My last blog post Spirituality and religion: what’s the difference? generated a number of responses. This is a continuation of the dialogue with the philosopher Paul Doran who posted comments on my blog page.

Paul is the founder of Philosophy in Pubs . His ability to understand the issues and address them clearly is a model for helping us understand deeper issues, so this is why I have followed it up. Rather than continuing the discussion in the Comments section I’m starting with another post.

The spiritual experience

Paul writes:

For me spirituality is essentially human connectedness. Connectedness with nature (we are part of that nature). It is not essentially to do with the idea of a deity; it is not essentially to do with any ideas/concepts. Cognition comes into it, but latterly. It is primarily to do with our senses, particularly our aesthetic sense. When experiencing a sunset; mountain scene, or anything of that kind of great magnitude, we are naturally filled with awe. The oneness, the oceanic feeling that usually accompanies that is the connection with nature (or the divine) manifest…
Immanuel Kant in one of his Critiques speaks of when we encounter the world (a sunset, etc) in such a way (spiritually) that we don’t have a concept for the experience to stand under. So we’re left trying to understand the experience, but it won’t fit under any concepts we have, so this effort is experienced as ‘awe’, or an unsettling, a feeling of wonder. The difficulty of fully grasping spirituality makes sense when you consider Kant’s thought here.

Explanation

I agree with this. The question is how to explain it. We all have sensations, feelings and funny turns from time to time, and we learn from experience which of them are telling us something true and which are not. Are these sensations of awe simply meaningless side-effects of our hormones or do they tell us something about the spiritual nature of reality? I hope it is not too clumsy to say that Paul is a reductionist while I am the opposite – let’s call me an ‘expansionist’. Paul writes:

I believe the reduction involved in my position as a philosophical materialist is a justified one. It’s interesting to note that the ascription ‘reductionist’ is used these days as a sort of accusation, when it is argued that the positing of entities or states of affairs without reason or need is the position that requires explaining and justifying.

Philosophers of science usually describe reductionism in two ways: that all the entities in the universe can all be explained in terms of basic constituents (originally hard, indestructible atoms but now subatomic particles) and that all the processes in the universe can be explained in terms of physical laws of nature. The attraction of this theory (and it is a philosophical theory, not a scientific discovery) is that it should be possible to explain all the universe’s complexities in terms that the human mind can understand. Paul thinks there has been progress towards this reduction:

Moreover, history tells us that all the various reductions made in the past have proved true and were beneficial to humanity.

I think the opposite. Every time scientists succeed in explaining one entity or process in terms of a more basic one, the discovery raises new questions. At the height of reductive theories – say from D’Holbach at the end of the eighteenth century to just before Einstein at the beginning of the twentieth – scientists thought the universe was much simpler than it now seems. Nobody thought the atom could be split or the universe was expanding.

The scientific consensus now is that although we know a lot more than we knew then, what we know now looks like a much smaller proportion of what there is. The likelihood of humanity finding out all the entities and processes in the universe is infinitesimal. There is absolutely no reason why we should presume to know them, ever. So when Paul writes:

I don’t think it’s simply dogmatism that puts people off religion and the conventional view of spirituality. It is more the fact that that notion of spirituality requires the existence of an external entity that has agency

I think the scientific consensus is that there are loads of external entities we don’t know about. Whether any of them has agency should be judged on its merits.

Matter

About matter, Paul writes:

Interestingly, the phrase ‘bare reductionist matter’ (ignoring its rhetorical use) presupposes a naïve or reductionist understanding of ‘matter’ itself. The idea that you need more than matter as a primary substance of the universe in order to enjoy mentality, spirituality, etc, requires a very limited idea of physical matter, and its effects. Our physical bodies’ phenomenal experience gives testament to the incredible complexity of the nature of matter involved – feeling is not immaterial.

I think we’re using the word ‘matter’ differently. To include feelings, Paul gives it a wider meaning than I’m used to. In my experience the whole point of calling oneself a ‘materialist’ is to deny the non-physical and unobservable. Scientific developments make this more difficult, for example with sub-atomic particles turning out to be bundles of energy rather than anything material, but still, with suitable extenuations of the idea of ‘matter’, it remains possible to call oneself a materialist.

What seems to me much harder is to use the concept of materialism as a satisfactory account of spirituality. If I look at a beautiful landscape and have a sense of awe and the wonder of reality, I interpret that as a truth about reality. I think the feeling isn’t just a mental trick, a product of my hormones; it really is wonderful. However, if the feeling is nothing but a product of my hormones or my brain, it doesn’t tell me about the outside world.

In the same way, before David went to catch the train this morning he looked up a train timetable and read that the train was due to leave at 11.38. I accept that his belief correlated with brain processes, and if he had been incapable of having those brain processes he wouldn’t have been able to work out about the train times; but the truth about the train times came from outside his brain. It is additional to the processes of the matter in his body.

In the same way, if neuroscientists can describe the correlation between our spiritual feelings and brain processes, it is possible to conclude that brain processes are a complete explanation; but if they are, the only truth they tell us is a truth about our own hormones. If our feelings are to tell us that the world really is wonderful, there must be some way in which our feelings are derived from the wonderfulness of nature. If so, we need some way of accounting for the truth of this wonderfulness independently of our feelings. Nature must have a property of wonderfulness. This property has not been scientifically observed, and to me it doesn’t sound material.

Agency

To return to agency. At the height of positivist thinking – roughly, the nineteenth century – it seemed as if ‘we’ – humanity, or its enlightened élite – would eventually get a complete account of how the universe works and this would enable ‘us’ to improve it. The belief created the control freak culture that western politicians still operate with. But now, scientists are telling us a very different story. The universe is far too complex to be fully understood by the human brain. We will never know how many entities and processes there are which we don’t know about. At the edges of research we occasionally discover something we didn’t previously know about, but that’s the best our science can do.

So we are surrounded by stuff we don’t understand. We don’t know what properties it has. To insist that none of it has agency – none of it intends, or values, or loves – now looks a pretty arbitrary claim to make. Once there were reasons for making it. Now I don’t think there are. Why not judge the question on its merits?

To me, the universe looks as though it must have been designed, by some kind of intentional agent beyond our understanding. When we feel that sense of awe, at how wonderful and transcendent the universe is, I think we are right.