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.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Podcast Teaser: On fluffy thinking

The next episode of Rationally Speaking, the podcast, will be on instances of “fluffy thinking.” I have written a bit about it recently in my entry on Krista Tippet and her new book, 'Einstein's God'. There I quoted not only Tippett herself, but eminent physicists Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson. Another example would be author Karen Armstrong, who recently published 'The Case for God'.

What I claim all these - and many others - have in common is a peculiar type of uncritical thinking, which I refer to as “fluffy.” This is distinct from downright irrational positions, like creationism, for instance, or fundamentalist religious beliefs, or the belief that vaccines cause autism, or that homeopathy can possibly work. In all of these cases one can point either to clear empirical evidence (vaccines do not cause autism, homeopathy does not work, the earth is much more than a few thousand years old), or to the sheer incoherence of the belief (if you read the Bible literally, which of the two distinct stories of creation do you believe?).

The problem with fluffy thinking is that it sounds much more sophisticated, and it is next to impossible to criticize frontally both because it barely has anything to do with empirical evidence, and because it is hard to articulate what, exactly, these people are saying. So, for instance, when Freeman Dyson - who is a really smart guy - says things like “Science is full of mysteries. Every time we discover something, we find two more questions to ask, and so that there’s no end of mysteries in science. That’s what it’s all about. And the same’s true of religion,” what are we supposed to do with that? Besides the trivial observation that the one-for-two ratio is entirely made up (sometimes science does settle questions, and that’s the end of the line), in what sense could this possibly be like religion?

Or when Paul Davies, another guy who ain’t exactly an intellectual lightweight, states “Augustine was onto this already in the fifth century because he was addressing the question that all small children like to ask, which is, What was God doing before he created the universe?,” can we ask Prof. Davies on what, exactly, was Augustine “on”? Certainly not on Einstein’s conception of time (which is the context of this quote), and more likely on nothing at all, since god is a human made construct, and therefore it is rather silly to ask what he was doing “before.”

Or consider Tippett herself: “From a religious perspective, there’s something intriguing, though, in how these ideas of physics might seem to echo spiritual notions that you can find in Eastern and Western religious thought.” No there isn’t. This reminds me of one of the most awful “documentaries” in the history of humankind, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” a mushy concoction - not unlike pretty much every episode of Tippett’s National Public Radio show, Speaking of Faith, where scientific notions are distorted and mixed up with barely intelligible mystical “insights” that are put forward as profound truths.

The question we will be tackling in the podcast is not only the obvious one of whether there is anything interesting in what these people are saying (there isn’t), but rather the much more difficult issue of why it is that smart individuals, who make their living thinking and writing about science and philosophy, are attracted by fluffy thinking. And moreover, why is it that this sort of thing appeals to so many listeners and readers on the grounds that it seems to strike a “balance” between obvious bunk and “cold” reason? Your opinion?


  1. I offer a suggestion (not to be confused with excuse, explanation, or rationalization): intellectual calisthenics, mere brain exercise, interesting for its own sake but not meant to be taken literally or seriously. Of course, if intellectual heavyweights take for granted that the masses will realize this without being told, they're guilty of not understanding their audience, which malady anyone of any intellectual stature may fall prey to.

  2. @Bill:
    Interesting thought, but I doubt that intellectual calisthenics is what Krista Tippet (and the others MP mentioned) would say they're doing.

    And even if this is how they conceive of their fluffy claims, they're not doing a very good job of exercising their intellects. In order to get the exercise, they'd have to go on to either (1) explain precisely what they mean, or (2) admit that their utterances don't actually mean anything.

  3. I've never heard Tippett's radio show, and I would not have noticed her book sitting on a store shelf recently were it not for your mentioning her. Yet I am intimately familiar with the kind of "fluffy thinking" you describe.

    Perhaps that's because I reside in the liberal Northeast, and because my aesthetic tastes and/or political views commonly overlap with others living in the region, whose religious or metaphysical assumptions are very different than my own.

    In any case, your question brings Hume to mind (again):

    "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them."

    Of course, some passions or interests are more particular (as opposed to universal) than others, and whatever their particular interests might be (e.g. coherence with their family/community traditions, and/or a childish desire to read agency into everything), Tippett & co. seem motivated by a desire to make peace with a modern-scientific understanding of the world; i.e. to reconcile their particular interests with more universal ones.

    In that regard, I would agree that they fail miserably - and, where reason fails, gobbledygook is the probably the next best alternative.

  4. I may be in the minority when I say this, but I'm pretty sure that most of the things we eventually learn to justify with "cold reason" begin as fluffy thinking -- as intuition, hunch, speculation and vague association -- as fuzzy pattern-matching that becomes more precise over time, until a hard line of reasoning emerges. So fluffy thinking might often be a dead end, but it isn't always.

    While I'm not particularly fond of the specific examples you cite here, Massimo, I think it's a mistake to discount all fluffy thinking. And for that reason, I think it's a mistake to critique Tippett, Davies and Dyson's assertions simply on the basis that they are "fluffy." I think we need a more precise critique than that.

    But perhaps I'm conflating "fuzzy" and "fluffy" here -- perhaps the two are different in a way I'm not recognizing.

  5. Massimo, your use of Davies as an example of a fuzzy thinker is the irony of ironies.
    Viewing Davies' alleged statement in the larger context of his other writings, it should be clear that he's not comparing Augustine to Einstein, and even clearer that he "knows," as even such as Augustine and little children do, that there should, if not would or could, have been a big banger around before the big bang.
    Even if there most probably wasn't.

  6. @Scott:

    I don't think that what you're describing would satisfy Massimo's definition of fluffy thinking. You seem to be describing intuition--which is not necessarily irrational, and which often leads to defensible conclusions. (Though note that they cannot be defended on the basis that they were originally intuitions.)

    I think Massimo is talking about specific claims that are so vague (hence 'fluffy') that they are simply empty of meaningful content.

  7. To me, it seems like they are trying to reconcile pre-20th century beliefs with modern science. I think God and religion still made sense with a determinstic Newtonian universe but now physics is just straight-out weird and strange. Clearly the people who developed the world's major religions hundreds of years ago had no way to predict special relativity and quantum mechanics and now they are trying to catch up. When they do, the arguments become hokey and nonsensical.

    I could be wrong, but it's the feeling I get.

  8. I think the main answer as to why such people use "fluffy" language and vacuous arguments is that they are trying to rationalize an irrational belief (a faith). It's important to recognize that they perceive their faith as rational though (as psychologist Bruce Hood has emphasized). They have accepted the conclusion that god(s)/spirits/souls exist, and then they are trying to find some evidence or a compelling argument to support that belief. Garbage in, garbage out. We've all done it a one time or another. What's needed is for them to take out the garbage that was deposited in their brain by their parents and other authority figures in their youth, or by quacks, gurus, their own self-deception later on.

    There's some greed involved too. They want to have their emotionally satisfying religion cake and eat science too.

    There's also a lot of peer pressure to believe in supernatural explanations in the various human cultures, so it's not surprising that so many otherwise intelligent people get deceived.

  9. Artie,

    I'm sorry but I'm getting a little tired of people pulling the "that's not what he meant, you need to look at the broader context" excuse. No, I don't have to dig up everything Davies wrote to evaluate his statements. The quote is straight from the transcript of a radio show, which I read in its entirety, and it's hard to see what else he might have meant. If he didn't mean it, than he needs to work on his English or communication skills.

  10. It's not hard to "see what else he might have meant" if you DO look at what he's written or said in the past, and the only "excuse" involved would be in your reason to not consider his writing while at the same time openly considering his reputation which came from those writings.
    You used fluffy thinking to present an example of the fluffy thinking you found objectionable. Ironic, but in the end effective.

  11. Massimo just hasn't opened his mind to the possibility that everything we know is a construct, a spiritual digression into a newer and newer other. He insists on viewing science linearly, rather than systematically; he is closed to the perseverance of transcendence as a universal theme of exploration. It is within this context that religion - the search for a higher, more enlightened faith - can be synchronized with the more austere realities of scientific totality.

  12. This is really quite simple. Massimo just doesn't possess the spiritual gifts -- the oceanic feeling -- that would allow him to see the world the way some "fluffy" thinkers do.

    It's unfortunate he -- and so many others -- dismiss what they can't relate to with pejorative terms.

    I can't distinguish subtle flavors of wine that some can taste and I can't hear music the way someone with perfect pitch can. These are talents I don't possess.

    In the same way mystical insight, the ability to experience God, is something you either have or you don't have. This doesn't have to do with intelligence. Many of the world's greatest physicists had a mystical bent and many "fluffy ideas."

    To someone who can experience the mystical, Davies, Armstrong or Dyson are perfectly rational.

    Even if this mystical ability is just in the mind, it doesn't follow that those who experience it are being irrational. It's not irrational to wear sunglasses in dim light if your eyes are hypersensitive. And it's not irrational to believe in God if you experience God.

  13. I've read your previous entry on Tippett, and I agree with you. I was listening to the show in which a theoretical physicist was promoting her book, speaking of such things as truth and time and so on. I heard a lot of her
    'uncritical thinking', and though I too think that nothing interesting or important is being said (much less original theories, as I felt it was being promoted), there might be a simple explanation for it.

    These kinds of shows are made for the general public, and the public's ideas of what is interesting, or even what is philosophy, are quite different from what would actually arise out of critical thinking. Some examples I heard on the last show were things like: "We're always getting closer to the truth though we can't always prove it," "There are some truths that can never be proven!" and "But what really arrests Moritz is this question: Does Olga exist?...all Moritz concedes is that he can feel what he has learned to describe as pressure on what he believes to be his hand."

    This is terrible stuff, but their audience isn't questioning it, they believe these are sensational things being said, and so thus they are said. Such an audience doesn't want to hear asides and terminology, but something they can think about for about five minutes. This is what happens when philosophy is tailored for a general audience—I'm going to say just about always.

  14. It would seem my immediate response has been lost or perhaps moderated away, but I didn't save a copy so won't try to repeat it. In any case don't you think it a bit odd to interpret what a man said as outrageous for a perso of his reputation without at least considering what he's already written on the subject that earned him that very reputation?

  15. Massimo, do you consider dualism/nonphysicalism a form of fluffy thinking?

  16. Fundamentally I think scientists get talking about this stuff because (1) it's easy, way easier than making a name doing actual science, and (2) you get lots of praise for it (from the sort of person who thinks science is not "human" enough).

    I also wonder if an ignorance of philosophy causes them to be open to whatever weird connections between science and religion the faithful can make them see.

    The good news is, their musings are always far too banal to be memorable.

  17. Artie,

    it takes some time for comments to be posted, I have to moderate the site because of recurring death threats.

    Anyway, if I write a column, or am interviewed by someone, I do *not* expect my readers or listeners to dig up everything else I've written in order to understand my position. I'm sorry, but that's unreasonable.


    yes, I think dualism is fluffy too, though in a different sense. You may want to search my entry on Chalmers and zombies in the blog.


    I have no idea what a spiritual gift is, so I don't miss it. By oceanic feeling, do you mean that you feel like an ocean?


    to say that everything is a construct is useless postmodernist nonsense. It is true only in a trivial and entirely unhelpful sense.

  18. "Sam,

    I have no idea what a spiritual gift is, so I don't miss it. By oceanic feeling, do you mean that you feel like an ocean?"

    The "oceanic feeling" was an allusion to Freud's use of the term in "Future of an Illusion," where he used it to describe the feeling of oneness and connectedness often described by mystics. (He also didn't have it or miss it.)

    I don't think it feels like an ocean, but not having been an ocean, I can't say for sure.

    And I completely understand why you wouldn't miss it or feel you need it.

    My point is that for those who don't have it, talk of God does indeed seem "fluffy." But to those who do have it, that fluffiness is just an attempt to use language to describe something that is beyond language.

  19. Massimo, I think Ritchie's comment must've been satire. C'mon, Ritchie, own up!

    Ritchie, if you weren't making a Sokol-like joke: wow...just...wow.

  20. Sam wrote: "And it's not irrational to believe in God if you experience God."
    and " But to those who do have it, that fluffiness is just an attempt to use language to describe something that is beyond language."

    I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes: "If you can keep your head while all those about you are losing theirs, then perhaps you have misunderstood the situation." - - D.K.Moran

    In this case, what exactly does it mean to "experience God"? Perhaps those people have misunderstood the situation. They attribute to God that which is just brain chemistry. The fact that they don't understand organic chemistry and human physiology doesn't make their experience "beyond language" nor does it make it rational.
    And I liked MP's examples. It's not just that the talk is religious or supernatural but that, when carefully parsed, it doesn't even make sense.

  21. I like Dan Dennett's word "deepity" - "a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless."

    Why are smart people attracted to 'fluffy' thinking? Because is is easier than being clear or substantive, and gets a good reaction from audiences who find it difficult to be clear and substantive.

    There may be a bit of a natural selection bias in favour of 'deepities' too. Bad ideas stated clearly are easy targets. Bad ideas camouflaged in fluffiness are harder to spot.

  22. Massimo,

    I was responding via parody.

  23. Ritchie,

    must have been a really bad morning if I didn't get your parody. Blame it on a sleepless night.

  24. Massimo,

    Let me explain what Sam is talking about:

    You're watching the PBS documentary on extrasolar planets. Fifteen minutes in, a beautiful computer-generated pan of an imagined planetary system is shown. Suddenly, absorbing new ideas and images, you feel this immense sense of place within the cosmos. It goes down to your heart, down to your bones. It can be intellectualized, but the feeling itself is a feeling, borne of but not identical to the ideas and images you are consuming. It's as though suddenly, you are melded with the whole of reality - as though, in a click, you are not separate from anything. That milky feeling lasts for minutes. It's hard not to believe that there is nothing special about the experience; surely, you think, this experience must indicate a sort of enlightenment, a personal connection with some higher, previously unreceived reality.

    Those of us with some sense of honesty describe our deepest experiences in terms such as the above. Those of us without one start talking about "God" and insist that such experiences indicate that a being must govern the universe.

  25. Note: "It's hard not to believe that there is nothing special about the experience" was an accidental double negative.

  26. Thos. Cochrane,

    "You seem to be describing intuition--which is not necessarily irrational, and which often leads to defensible conclusions.... I think Massimo is talking about specific claims that are so vague (hence 'fluffy') that they are simply empty of meaningful content."

    Ok. But how do we tell the difference?

  27. This is not easy, at times I take the accusations of fluff (yeah why not) hurled at me at work, at home and on Facebook seriously, because I think I engage in this behavior as a defense mechanism, and it is a simple one, I will always be smarter than you if you don't know what the fluff I am talking about. The fear on both sides of the communication is that I don't know what I'm talking about either, and there I'm afraid the conversation could be useful if it turns to turn to what I'm feeling, not thinking or saying. Still convinced that given enough time, and talking things through, difficult concepts can be explained in decidedly dry and starchy terms. Communication - not for wimps.

  28. A good kind of fluffy thinking: Love. I mean, REAL LOVE. Ignores so called "facts" about people, loves em anyway. Mom's especially have this...um..if you wanna call it, deficit.

    Ask me. I mean, I have THE best looking, nicest, thoughtful, hardworking, most deserving, intelligent kids anywhere. Seriously tho. And as far as I can tell, its absolutely true. :) Good fluffy.

    LIKE SO WHAT if our son thinks shampoo is actually bad for him? Hmmm? He has no less than 5000 good qualities that overtake that weird one.

    heh heh

    Fluffiness certainly can cause exaggeration too.


  29. Echoing some comments above, I think this fluffy thinking that is so common specially among highly intelligent people, often of a liberal bent, must be an unconscious defense mechanism.

    Or, how could the conscious individual accept the irrational parts of their intellect when they know very well that those parts are indefensible given all they know about philosophy and/or the scientific method and/or critical thinking in general, etc.? Cognitive dissonance, isn't that the name? So they have to rationalize -- again, I believe this is all unconscious and they honestly believe what they are saying, it's not a purposeful con or anything. But it does restore harmony between the irreconcilable parts of their personalities and allows them to go on living sanely.

    The regular person who couldn't recognize a logical fallacy if it bit them in the elbow does not have this problem such intellectuals have. Cognitive dissonance never arises to begin with, so they just accept the silly ideas wholesale without need to sugarcoat them.

    Bonus beneficial side effects include becoming famous (look! a scientist/ philosopher who backs our silly ideas!), selling lots of books, receiving Templeton prizes, stuff like that.

  30. By the way, death threats!? Man, that sucks... Aren't those religious folks nice? What the hell?

    (cue Cal saying they are not REAL religious people anyway) :-)

  31. Sounds like the latest news from Lake Wobegon

  32. @Scott: Ok. But how do we tell the difference?

    Sorry, I could've been clearer. I didn't mean to imply that intuitions and fuzzy thinking are mutually exclusive. My point was that Massimo isn't objecting to intuition--which, perhaps you'd agree, is just the beginnings of a thought which could turn out defensible or not. Intuitions can turn out to reflect something fuzzy (one reason why they can't be trusted), but they could also turn out to reflect something crisp and defensible.

    Fuzzy intuition: Bob sometimes feels 'connected' to the universe, and feels like there must be something more.

    Crisp intuition: After working with right triangles for a while, Bob feels like the square of the hypotenuse ought to be the sum of the squares of the other sides. (He can't prove it, though, which is why it remains an intuition.)

  33. Massimo,

    Let me explain what Richie the Bear was talking about above.

    You're watching a PBS documentary and you are overwhelmed with a sense of awe at the beauty and size of the universe. Then you remind yourself that you believe the universe is just a mindless machine and life is just a random accident, so you tell yourself that this feeling you have is just brain chemistry and that this must be what all those "dishonest" God folks must be speaking about when they talk about oneness with the universe.

    We all describe our experiences according to our own beliefs. Rationalists are no different. Their faith tells them there is no higher intelligence and empirical evidence is the only arbiter of truth. Therefore, all experience is interpreted accordingly.

    If you hold those beliefs then of course all talk of mystical insights are going to be written off as nonsense or "mushy concoctions."

    I would argue that "fluffy" thinking about the ultimate nature of reality is a far more "honest" approach than the predictable reductionism that comes from members of ROMU (Religion of the Mindless Universe. I guess, making believers Romulans)

  34. Sam said: My point is that for those who don't have it, talk of God does indeed seem "fluffy." But to those who do have it, that fluffiness is just an attempt to use language to describe something that is beyond language.

    I've come across this argument a number of times over the years, usually by those claiming to have experienced enlightenment of some kind - whether they interpret it in theistic, atheistic, or agnostic terms.

    We are probably all well aware that language has limits. For example, consider the "I guess you had to be there" refrain, or the challenge of coherently describing a sight to a blind person, a sound to a deaf person, or perhaps an LSD trip or a marijuana high to someone who has never indulged in those chemicals. Since our senses do not speak to us in words, there is bound to be something lost in translation - even to those who are highly articulate and among those with a common base of experience.

    That said, I believe there is a class of experience, which I like to call "extraordinary", although others might call it something else (e.g. "mystical", "spiritual", and so on). These are experiences that are even more difficult to put into words than usual, and how one interprets them (e.g. the symbols, imagery, metaphors, analogies, etc.) probably depends largely on the individual's prior cultural and philosophical orientation.

    Of course, I may say that only because no experience of my own has ever been so extraordinary as to "convert" me; i.e. lead me to believe any particular religious or philosophical doctrine. Or, perhaps I have, and my skeptical nature simply prevents me from drawing any wild metaphysical conclusions from it. Since I have no way of knowing which it is, I tend to stick to my agnostic guns on these matters.

    But, even if some others truly are having more extraordinary experiences than I am, it's not clear to me what they mean, or whether I should care pay them any mind - especially judging from the embarrassingly inarticulate descriptions that Massimo calls "fluffy."

  35. JCM wrote: "... it's not clear to me what they mean, or whether I should care pay them any mind - "

    I'd say it's worth caring about because it's the most extraordinary insight you can ever have. Think of the pleasure you get when you solve a puzzle or figure out how to do something. Now, multiply that by ten thousand. Imagine the feeling of figuring it all out, what it all means, why we are here, etc. That's what a peak experience feels like.

    Unfortunately though, you only have it "all figured out" while in that state. Once it's over, you have memories of it, but it's not the same thing.

    And it's definitely not the same thing as drug induced mania. (Trust me, I know both)

    I agree we all interpret it according to our philosophical orientation. And of course it's possible it's just brain chemistry.

    But I find it unlikely that someone can remain a committed atheist after such an experience. To start, you can't help but have a certain degree of empathy for those who use religious metaphors to try and explain the unexplainable.

    It certainly doesn't mean you will buy into organized religion (I didn't) but you may find yourself using fluffy ideas to try and explain things.

  36. Sam said:

    But I find it unlikely that someone can remain a committed atheist after such an experience.

    It sounds like you had a different, extraordinary experience than I had. (I've had more than one, as might have you, but I'm thinking of my most recent one, which occurred a couple of years ago and has yet to recur.)

    After all, my experience did not inspire theism in me. On the, contrary, if anything, it reaffirmed my atheistic view; i.e. made it feel more real (although, again, I plead agnosticism with respect to the metaphysical implications, if there are any). So it must have been a truly different experience, right?

    I suspect so. But we'll never know for sure, will we? It might just be that you're more receptive to theistic interpretation than I, or more prone to use theistic language to describe it.

  37. Massimo and Julia, I’m glad to have discovered your podcast! I like the conversation format and it’s always refreshing to hear a woman’s voice in what remains a male-dominated field.

    Massimo, we’re thrilled that you’re coming to Chicago next month but I drew the short straw and my husband gets to attend the CFI conference while I mind the kids. You should arrange to record your remarks and then podcast them.

    If it’s my turn to be “up” with the kids on Saturday mornings, I encounter Ms. Tippet in the shower before the aid of coffee. I like (and like making fun of) her breathy voice. I believe you got her pegged—mystery-mongering and taking pleasure in the fact that “science can’t explain everything.”

    For me, one exception to her otherwise cringe-worthy guests and topic is when she talks about mindfulness (http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/opening-to-our-lives/kristasjournal.shtml) and/or Buddhism (http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/thichnhathanh/) I am struck by the insights into human psychology that Buddhism achieved and the apparently efficacious methodology for improving one’s mental health that it advances. Buddhism has plenty of supernatural dross; I don’t know whether it was there “from the beginning” or accumulated it over time. However, unlike many faith traditions, it doesn’t seem to need the supernatural.

  38. @svetbek: Buddhism w/o supernatural would not be Bdsm. The idea of afterlife, karma (etc.) were there from the very beginning, borrowed from Hinduism. Sure, you can practice meditation without believing in anything supernatural, but that's simply generic meditation (Vedic, etc.).

    @Massimo, I'm sympathetic to your position. But I'm also sympathetic to those who claim to have experienced something more compelling, real, and internally tangible than objective rationality. Deride it if you must, but for most people IT is real. Fact is, the majority of the smartest, best educated people on the planet maintain some form of spirituality.


    You recently blogged on "overcoming bias." Have you applied your six simple rules to your bias against the phenomenon of spirituality? Can you "visualize yourself being wrong?"

  39. @John L:
    1. By all means, be sympathetic. This doesn't mean you have to give any credence to their attestations.

    2. What does it mean to say "for most people IT is real"? Either something is 'real' or it is not. If you mean they 'really' have an experience that they interpret such-and-such a way--then no one is disputing this. If you mean that their experience actually constitutes evidence of 'something more compelling, real, and internally tangible' (whatever that means), then you're not thinking clearly. In fact, "something more compelling, real, and internally tangible" is a nice example of just the sort of fuzzy claim that Massimo was complaining about.

    3. The fact that a large number of people (no matter how smart) hold a position is hardly proof that the position is the right one.

    4. You're misunderstanding the utility of Massimo's rules for overcoming bias. Visualizing oneself being wrong does not mean accepting the conclusion that one is wrong.

  40. Thos.Cochrane wrote:

    "4. You're misunderstanding the utility of Massimo's rules for overcoming bias. Visualizing oneself being wrong does not mean accepting the conclusion that one is wrong."

    No, it doesn't mean accepting the conclusion, but it does mean you have some humility. It's hard to imagine someone who truly visualizing himself as wrong and visualizes the other side as right would then go an call the other side's thinking "fluff." John makes an excellent point.

    " ...If you mean that their experience actually constitutes evidence of 'something more compelling, real, and internally tangible' (whatever that means), then you're not thinking clearly. In fact, "something more compelling, real, and internally tangible" is a nice example of just the sort of fuzzy claim that Massimo was complaining about."

    Your claim is based on an assumption that everything real must have objective evidence. But why should that be so? Maybe there are "real" things in this world that can have no objective evidence, that can only be experienced subjectively.

    If you accept on faith that all real things must have objective evidence, then because of your faith you will see thinking that doesn't accept that premise as fuzzy.

    However, if you don't have such faith, then the fluff is just the inevitable result of using concrete language to describe something abstract.

  41. @Thos.
    If "real" must be measurable by a method of hard science, then I concede your position. Life-altering realities often called "spiritual" are at best "studied" by the soft sciences (Jungian psychology, etc.). But there's the issue. For the vast majority of people, such life-altering realities / experiences are profoundly more important than measurements of hard science. Rather than dismissing "those people" with a wave of its hand, I suggest that hard science would be better served by learning how to interact constructively with its majority siblings.

    Physicist and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in recently on the war between science and spirituality. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.”

    He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality... either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.”

    Good thoughts on humility. Thanks.

  42. John L:

    I agree that more humility is desirable in these discussions.

    However, as someone who admits of what I call "extraordinary" (and others might call "spiritual") experience, I would hardly find it humble of me to claim that my experience has in some way "enlightened" me, in the sense of my having been privileged to some metaphysical truth. At most, I would say that it affirmed something to me about human nature — or at least about my nature — viz. that the range of subjective experience is wider than I often take for granted.

    But, to put it another way, I believe that philosophers (like Massimo) have legitimate grounds to express doubt about the epistemic value of experiences like mine, which, when related to others, often come across as incoherent, inconsistent, or just plain "fluffy."

    What's more, there is a lot of evidence from the social sciences to suggest that we humans are actually quite error-prone when it comes to making judgments about both the outside world and ourselves. Indeed, this is a primary basis for science in the first place; i.e. as a methodology for insuring against error, using multiple observers (or peer reviewers), technologies, and rigorous, repeatable procedures.

    As I expressed to Sam above, I am not at all confident that the extraordinary experiences that he and I allude to were anything alike. While we (including philosophers) could say the same about even ordinary, sensual experiences, we seem to run into even greater problems with this category of experience, which is why I call it "extraordinary" (as in extraordinarily difficult to relate to others).

    But if we assume that he and I even once shared a similar extraordinary experience, then it seems evident that he drew a very different interpretation from his (viz. a theistic one) than I did from mine (viz. an agnostic one). In other words, neither of us really "learned" anything about the nature of reality. Instead, we each simply integrated the experience into our pre-existing mental framework and moved on.

  43. JCM:

    I think claiming I have "been privileged to some metaphysical truth" can be humble as long as I also acknowledge that I may be wrong. I do acknowledge that and mean it when I say so.

    As long as we can all acknowledge we might be wrong, we can find common ground. It seems to me it's only those with extreme views (either on the believing or disbelieving views) who can't make room for the possibility of being in error.

  44. Sam, I'm glad that we agree to admit our fallibility.

    But then I also recall your saying that you "find it unlikely that someone can remain a committed atheist after such an experience" as you report to have had.

    How can we possibly test that hypothesis? For example, what essential characteristics would I look for? and, if I recognized them, what makes you so confident that I would interpret them in theistic (or even metaphysical) terms, as you did?

    After all, if we confine ourselves to theism (as opposed to other metaphysical doctrines), I have many reasons for remaining a skeptic, and no personal experience of mine so far (extraordinary or otherwise) has done anything but affirm that position.

    So, when someone suggests to me that I simply lack the One Great Experience that would trump everything else (which is how I interpret your quote above), I must admit that modesty or humility are not the first words that come to mind.

  45. @Sam said: "As long as we can all acknowledge we might be wrong, we can find common ground. It seems to me it's only those with extreme views (either on the believing or disbelieving views) who can't make room for the possibility of being in error."

    Yes. Milbank calls this the meta-discourse: not "what" we hold true, but "how" we hold on to it (similar to Massimo's Six Simple Ideas). On a positive note, I know very few people on either side of this conversation who take extreme, unbending positions. Unfortunately, that tiny minority seems to get all the attention.

  46. JCM,

    When I wrote I "find it unlikely that someone can remain a committed atheist after such an experience" I don't think I was using the term atheist the way you are.

    I was using it to describe someone who believes with certainty that there is no God or higher intelligence.

    When I think of someone who acknowledges they don't know or can't know I refer to them as agnostic.

    It seems you are using atheist and agnostic interchangeably, something a lot of atheists seem to do.

    I don't want to get into that argument right here, but let me try to reword it so you understand what I meant.

    "After such an experience, I find it highly unlikely that someone would remain certain there is no higher intelligence -- at the very least they would become a little agnostic."

    In other words, I feel it would shake someones certainty, not that it would cause them to believe in any one thing.

  47. Sam, that is indeed a more modest way of wording your claim.

    I respect your wish to avoid a boring semantics debate, re: the definition of atheism vs. agnosticism. But allow me to point out that I've used "agnostic" several times in this thread with a broad intention, applying it not only to the God hypothesis, but to metaphysical doctrines, in general.

    Putting it back into context, were I not so skeptical of human capacity to learn "higher truths" (either accidentally or while practicing deliberate, meditative techniques), I might have been tempted to put my own extraordinary experience to use in the service of naturalism (i.e. a doctrine that lacks a "higher intelligence" feature, and which is also in harmony with my ordinary experience). It wouldn't have been a precise parallel to your claim. Rather, it would have been something more along the lines of: I looked into the Void, and discovered that it was meaningless in a deeper way than I had ever sensed before (which may sound darker than it was, although it had the overall effect of increasing my appreciation of mundane phenomena).

    But I think that I'm more than a little agnostic in these matters. In fact, I believe that I'm truly clueless. And, lest I sound too modest, I suspect that most (if not all) people are as clueless as I am (whether they believe they are or not).


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