Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Fist Fight Over Spirituality

For the last five days, some folks have been hotly debating the nature and merits of "spirituality" over at PZ Meyers' blog, Pharyngula.

Meyers started the fist fight when he posted an entry titled, "Spirituality"? Another Word For Lies and Empty Noise. The ruckus has now reached 230 comment posts and still counting.

I gather from what I read of the debate that almost as many definitions of "spirituality"are in play as there are people debating the merits and nature of "spirituality". Everyone seems to have their own pet definition for the word, and is sticking with it. Consequently, the participants are in most cases talking pass each other.

Despite that, it's a good debate with a lot of sharp insights on both sides.

Most common words have more than one meaning and "spirituality" is no exception. Depending on who you are talking with, the word can be used to mean anything from a belief in ghosts and spirits --- to an emotional high --- and beyond that to a sense, feeling, or perception of connectedness to all things.

It is folly to insist that any one usage is somehow more correct than all the others, but we should be clear about what meaning we ourselves are using for the word.

Recently, Sam Harris has offered a new definition of the word in his book, The End of Faith. Harris uses to word to refer to anything having to do with the sort of awareness that comes about after a sudden end to subject/object perception occurs while the continuum of experience yet remains.

Whether one would personally use Harris' definition of "spirituality" or not, the man should get a medal for being the first in the long history of the word to give it a more or less operational meaning. Yet, Harris goes even further: He wants to put the study of spirituality (along with mysticism --- another confusing word) on a scientific footing.

Perhaps only an American can believe humans will someday fly, travel to the moon, or study spirituality scientifically. But that latter thing is exactly what Harris hopes to do.

More power to him. If Harris succeeds, then some fist fights over the nature and merits of spirituality might become a thing of the past.

More over, this is the 21st Century, and many people who have had spiritual experiences of the sort Harris describes feel it is high time for biologists like PZ Meyers (along with many other scientists and non-scientists alike) to recognize there is more to human nature than is dreamt of in their philosophies.

Can Harris succeed in placing the study of spirituality and mysticism on a scientific footing? What do you think?

5 comments:

Mystic Wing said...

Well, it would appear I'm in complete agreement with Harris. His definition of spirituality is right in line with all the mystics descriptions of non-dual awareness——i.e. the continuance of perception with no distinction between object and subject.

No exactly a new idea, but I applaud anyone who champions this fight in the modern age.

Patty said...

> Harris uses to word to refer to anything having to do with the sort of awareness that comes about after a sudden end to subject/object perception occurs while the continuum of experience yet remains.

I have no idea what that means, or even if it has meaning, so I'm not sure how "operational" it is. (I think his wording stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the subject/object divide, which is one of perspective). With no subject/object divide, there is no "me", and that's a pretty hard thing for most people to strive for. And though I have many describe it as such, I cannot imagine such a thing. To me, the spiritual is a result of a very clear divide between subjective and objective perspectives. I like things simple. To me, "spiritual" simply means from the perspective of spirit, and spirit is "me" on the threashold of reality.

Paul said...

Hi Mystic Wing!

I believe you are spot on that Harris' definition is right in line with the mystics description of non-dual awareness. Good observation!

Paul said...

Hi Patty!

"With no subject/object divide, there is no "me", and that's a pretty hard thing for most people to strive for. And though I have many describe it as such, I cannot imagine such a thing."

Of course, you are right that without the subject/object division, there is no "me". It also seems there is no "you" either.

I would further suppose that awareness without a me/you divide implies a sense, feeling or pereception of all things being interconnected.

Perhaps that is a clumsy way of putting it, however, since such an awareness would also imply an end to the perception of "thingness".

I very much agree with you that we cannot imagine such an awareness. Our imagination is part of our normal consciousness and as such fundamentally "assumes" a division between subject and object. Hence, trying to imagine what an end to subject/object perception is like is a bit akin to trying to imagine colors if you're color blind.

Last, but not least, I'm curious what you mean by "...spirit is 'me' on the threshold of reality"? Would you do me the favor of elaborating on that? It sounds intriguing.

Thank you for a very good post!

Patty said...

> subject/object perception...

See, that's what I meant when I said the divide is misunderstood. It's one of perspective, not perception. It's not "my view/your view," and it isn't "you/me". It's more like "you, me and everything (objects)/everything from in here (a subject)."

It's the "in here" that is spirit, symbolised. Without the divide, there is no spirit.

The awareness that is "perception with no distinction between subject and object" is unconsciousness. So either people are talking about a wholly unconscious thing, or ...I have no clue.

Re the threshold, I made a post on RF about it in 'Theological Concepts' called The Numinous Void.