piece some things together, and from time to time I have glanced at articles under "neurotheology". This looks like an interesting field as it tries to answer questions on spirituality. Our take on things is more like this - we are neurologically wired for spiritual experiences. Our neurological make-up functions like a radio receiver or like a laptop with a broadband connection. We cannot of ourselves see and hear radio signals and broad band signals, but a radio can pick them up, decode them and make them meaningfully audible to us. A laptop with a broadband connection such as the one I'm using right now does the same thing and it includes the visual as well. So it is with spirituality, and if you think about it, God created us for a relationship with him. This means that He had to equip us with the appropriate receiver (neurology) for spirituality.