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Do Ideas Create Realities?

[1]
Over the weekend I had an exchange of e-mails with a friend who mentioned Stanford University anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s well-reviewed book from last year about the prayer culture of the Vineyard Fellowship. I blogged about it here.  [2]Luhrmann studied the Vineyard for years, and concluded that when people pray in the way Vineyard does, they are conditioning their minds. She’s not saying whether or not God really exists, or really talks to people, but rather points out that to practice prayerfulness in the way that the Vineyard people do (and people from other religious traditions) is a form of training that really does change the way one experiences spirituality. Luhrmann explains it better in this Fresh Air interview.  [3]

Over 20 years ago, Luhrmann wrote her thesis on the psychology of UK witchcraft practitioners, who turned out not to be a bunch of marginal misfits, but middle-class, educated people — including a disproportionate number of computer industry people. In a New York Times review [4] of the book that came out of that experience, Philip Zaleski wrote:

How, Ms. Luhrmann ponders in her most penetrating meditation, do such tenets take hold? What leads a businessman to abandon conventional beliefs, strip naked and implore the goddess Hecate for a better secretary? Most magicians, it seems, really do believe that magic works. She found that as the fledgling magician develops proficiency, he or she begins to see new patterns and accept new assumptions – as does a specialist in any field. The magician, like anyone else, tends to remember the successful rituals and forget the flops. Events others ascribe to chance become proof of a ritual’s effectiveness; if the magician performs a ritual involving water and next day sees someone crying, the tears validate the ritual. Magicians see causality where others see coincidence.

The pull of any new ideology can be intense. Even Ms. Luhrmann, the dispassionate observer, found herself seduced. Beginning her fieldwork as a skeptical scientist, she began to think in magical terms. Her fantasy life deepened, as did her dreams, which exploded with mythological imagery. While she refuses to endorse magical power, she describes herself as ”hooked.” After rituals, she feels ”vital and electric.” She is ”astonished” by the ”pertinence” of tarot cards. If she finally rejects a magical view of the world, it is in large measure because ”I stood to lose credibility and career by adherence.”

Ms. Luhrmann concludes that people are too ”fuzzy” to live by rational ideology. Rather, they stumble upon new ways of living and then compose an ideology to justify their actions. She calls this process ”interpretive drift” – a disturbing proposition, especially since the transformation is often ”accidental, unintended,” even ”unacknowledged.” We are, as it were, bewitched by life, and our ideas follow suit. This, in turn, thrusts upon us a formidable challenge that T. R. Luhrmann’s book implicitly poses – a rigorous examination of the tenets of our own faith, ideas, dearest intellectual castles, to find out just where the foundations lie.

I found especially interesting the Luhrmann quote in which she says she rejected a “magical view” of the world not because she found it untrue, but because she stood to lose social and professional status by accepting it.

The reason I bring all this up at all is because my friend, an academically-oriented researcher who is interested in these questions of spirituality and practice, wrote to say she was troubled in one respect by Luhrmann’s When God Speaks, the one about the prayer lives of Evangelicals. I haven’t read the book, by the way. My friend said it was an incredibly well done book, and a profound accomplishment, but it left her with the sense that Luhrmann, while far more accepting of the validity of these experiences than most, still leaves herself an “out” — a way of distancing herself from the possibility that these experiences of the supernatural are exactly what people claim them to be, and not merely a function of subjective imagination.

In her book about witchcraft, Luhrmann says that after immersing herself within an English witchcraft community, she once saw six Druids standing outside her London window. Here she is elsewhere describing what happened, and the context in which it happened [5]. She begins by talking about how, when she was studying the London witchcraft group and participating in its life and rituals, she underwent a form of mental conditioning, doing guided meditations and other spiritual-mental exercises. Luhrmann writes:

What startled me, as a young ethnographer, was that this training worked. At least, it seemed to shift something in the way I used my senses and my internal sensory awareness. After about a year of this kind of training, spending thirty minutes a day in an inner world structured in part by external instructions, my mental imagery did seem to become clearer. I thought that my images had sharper borders, greater solidity and more endurance. They had more detail. I felt that my senses were more alive, more alert. I began to feel that my states of concentration were deeper and more sharply different from those of my everyday experience. One morning, I woke early after an evening in which I had read a book by a magician. The book was about Arthurian Britain and the early Celtic isles. Reading late into the night, I had allowed myself to get deeply involved with the story, reading not the way I read a textbook but the way I read books like The Secret Garden as a child. I gave way to the story and allowed it to grip my feelings and to fill my mind. As I woke that next morning I saw six druids standing against the window, above the stirring London street below my window. I saw them and they beckoned to me.

I stared for a moment of stunned astonishment, and then I shot up out of bed. Before I could capture the moment again, they were gone. Had they been there in the flesh? I thought not. But my memory of the experience is still very clear. I do not remember that I had imagined them, or that I had wanted to see them, or that I had pretended to see them. I remember that I saw them as clearly and distinctly and as external to me as I saw the notebook in which I recorded the moment, my sentences underlined and marked by exclamation points. I remember it so clearly because it was so singular. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.

But other people in the magical world had experiences like that. They practiced the exercises and read the books and participated in the rituals and then, out of the blue, they had seen something. They saw the Goddess, or a flash of light, or a shining vision of another world. They saw these as things in the world, not phantoms in the mind, although because the image vanished almost immediately, they knew that what they had seen was not ordinary. They said that their mental imagery had become sharper. They thought that their inner sense had become more alive.

That’s what the training does. It shifts attention from the external to the internal, and blurs the line we draw between the mind and the world. And, as I have argued in my scholarship and teaching, this shift alters the lines we draw. The mind bleeds into the world. Not predictably, and not on demand, and for some more than others, but when it happens, the senses experience what is not materially present.

I’ve read neither her book about witchcraft, nor When God Talks Back [6], her book about the Vineyard church, though I certainly want to read the latter, and soon (if it were available on Kindle, I would have bought it today). My friend has read the Vineyard book, and, to repeat, says that in the end, Luhrmann falls back on her secular materialist convictions to a degree that strikes my friend, Luhrmann’s sympathetic reader, as not entirely honest, or at least not entirely persuasive.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Glenn Hinson, in the appendix to his 2000 ethnography Fire In My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel, argues that ethnographers discount the validity of subjective experience in the groups they study. He says that whatever they tell themselves they’re trying to do, ethnographers approach their subject with a bias that frames the experiences reported by their subjects as illusory, as products of their own culture constructing and imposing meaning.

If I’m reading him accurately — and his prose is fairly academic — Hinson says that there are three ways to look at a “testimony” of an individual experience: 1) what actually happened; 2) what the person who experienced it believes happened; and 3) what the person hearing the testimony believes happened. There’s no way to be sure about the first in the list, of course, and Hinson believes (and I think this is inarguable) that the person who witnesses an event can only approximate what happened. That experience is mediated through the witness’s own finitude; he will interpret his experience in large part based on how it resonates with what he knows, or thinks he knows, already. But that doesn’t mean something objectively real didn’t happen to him — that is, this doesn’t mean he had a hallucination.

Similarly, the person who hears the testimony brings his own biases to the hearing — and this is what concerns Hinson in the appendix to his book. He praises ethnographers for trying to overcome their own observational biases by living with the people they’re studying. But:

…the experience-based extrapolations of ethnography tend to break down when recounted experience draws the ethnographer toward the supernatural. Shared experience is fine, it seems, until that sharing challenges the ethnographer’s reality. Then it’s time to step away, to affirm the relativity of belief, to invoke the “explanatory” mechanisms of psychology and cultural pattern. Suddenly reports of experience that in other areas of life are accepted at face value lose their credibility; suddenly they no longer reference the real, or at least not a “real” that isn’t sharply circumscribed by the consciousness-shaping forces of culture. It’s as if the very association with belief somehow taints told experience, drawing it out of the realm of the objective and authentic and into that of the subjective and imaginary. Supernatural experience is thus consigned to a reality apart, a realm where the “real” is defined only within the narrow parameters of belief. “That’s what they believe,” most ethnographers seem to say, “and thus it’s real for them.”  What remains unsaid — but certainly not misunderstood — is the concluding codicil “but not for us, for we can see beyond the boundaries of their belief.” Thus slips away any guise of ethnographic objectivity, only to be replaced by implicit claims to a fuller knowledge and a more real reality. Accounts of supernatural experience, in turn, get treated as artifacts of belief, interesting for the light they shed on culture, but meaningless as testaments to authentic encounter.

Hinson goes on to say that some ethnographers who themselves have supernatural experiences while doing fieldwork get back to the familiar territory of “a shared (and disbelieving) worldview,” causes them to believe that they had been deceived by their own minds. Hinson writes, “In essence, most experiencing ethnographers, like Ebenezer Scrooge in his encounter with the ghost of Marley, attribute supernatural experience to that ‘undigested bit of beef,’ never considering that on this one occasion their minds might not be playing tricks with them.”

It sounds like this might have been what happened with Luhrmann and the witches, though if the Times review from 1989 is correct, she recognized that she stepped back from that experience, and the witches’ worldview, because it would cost her too much professionally to accept it. That, to put it mildly, is hardly a case against the witches, any more than it’s a case against an academic becoming, say, a Pentecostal Christian, though I imagine an academic today would find it more costly to their professional standing to become a Pentecostal than a Wiccan.

Anyway, there are a couple of questions in all this that interest me. First is the matter of how we can know what’s real. If we are marked by finitude and fallibility, how can we know whether what we saw is real, a half-truth, or a hallucination? How can we know whether someone who claims to have witnessed something supernatural can be believed? How can we be really sure that the only acceptable explanation is a materialist one? If we do so, aren’t we loading the analytical dice? For that matter, a believing Jew hearing an African-American preacher talk about a vision of Jesus Christ is going to interpret that testimony differently from a believing Catholic … just as that African-American preacher is likely to interpret a vision of St. Francis of Assisi different from an Italian Catholic. How can we know whose vision is true, and whose interpretation is trustworthy?

One of my longtime readers, Franklin Evans, is a practicing Pagan. He shared with me a series of supernatural experiences he once had. I, an Orthodox Christian, believe these things happened to him — that they really did happen, not that they were imagined. Franklin and I have different interpretations of the meaning. We could both be wrong … but we can’t both be right, except in that we agree that something external to Franklin’s consciousness happened. You meet Franklin, and you know instantly that this guy is on the level. He’s not the kind of person who strikes one as fanciful or lightly grounded. I think you would have a hard time denying that something extremely unusual and significant happened to him, unless you had a strong bias against admitting anything supernatural as a possibility.

But how do you know? I think it’s impossible to have an interpretation without a prior commitment, or set of commitments. I know what mine are, and I believe them to be true, not just “true for me.” Yet I can’t prove them. When I posted the other day about cultural relativism, and the value of considering the perspective of the Other, I did not mean that by opening oneself to the Other’s perspective, that one must necessarily affirm it. One can examine the Other’s point of view, and decide that the Other has it all wrong. There is value, though, in the exercise, honestly done. I don’t expect a convinced materialist to become a Christian because he has seriously thought about how the world looks through my eyes, but with luck he will have come to see my conclusions as reasonable, if ultimately wrong.

The second question is a more complicated one. Luhrmann wrote in her 1989 book on witchcraft, and in her 2012 book about the Vineyard’s Pentecostal-ish prayers, that they both “work” insofar as “working” means they attune the mind to alternative realities. I hesitate to say much about that because I don’t want to misstate Luhrmann’s view, not having read her books, only about them. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one objection could be that these mental techniques don’t open the mind, but rather obscure it.

Still, I think it is important to consider that the normative modern Western mindset may be deficient in important ways. I mean, maybe we really cannot see things that are actually there, because we have accepted a priori that they cannot be there. The anthropologist Wade Davis has written that Tibetan Buddhists consider their tradition to be a science of mind. Their prayer and meditation is not simply a therapeutic or a devotional practice, but offers objective insights into reality and human personality, or so they claim. I have read very similar claims by Orthodox Christian monks from Mount Athos. The Orthodox tradition says that in order to experience greater union with God, one has to pray, and to purify one’s nous — the soul’s perceptive faculties. They are not surprised when an unbeliever, or a Christian who doesn’t pray much, fails to understand what they’re talking about, or to take it with the seriousness it deserves. Of course you don’t get it, they would say. Pray and fast, pray and fast, and the doors of perception may be opened to you.

I say all these things in the spirit of opening a discussion. Let’s go.

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82 Comments To "Do Ideas Create Realities?"

#1 Comment By M_Young On January 15, 2013 @ 9:51 am

Of course ideas create realities. The idea of breeding your best cattle created the reality of even better cattle. The idea of the assembly line created the reality of cheap mass produced goods.

Can ideas, or a mode of thought, create something that isn’t there at all, that has no material existence — I doubt it. The fleeting nature of these visions seem to point to their limited impact.

#2 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 15, 2013 @ 10:21 am

While it is certainly possible that us skeptics don’t see what we don’t want to see. It is also possible that other people are seeing what they want to see. So we have two possible outcomes, but that doesn’t mean the odds are 50/50. One of those possibilities is correct and thus more likely than the other. But how can we tell which?

Well the track record for the supernatural hasn’t been all that good. There have been many flavors of it and it’s a moving target. During the 1600’s for example you could use witchcraft to remotely injure people, wilt crops, or conjure the dead. Now after a year of work it gets you new perspectives and different ways of seeing things?! What a downgrade for witchcraft, but at least the Saudis still take it seriously.

Meanwhile the track record for skeptical empiricism has been pretty good. As Pat and John E point out, elevators work for everyone, and antibiotics are more effective than prayer. So I’m sticking with Western skeptical empiricism.

But, having seen what I’ve seen, the only possible explanation I can find is that God won’t (for his own unknowable reasons) interfere in the lives of men. It’s the only thing that can explain what I’ve seen.

For me that renders God an invisible dragon. People claim the dragon exists, but just not when you are looking. How is that different from no dragon at all? Moreover is it even relevant if such an invisible dragon exists?

#3 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 10:56 am

In a thread with many excellent contributions, Rambler88’s short essay is the best. It covers the ground consistently and rationally.

If one concedes the logic that divination is a tool much like prayer or meditation, then Tarot cards can be examined as a tool rather than a self-contained entity with an arbitrary ability to reveal the truth. That was my approach to Tarot from my first introduction to it. Eden Gray wrote a few versions of the same book on how to use them, and is an excellent introduction to divination traditions in general. She also writes about its ethical use, and one may be sure that any reader/adviser you encounter has not read that part. In short: Tarot is a form of cooperative meditation, where the reader and “client” work together to explore the client’s subconscious. What I glean about my clients comes from them, not from some nebulous spirit source. Reader/advisers tell clients what they want to hear; I tell my clients what they already know but might be averse to examining. The process is mundane, even if science can’t yet measure the mechanics of it.

#4 Comment By VikingLS On January 15, 2013 @ 11:11 am

Franklin Evans

Orson Scott Card wrote a story “The Hanged Man and the Kind of Swords” I believe. In the story the son designs a program based on the Tarot that essentially served that function.

#5 Comment By elrond On January 15, 2013 @ 11:13 am

Bryan (January 14, 2013 at 6:31 pm), if you’re reading this, THANK YOU for recommending Gerald Schroeder. I’ve never heard of him, and have spent the last hour skimming some of his articles, and summaries of his books. I’m certain that I will be reading him more substantially in the near future. It’s always a treat to be turned on to a new source of knowledge and inspiration. Thanks again! I’m really grateful.

#6 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 11:39 am

Viking, the story’s title is “The Changed Man and the King of Words”, and according to the brief descriptions I found the plot device is only very loosely associated with Tarot in our current context. But truly, thanks for the citation. I’d not known about Card’s horror genre stories.

#7 Comment By Erin Manning On January 15, 2013 @ 11:45 am

Actually, jmo, in one specific instance that I personally experienced a culture of the infection was not done. The doctor had to choose between waiting three days for the result of the culture or beginning to treat me based on my symptoms, and he chose to begin treatment. The infection didn’t respond properly to the first antibiotic at the prescribed dose; I had symptoms of a reaction to the second (I’m allergic to penicillin), and was put on a stronger dose of the first one which eventually did the trick.

This is why health care is not a hard science and doctors merely “practice” medicine. Things get messy at the intersection between science and human experience.

That’s what the elevator example points out, too. Sure, science can go back and explain why an elevator failed and the physics and medical trauma involved in a person’s death when that person has fallen several floors down an empty shaft. But science can’t answer the aching question as to why a woman in Dallas who worked at an office building took an elevator safely for years until the day she stepped into empty space, screamed, and died in a heartbeat from the fall into darkness. Why that day? Why that hour? Why her, and not the dozen or so people who took that same elevator that same day without incident?

Oh, science *does* have what it thinks of as the answer. “Don’t worry,” Science says soothingly at the funeral. “It was random chance. The universe has no heart and cares nothing for any of us. We are as insects in the path of a cosmic windshield, and none of this really means anything at all.”

Strangely enough, most human beings throughout history have found that answer unsatisfactory. Some of us find it even more unsatisfactory when they read of a couple’s milestone wedding anniversary in the newspaper (true story!) and learn that the couple met when the man drove an ambulance and the woman had fallen a fatal distance down an elevator shaft–but instead of collecting a corpse, as the ambulance driver fully expected given the physics of the situation, he collected a lovely young woman with a broken ankle, and she later became his wife. If science tried really hard I’m sure it could explain why she survived when she really, really shouldn’t have, and of course her love for the ambulance driver and their lengthy happy marriage is nothing but hormones and chemistry…

At the crossroads between scientific fact and messy human experience, there is room for something else. Whether you see that something else as love or faith or magic or mystery or nonsense is going to depend a lot on what sort of experiences you’ve had so far in life and what you’ve made of them.

#8 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On January 15, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

Strangely enough, most human beings throughout history have found that answer unsatisfactory.

Just because you don’t like an answer doesn’t mean its false. Conversely just because you like an answer doesn’t mean it is true. The universe seems indifferent to human opinion on these matters.

#9 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

Oh, science *does* have what it thinks of as the answer. “Don’t worry,” Science says soothingly at the funeral. “It was random chance. The universe has no heart and cares nothing for any of us. We are as insects in the path of a cosmic windshield, and none of this really means anything at all.”

Erin, I hope you know me well enough by now to not take the following as denigration of anyone’s misfortune:

What you wrote above is the grossest misrepresentation of science I’ve ever seen. There are scientists with hearts of stone who might be heard saying such things, but to project that to what science does and says is — can’t find a polite phrasing — as egregious an insult to intelligence as those words are to mourners.

#10 Comment By Church Lady On January 15, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

To me, these sorts of things highlight the hubris of science in thinking they really understand what the human being is, and how it lives, and what it needs to live. Not that religion has all the answers either. Science offers just one narrow slice of view of the whole, and thinks it has seen everything, and then tries to impose that slice on the whole. It’s the same mistake that many religions make, in fact. The whole picture is mind-boggling, and human beings seem always to be trying to reduce it to something their minds can grasp. And that’s the problem. Whether that reduction is committed in the name of science, or in the name of any particular religion, it is reality that suffers. And we suffer from a reduced vision of reality, not allowing reality to be experienced except through our chosen cognitive filters.

#11 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

Church Lady: …we suffer from a reduced vision of reality, not allowing reality to be experienced except through our chosen cognitive filters.

While I share your final opinion, quite strongly, I can’t help point out a semantic fallacy your chosen phrasings perpetrate. You are welcome, of course, to clarify and/or disagree with my criticism. 🙂

“Hubris” is a human trait. Unless you intended the reader to replace “science” with “scientists” — something that would logically be at odds with the rest of your statements — you cannot validly ascribe a human trait to an intellectual pursuit of an abstract construct without having explicit human actors.

Science defines its own limits, explicitly and with no room for interpretation. Scientists can and do ignore those limits, to the detriment of all of us non-scientists, especially those who are ignorant of the definitions and constraints of scientific methodology. Science claims no final answers. Every scientist of the last century or so in the fields of geology and physics who has attempted to claim final answers has since been proven wrong. In neither case has science suffered any denigration of its integrity. Only the hubris of scientists has been highlighted.

#12 Comment By Another Matt On January 15, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

To me, these sorts of things highlight the hubris of science in thinking they really understand what the human being is, and how it lives, and what it needs to live.

I never have been able to understand these kinds of pronouncements. Again, the reason we have science is to find these things out. Almost nobody in the science world thinks that this project will ever reach an end, much less that the current scientific understanding already “has all the answers.”

#13 Comment By Church Lady On January 15, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

Franklin,

As to the semantics of science, one has to recall that science is a human invention, a human construct, a human activity, and a human set of values and parameters. Science doesn’t exist in nature. No other creature engages in it. One can’t treat it as something that humans discovered, that was pre-existing, like some rare bird in a distant archipelago that we brought back from the wild.

So the hubris of science is simply a direct result of its human origins. Human beings are hubristic, and therefore science will also be susceptible to our hubris. Same with religion, philosophy, culture, sports, or any other distinctly human activity or thought process. Science likes to create this illusion about itself, that it somehow stands outside of the world of human frailty and hubris, that is is actually a truly objective discipline. But it is not. This, too, is just a part of its hubris. Just as many religions claim an origin entirely outside of the human sphere, in order to shield their own absolutist claims from the charge of human frailty and hubris. Nice trick if you can get away with it. But also patently obvious to most anyone not personally invested in that particular brand of human hubris.

#14 Comment By Church Lady On January 15, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

I never have been able to understand these kinds of pronouncements. Again, the reason we have science is to find these things out. Almost nobody in the science world thinks that this project will ever reach an end, much less that the current scientific understanding already “has all the answers.”

I would say, nonsense. A whole lot of scientists, and supporters of the scientific project, think it’s the only valid way to approach matters of truth, and to determine what is, and what isn’t true. I’m not suggesting that scientists are so hubristic as to think they’ve already discovered all that is out there to know, only that they have discovered the only valid means of finding these things out. That’s the hubris.

#15 Comment By Erin Manning On January 15, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

Oh, come now, Franklin, you know me better than that by now, I hope.

When I say that this is what Science says, I am saying that modern science is simply unconcerned–as it should be–with what earlier thinkers called transcendent truths or eternal verities, or some such phrase. If you ask in the realms of science, “What happens to me when I die?” then Science (within its own disciplined parameters) can only talk about cessation of physical functions, rapid body cooling, the onset of rigor mortis and so on–it can say nothing to what most people would think of as the heart of the question.

There can never be a double-blind controlled study determining whether the soul exists, let alone what would happen to it when it separates from the physical body. There can never be a controlled double-blind study that would determine the existence of God or the afterlife, either. Thus, when Science is confronted with people who die in tragic elevator accidents, all Science can say is that of the 100% of human beings who will die, some of them, by random chance, will die in elevator shaft accidents. Science can also predict that pretty near 100% of the people who *always* check to make sure the elevator doors are opening on an actual car with an actual floor will not die in these sorts of elevator shaft accidents, though, of course, these people could still be murdered by being purposefully thrown down an empty elevator shaft or die in an accident involving a snapped cable or something–in other words, they could still experience Death by Elevator.

But Science, speaking of it as a discipline, simply can’t say that life has meaning, that human beings are more important than houseflies, or that the universe (or anyone responsible for it) cares about us. This is not because Science is evil or deficient or something; it is simply because Science, when it is being totally honest, only claims to know about those fragments of the material universe which are subject to empirical understanding, experimentation, and those important (in most branches) controlled double-blind studies.

And that makes Science poor comfort at funerals, which is one reason why many people, even scientists, seek answers about eternal verities and fundamental truths outside of the laboratory–to the puzzlement of the true materialists among us.

#16 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

With respect, Church Lady, you are engaging in sophistry. Nothing is proven in pointing out that all abstract constructs are the invention of humans, since humans are the only species on this planet with the ability of abstract reasoning to support the inventing. You give very short shrift to the core principle of science, which is the elimination (ideally) and at least mitigation of the human failings concerning objectivity.

Science is not a democracy. It is ruled by a too-often ignored tyranny of its stated methodology. The only thing that is proven by scientists who make fiat claims is the validity of the methodology they violate with those claims. Certainly, q.e.d., that tyranny is a two-edged sword, capable of corrupted usage, but again all that proves is the very need for its mitigating of human frailties and foibles.

I will, with a confessed hint of sarcasm, assert that the hubris of science is a necessary target created by religions whose closely-held beliefs are (as they see it) under attack by science. Religion is a human-imposed filter on existence. Science attempts to find accurate filters that work no matter who is using them, explicitly warns that the filters are subject to change or replacement, and denies any valid opinion on religion. In short, it has no “hooks” by which religion can tear it down. Thus, religion — those belief systems whose self-confidence requires it — creates straw hooks and expects the rest of us to buy into them… and finds ready allies from within science who at least unwittingly provide self-fulfilling weaknesses where none are needed. 🙁

#17 Comment By PDGM On January 15, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

Franklin Evans,
Thanks for your kind words; and I do not think you’re trying to hijack anything.

If you like my metaphor, you should consider reading at least the first chapter or so of Erazim Kohak’s book “The Embers and the Stars.”
PDGM

#18 Comment By Church Lady On January 15, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

Franklin, accusing me of sophistry, is sophistry.

Science is of course a human invention, and arguing against that is just irrational. It can’t be spoken of apart from the humans who invented it and use it. If you think otherwise, that’s your business, but I am just pointing out how illogical that is, even “unscientific”.

Science is a discipline that works by exclusion. It tries to exclude the subjective, seeing that as the source of our frailties, our ignorance, our common mistakes in assessing reality. THe world view that it creates in the process seems to some to be “objective”, but it remains the product of a subjective effort to exclude the subjective nature of our own human consciousness from our view of reality.

But by doing that it is elevating its own human frailties at the source of the enterprise, the ones that conceived of this goal of a non-subjective view of reality. Who conceived of that goal? A collective set of subjective human beings. How did they go about doing that? By trying to exclude their own subjectivity from the discipline? Am I the only one who notes that incongruity of that aim and the methods employed?

It’s no wonder that science finds itself facing the conundrum of the paradoxes of subjective observation itself in the fine details of QM and relativity theory. What you exclude from reality, will always come back to bite you in the ass, when you’re not looking. We have yet to have a science that is congruent with reality itself, operating by the principle of inclusion, rather than exclusion. When we do, these sophist attempts to prop objectivity up will collapse, and be found to have been counterproductive, and no one will miss them.

#19 Comment By VikingLS On January 15, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

Orthodox Christianity is difficult for the western mind to grasp for many reasons. One of those is that people in the west believe they have a pretty good idea what Christianity is like, and underneath all those smells and bells presume Orthodox Christianity is the same thing. They’re right and they’re also wrong.
Western Christianity, having gone through the reformation and the enlightenment, is itself very materialist. I want “the truth” and I want “the facts” would be synonymous to the western mind, they aren’t expressing the same desire to an Orthodox Christian.
Science is good way to learn about the seen universe but it makes for a poor religion. Religion, like philosophy, is the search for eternal truths or the process of living by them. It isn’t much better than a jumping off point for the scientific study of history or science.
Where science so far can’t do much to help us is in understanding those beings which would fall into the unseen universe, angels, demons, God, jinn ect. To say of any of those things,” we have no tangible proof of them, therefore they don’t exist” is hubristic because you’re talking about beings that exist (primarily) as spirit or energy. At this point science, or hard science, is limited.

#20 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

Church Lady, I submit to you the two strictures of the scientific method that stand against the human frailty of subjective judgment: Repeatability and falsifiability.

Science doesn’t just claim to be objective, it goes about being so with specific practices and disciplines. Your sophistry is in implying that scientists themselves sit in judgment and determine what is and isn’t objective or subjective. They all comply with a standard, to which I already referred as tyranny and not democracy.

Please address that in your logic. So far, you’ve ignored it.

#21 Comment By Church Lady On January 15, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

Franklin,

I’m not arguing against the utility of the scientific method. I’m a booster of it, in fact. What I’m arguing against is the notion that it is the only way to find truth, and that it can ever give us the whole truth. Falsifiability and repeatability are virtues, indeed. But when limited to supposedly objective observations, they have very limited value also. It’s fine in a limited context, but when we take those findings, and try to apply them to the whole complexity of a human being, we fail badly to appreciate the full context of our human reality.

Religion is indeed one of those failings of the scientific method, and not just because of the issues of repeatability and falsifiability, it has to do with the problem of observation itself. How, exactly, does one observe the subjective reality that we actually experience every moment of every day? Science doesn’t have an answer to that, or even a plausible approach. We can do neuroscience, but this still only address the objective realm of observation, not the subjective experience. The problem with this, is that all of us only experience even the objective realm subjectively. It’s what we are as human beings. We can’t escape that. We can’t become unsubjective robots, no matter how disciplined we might be as scientists.

And so questions like the existence and nature of God have little scientific validity precisely because of the inability of science to observe God. But millions of people have actually experienced God. I have. Rod has. You probably have. The experience is actually repeatable. I can meditate or pray, and experience God, every single day. I can even falsify that, subjectively of course. Some days I come up blank. What can’t be done scientifically, is to falsify or repeat that exercise objectively. But religious people can nevertheless share their personal, subjective experience of God with one another, and even form religious communities on that basis. They’ve been doing that for thousands of years. Scientists scoff at that as meaningless, because it is “subjective”, and claim that only objective science can tell whether something is true or not. But I would say that’s a very “cultic” viewpoint, raising science to the level of an absolutist religion itself, admitting of no other forms of truth.

Science doesn’t just claim to be objective, it goes about being so with specific practices and disciplines. Your sophistry is in implying that scientists themselves sit in judgment and determine what is and isn’t objective or subjective. They all comply with a standard, to which I already referred as tyranny and not democracy.

Nonsense. Of course scientists strive for objectivity, and of course they reject things they consider subjective. They sit in judgment on these matters every single day. Their standards are created precisely around this judgment. I don’t argue with the utility of that, within the limits of what that kind of exclusion makes possible. But to make those conclusions into universal declarations about truth, knowledge, and the nature of reality, is a huge overreach. Science ought to be a lot more modest about its findings, and what it losing by excluding the subjective realm of human experience, which is where we all live, after all. Even scientists. To fail to be chastened and humbled by that is to fall into scientific hubris.

#22 Comment By Church Lady On January 15, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

Let me go a bit further. Take Rod’s comment, that he has found God in the incarnate person of Jesus. Scientifically, you can say that this is not falsifiable, and not repeatable by the objective standards of science. Fair enough. But what does that say? It says nothing about the truth of that statement of Rod’s. It just says that science is useless in determining anything about it. If that is the case, just how useful is science, in the end?

Let me remind you that the Divinity of Christ is by far the most important single truth in Rod’s life. He’s based most everything in his life around it, and considers it the dearest truth to his heart. He would die for it, I have no doubt. If science has nothing to tell him about this most important element in his life, and in the lives of many millions, even billions of people, then just how important could science be? Not very, I’d say. Sure it’s nice having computers and airplanes and so on, but I can bet you Rod would willingly give up all of them for his love of Christ. As would many millions of other people.

I think science is good at helping answer certain questions, like what is the age of the earth. But it’s really awful at a lot of really, really important questions, the things which matter most to a lot of people, which are generally subjective and personal in nature. Anyone who exclusively or predominantly uses science to answer these questions is going be in for a load of trouble. As is society and culture. And even medicine and other issues of health and human welfare. We simply cannot be reduced to the material realm of observational mechanics. Man does not live by bread alone. Our real food is the “word of God”. Until science can figure out how to include that truth, it’s not going to be as useful or comprehensive a guide to living as many would like it to be.

#23 Comment By David B. On January 15, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

I have read Luhrman’s first book (the one on witches/magic) and found it quite fascinating. Regardless of what you think about modern witchcraft, it is an interesting glimpse into the social realities of the movement.

Thanks to the person above who recommended The Trickster and the Supernatural; looks like an interesting book.

For a brief and fairly readable essay on how social scientists bring their skepticism to bear on the world around them (and how the rest of us largely go along for the ride), I suggest Peter Berger’s classic, A Rumor of Angels. He says that the social sciences and the realities of pluralism in our daily lives (rubbing shoulders with people of so many other faiths) are more corrosive to believing in the supernatural than are the findings of the hard sciences.

#24 Comment By Another Matt On January 15, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

The experience is actually repeatable. I can meditate or pray, and experience God, every single day. I can even falsify that, subjectively of course. Some days I come up blank.

I don’t think that can be falsified. Perhaps the fact that the experience occurred can be, but the ascription of the source to God can’t be. If someone were to tell you that you were wrong and that your experiences were caused by, say, fairies, djinns, Satan, dragons, Santa Claus, or the ghost of Martin Luther, neither of you would have any recourse to evidence, and neither of you would be able to say convincingly or with rigor which evidence would persuade you that you were in fact wrong.

#25 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 15, 2013 @ 8:54 pm

Church Lady,

You answered my challenge with your usual erudition. Thank you for getting into details I thought were lacking here, both between us and to the broader discussion.

The point where we likely need to agree to disagree is the interface between scientists and science. I would offer the opinion that too many scientists fall short of their training, of the ideal goal of science which includes a constant awareness that perfect objectivity is impossible.

I maintain two vital conflicts between our thinking: Only scientists, falling prey to their human failings, insist that they have ” universal declarations about truth, knowledge, and the nature of reality.” Science, expressed by its methodology, never says that. Second, science by definition must exclude the “realm of human experience” in its final conclusions. It does, as a matter of practicality, embrace the human perspective but only as a starting point.

The “failure” (for lack of a better term) of religion is that it is without exception a completely human perspective. Your general assumption is correct: I experience divinity daily. It is an integral aspect to my perception and perspective. At no point, for me, does it preempt science. It will point the way, perhaps, or in that rarified sense Rod alludes to in mentioning me in his opening post, it departs from every rational process science offers. I see. I feel. I attach rational symbols to my experience as much to protect my sanity as to attempt to convey it to others. No aspect of that has anything to contribute to science, nor does it allow science to intervene.

#26 Comment By Franklin Evans On January 16, 2013 @ 7:33 am

Church Lady,

I posted my reply before seeing your second post, so please forgive any cross-posting mishaps. Also, I’m going to be on the road until Monday evening, with only sporadic (if any) on-line sessions.

I will back away a bit from the sophistry challenge, but only a bit. You are mixing metaphors, as it were, by trying to apply scientific concepts to your spiritual experiences. “Falsification” is not a valid exercise when it comes to such things… which is a perhaps awkward way of stating my agreement with your most recent post. 😉

I, for one, do not attempt to apply science to my intensely subjective spiritual life. Instead, I seek a balance, an ongoing and dynamic process that has no valid destination… just a series of resting points before life carries me forward, presenting me with new challenges to my equilibrium.

#27 Comment By Church Lady On January 16, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

Matt,

I don’t think that can be falsified. Perhaps the fact that the experience occurred can be, but the ascription of the source to God can’t be. If someone were to tell you that you were wrong and that your experiences were caused by, say, fairies, djinns, Satan, dragons, Santa Claus, or the ghost of Martin Luther, neither of you would have any recourse to evidence, and neither of you would be able to say convincingly or with rigor which evidence would persuade you that you were in fact wrong.

I agree that this sort of thing cannot be objectively falsified, but it can be subjectively inspected. I can, through introspection, actually re-examine my own experience, even on a daily basis, to see what’s going on. A friend can suggest that I’m deluded, and offer a different perspective. I can take that in, apply it, and see if it offers me any meaningful insight. I can repeat this process, including in it books, scriptures, theologies, and the experience of both friends and distant others on the internet. The entire process can be conducted with great sincerity and serious intent, and result in real growth, maturity, and intelligence. All of these things are forms of “evidence” to consider, but I don’t have to exclude the subjective dimension, in myself and others, in order to arrive at a meaningful and intelligent understand of myself, of God, of the world at large. In fact, if I did, I would be seriously limiting the development of real intelligence in myself.

That is a process which is not “scientific” in the technical sense, but it isn’t nonsensical process confined to the level of beliefs and superstitions and arbitrary whims. But it is empirical. It can include outright scientific research and findings, but not limit itself to these.

I think the idea of anything being “convincing” is over-rated. So what if you’re not convinced I find God in my meditation. I saw a survey today that said that half of all Americans feel God in some way every day. Are you going to argue with each one of them? What would be the point? The subjective experience of God is common enough that we can simply look at it on its own terms, as something with powerful meaning in our lives, and go from there. It would be like trying to convince my husband that I love him. If he already feels that, I don’t need to, and if he doesn’t, how could I possibly convince him? The best I can do is just live it out, live what I feel to be true, even if science can’t convincingly demonstrate that truth. And people do that with God. They live their relationship to God, their feeling for God, regardless of what anyone says about that. Or they don’t. And that’s where it matters, not at some existential level of creating objective certainty. That’s why faith is the foundation of any genuinely human life. We don’t really know sh*t, we just have a feeling for one another, and have to live that out as best we can.

#28 Comment By Church Lady On January 16, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

Franklin,

I, for one, do not attempt to apply science to my intensely subjective spiritual life. Instead, I seek a balance, an ongoing and dynamic process that has no valid destination… just a series of resting points before life carries me forward, presenting me with new challenges to my equilibrium.

Then I’m not sure what your objection is at all, much less where the charge of sophistry came from. We seem, on the level of actual life and experience, not to be in much disagreement, in fact in much agreement I think.

The issue of balance is important, and what I’m talking about is a balance point far from what many scientific-minded folks seem to advocate. Their general idea is that science is the only genuine arbiter of truth, but it’s still limited, and so we have to do the best we can until science determines what is true on every level and area of life. My idea of balance is very different indeed, which is that since most of our life is lived subjectively, we have to acknowledge that fundamentally, truth is also found in the subjective realm, and so we have to develop an intelligent and discriminating inner life first. With that in place, we can engage in scientific work, keeping in mind the limits and scope of that kind of investigation. We can then use the products of scientific investigations intelligently, not letting them overwhelm our inner life, or imposing itself upon us in a cold and heartless manner. I look at the world today, and see way, way too much of the wrong use of science going on, and a world deeply out of balance. Perhaps we differ on that.

#29 Comment By Another Matt On January 16, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

I think the idea of anything being “convincing” is over-rated. So what if you’re not convinced I find God in my meditation. I saw a survey today that said that half of all Americans feel God in some way every day. Are you going to argue with each one of them? What would be the point? The subjective experience of God is common enough that we can simply look at it on its own terms, as something with powerful meaning in our lives, and go from there.

I agree with this, as far as it goes. But what nobody should get to do is to make the jump from this kind of ineffably mysterious subjective experience to pronouncements of certainty with regard to God’s actions and opinions.

#30 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On January 16, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

Re: The content of my dream is completely unverifiable. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t dream about chocolate bars, only that the only way for you to know that is to take my word for it.

Yea, exactly.

#31 Comment By Church Lady On January 16, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

what nobody should get to do is to make the jump from this kind of ineffably mysterious subjective experience to pronouncements of certainty with regard to God’s actions and opinions.

I would heartily agree with this also. I think one of the major problems in religion is the tendency to take the subjective experience of God, and try to turn it into an objective reality apart from our own inner lives. And then use that as a hammer to stamp its impression on everything around us. In that sense, fundamentalist religion and scientism are two sides of the same coin, or an inverse of one another.

#32 Comment By Church Lady On January 16, 2013 @ 5:35 pm

Hector, as to the content of dreams, there are not entirely subjectively knowable. Recent advances in brain imaging allows researchers to actually “see” in some vague way what people are thinking, in image form at least. Very crude still, but creating a bridge to the mind’s content, at least. Someday, they might be able to “see” what we dream about, at least in some sense of the word.