About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Spirituality for the Skeptic?
The goal of the book is to sketch a broader view of “spirituality,” one that is not intrinsically religious or mystical, and to include secular skeptics (or, as we more often call ourselves, secular humanists) in it. There are several problems with this project, not the least of which is that the term “spiritual” is so intertwined with religion and mysticism that it is simply hopeless to try to rescue it.
Solomon acknowledges in the preface to the book that he finds “most of what passe[s] as spirituality something of a sham, fueled by pretension and dominated by hypocrisy.” Here here, brother. Nonetheless he enlists some of the big guns of philosophy, particularly Hegel and Nietzsche, to make the point that there are more genuine and productive ways to conceive of spirituality. Solomon wishes to “naturalize” spirituality starting from the standpoint that, in his words, “if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness” (p. 5). By this he seems to suggest that to be spiritual is to think about and appreciate the world as it is (as opposed to as how one wishes it to be). Spirituality in this sense is not just scientific or even philosophical inquiry -- though the two are necessary components of it -- but includes an aesthetic sense as well. So far so good, but why use the word “spiritual,” which immediately conjures up thoughts of, well, spirits? This is where I begin to lose Solomon (and it happens pretty early in the book).
For instance, the author says that forgiveness plays a role in spirituality. But he doesn’t apply forgiveness, as one might expect, just to what others do to you or to the world, i.e., to the agents of intentional actions. Solomon actually extends the concept of forgiveness to life itself, as in: “This is also true when the betrayer [of your trust] is not a person but life itself, when our hopes and expectations have been thwarted. … It means, through our actions and feelings as well as through our thoughts, forgiving the world” (p. 56). Come again? Even Solomon immediately realizes that this, as he himself puts it, smells of “implicit animism,” but that possibility doesn’t bother him because “even the most hard-headed materialists tend, in their personal dealings with the world, to be animists” (p. 56).
Oh no they don’t! First of all, I resent the “hard-headed” modifier to the term materialist, not so subtly suggesting that there is something wrong with materialism (in the sense of a naturalistic philosophy, not in that of Madonna’s “Material Girl”). Second, this is precisely what is questionable about attempting to co-opt a word like “spiritual” for purposes that most clearly are not reflected in its historical and cultural use. One ends up on a linguistic slippery slope that brings him perilously close to the sham, pretension and hypocrisy that Solomon decries at the beginning of the book.
Spiritual is in antithesis with material/natural, and it ought to be left that way; to talk about spirituality for the skeptic is simply not helpful. It plays straight into the hands of mystics and religionists who insist that there is something missing from a naturalistic worldview. There is nothing missing because there is nothing else to add. What we need instead is a new way to talk about how one can have an aesthetic and compassionate view of life, how one can be emotional in the positive sense of the word, and still understand the world through reason and empirical evidence. Indeed, an argument can be made that looking at the world the way it really is engenders true compassion and appreciation, freed of the distorting filters of mysticism and religion.
Still, we seem to need a new vocabulary to talk about the secular equivalent of spirituality, soul and the like. I think that there is a perfectly good sense in which, for instance, I am a “spiritual” person, or that listening to good music or reading a good book is good for my “soul,” and so on. But to use those terms is a cop out that I’d rather not engage in. Therefore, dear readers, what would you suggest we use as alternative words for terms like “spiritual” and “soul”? This is more than an academic exercise, you know. When my wife and I found ourselves through e-dating, we had both put “spiritual but not religious” on our profiles, and as a result had to wade through a pile of emails from new age fruitcakes before finding each other...