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, February 29, 2012

Podcast: on spirituality

Is "rational spirituality" a contradiction? In this episode, Massimo and Julia try to pin down what people mean when they call themselves "spiritual," what inspires spiritual experiences and attitudes, and whether spirituality can be compatible with a naturalist view of the world.

Are there benefits that skeptics and other secular people could possibly get from incorporating some variants on traditional spiritual practices -- like prayer, ritual, song, communal worship, and so on -- into their own lives?

Massimo and Julia examine a variety of attempts to do so, and ask: how well have such attempts worked, and do they come with any potential pitfalls for our rationality?


  1. It was a fun podcast (as usual). But Massimo's last statement, as Julia rightfully pointed out, was a real tease -- I hope it is the subject of the next podcast!

  2. Any discussion of Hegel by any chance?

  3. Kevin,

    no, we didn't touch on Hegel. What were you thinking, exactly?

    1. Spirit is a very important concept in Hegel's philosophy of history (and his philosophy in general) and Spirit is rational. So, a Hegelian could fall into the category of a rational spiritualist, if that category is wide enough.

  4. Re: "Any discussion of Hegel by any chance?"

    My god! I hope not! :P

  5. Part of me agrees with Julia's resistance to using the term 'Spirituality.' The term is so often used in association with woo-ish views that using it feels to me a bit like buying a computer that comes preloaded with a whole bunch of unwanted programs. But another part of me likes the idea of providing a context of use for the term that is free of supernaturalist trappings. Is there a ghost of a chance that the term can undergo rehabilitation, or should we let the sun go down on it and choose other terminology?

  6. Very nice survey. I was hesitant about listening to this one because I felt there would be a full frontal assault on spirituality or at least aspects of it that skeptics find repellant, but that didn’t happen. One of them is of course the idea of a person having two-way communication with a non-human supernatural entity. While you may still hold brain malfunction to be the primary driver behind a person’s experiences, I sensed less dismissiveness in this podcast vs earlier ones. Maybe proprioception failure opening up other doorways in the brain is similar to the higher mileage that a blind person often gets out of the undamaged senses.

    I would comment that the discussion about ‘spirits’ wholly within the head or without simply begs the question of physical space as reality or something that is sensed. In other words, it might not be very useful to worry about the geographic source of the spirits. Much more interesting to try to understand the hallucinations that do not map to anything previously experienced in everyday life.

    More generally, a discussion about spirituality or any other way you choose to cast the mysterious unknown could easily be flipped into a discussion about objective reality. So if we were to agree that the spiritual experience is simply a substitution of one set of stuff that informs our consciousness for another set – then is the area of disagreement the relative validity of one set over another?

    It leads us back to the allegory of the cave, or my favorite – 5 people sitting around a table at a diner discussing the table’s existence. In today’s version, not one but two people have supposedly taken leave of their senses and are firm in their belief that they are sitting around a large cardboard box. All 5 of them have the same internal pictures of cartons and tables. Because every scientific experiment performed (with scissors and large heavy objects) by the 3 to prove its a table gets invalidated by the 2′s inability to square their perceptions with others’ evidence, and because the two can talk to each other and validate their common belief, one is hard-pressed in that small community to prove the cartons unreal.

    I have been flailing with both the writings of the very spiritual David Bohm and his belief in an objective reality, even though the reality he conjures is probably more fantastical and unknowable than common and widely held beliefs in the nature of things. But we do agree that stuff we imagine is fundamentally no different than the stuff that constitutes the above table or carton. I’m not sure he comes right out and says it, but it seems that following his reasoning you could make a case for all knowledge of the universe being contained in every last part of it. Imagine that, getting to visit the Grand Canyon by staring at lint the right way. Einstein thought of Bohm as a worthy successor, although I suspect this was mostly because Einstein needed another causally oriented ‘realist’ in his camp. But to many hard-nosed skeptic Shermer-variety rationalists, Bohm’s ideas represent woo.

    Back so the podcast, what was so good about it was the positive tone. Maybe religious people dislike the thought of their rituals being co-opted with a new ‘museum of the soul’ down the block. Tough. Dialing down discomfort with spirituality into discomfort with language so as to turn your ‘sacred’ into my ‘cool’ – that’s the way to go

  7. This might be relevant to your interests:

    In 1979 Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill, which sparked a growing interest and application of mindfulness ideas and practices in the medical world for the treatment of a variety of conditions in people both healthy and unhealthy.

    Much of this was inspired by teachings from the East, and particularly from the Buddhist traditions, where mindfulness is the 7th step of the Noble Eightfold Path taught by Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, who founded Buddhism almost 2,500 years ago. Although originally articulated as a part of what we know in the West as Buddhism, there is nothing inherently religious about mindfulness, and it is often taught independent of religious or cultural connotation.

  8. A "spiritual" source that I find interesting is the old works of Eckhart Tolle.

    The fact that he has been promoted by Oprah does not help my case, but what I have read or heard from him is almost entirely consistent with my rational worldview.

    Check out, for example, this excerpt from an interview, where he challenging the mere idea of a "spiritual path":
    The world promises fulfillment somewhere in time, and there is a continuous striving toward that fulfillment in time. Many times people feel, "Yes, now I have arrived," and then they realize that, no, they haven't arrived, and then the striving continues. It is expressed beautifully in A Course in Miracles, where it says that the dictum of the ego is "Seek but do not find." People look to the future for salvation, but the future never arrives.

    And here he challenges the idea that you need certain [religious] experiences in order to be "fulfilled":
    Trying to achieve a particular state - that's a fallacy of the mind. Whatever state is there is good enough. It's enough to accept what's there, internally, externally. Nothing else is required but to accept what's here, now.

    The mind is still active, so what? Let it be active. That's what is, that's ok.
    Whatever you accept, you go beyond. That's a miracle.
    If you fight it, you're stuck with it.

    Most meditators are attempting to achieve a particular state, not being happy with the state they are in because it's not the "perfect state".

    Are you not willing to accept the Now? That's good enough a state, just being at ease with what "is".

  9. @Anon - checked out Tolle a couple of years ago - interesting ideas. I always try to see the charlatan in someone before I take them in, and liked that he was one of those obvious ones. I mean - everyone is a charlatan.

    Toyed with some of the Eastern stuff for a while, but coming from a mystical background both personally and I think about 5-6 generations back, have a serious problem with naming - that is even Zen Buddhism applies language to its concepts. ( That's why I'm not a Mystic, either. :) )

    Call something unknowable all you want, but you apply a name to something and it takes on characteristics of its own, and much like anything else said to be alive, the thing has a need for survival. This need for the named object's survival is at cross-purposes with thing's utility.

    So like lots of the philosophy on this site where people try to better themselves by bettering the lives of others, I see the organized religions or even's Bohm's "Way of Dialogue" the same way. Its probably pretty useful, but also a crock, because all good done in the world can be thought of as a business deal where I scratch your back and will have the expectation of my back being scratched. Anonymous charity? Same thing, only the other person's back is not a human one.

    Yes I accept the Now, replete with goodies and ideas and hopes and memories and with smiles on others' faces, some well-intentioned and some not so well intentioned, but in every case a set of teeth being bared.


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