Later on, I was reading Eliezer Yudkowsky's blog entry on mysterious answers to mysterious questions and the one on Uncritical Supercriticality.
I'll make my position clear to everybody here: I don't believe in any particular religion. Christianity always feels a bit false to me and I don't know enough about Buddhism to figure out where I stand on it. And I think as religions go, those two are pretty much on opposite ends of the scale.
Mind you, I have no idea where Yudkowsky actually stands on the matter. That's not the issue. I'm quoting him because I'm currently reading what he wrote, his points make sense and I want to explain that what he says isn't necessarily what you might understand from what he's saying.
This is what I'll argue againt: traditional supernatural beliefs and the contemporary scientific disbelief in the supernatural. This is what I'll argue for: reason inserted in the supernatural.
Quoting Yudkowsky in the second of those articles:
The best distinction I've heard between "supernatural" and "naturalistic" worldviews is that a supernatural worldview asserts the existence of ontologically basic mental substances, like spirits, while a naturalistic worldview reduces mental phenomena to nonmental parts. (Can't find original source thanks, g!) Focusing on this as the source of the problem buys into religious exceptionalism. Supernaturalist claims are worth distinguishing, because they always turn out to be wrong for fairly fundamental reasons. But it's still just one kind of mistake.
The first of those articles focused on mysterious answers to questions about the world, about which he said:
These are the signs of mysterious answers to mysterious questions:
* First, the explanation acts as a curiosity-stopper rather than an anticipation-controller.
* Second, the hypothesis has no moving parts - the model is not a specific complex mechanism, but a blankly solid substance or force. The mysterious substance or mysterious force may be said to be here or there, to cause this or that; but the reason why the mysterious force behaves thus is wrapped in a blank unity.
* Third, those who proffer the explanation cherish their ignorance; they speak proudly of how the phenomenon defeats ordinary science or is unlike merely mundane phenomena.
* Fourth, even after the answer is given, the phenomenon is still a mystery and possesses the same quality of wonderful inexplicability that it had at the start.
Now, here's my thought on the matter: the supernatural is, indeed, generally associated with mysterious answers to mysterious questions. However, it doesn't have to be. In my opinion, the fault of religion is not in that it is not true, whatever religion it might be, but in that it fails to adapt. It fails to search for new answers when the old ones are proved wrong. Religions are intertwined with superstition and cultural beliefs from the past which may not be applicable today. Their fault is not that there is nothing out there. It's in that they fail to even think that they should figure out what it is.
In the West, science somehow managed to flourish. I once read a nice poem about physics, which started "In the Beginning, there was Aristotle, and objects at rest tended to remain at rest, and objects in motion tended to come to rest". I can't remember the, well, rest, but that says something crucial: science wasn't always right, either. The world, from the POV in the quote, tended to become immobile. Conservation of energy wasn't there. That science saw something, it tried to explain it and it sort of got it, but missed it, too. However, it continued trying to figure things out. And it's figuring out more and more by the second. Incidentally, it was also very wrong at many point in the past, but it kept going on. Scientists came and went and progress was made. You could say 'science is the wrong way of approaching the world, since it failed before and probably fails now', or you could say 'science developed and hopefully it's doing better now'.
As opposed to the West, things didn't go the same in, say, Japan, for example. They didn't care that much. Things just happened, and some were useful for stuff like building houses or stuff, but generally the laws of the universe weren't explored. Why bother, right? We can live without figuring out everything. Does this mean that science doesn't exist for the Japanese? No. It existed anyway, whether they cared about its existence or not. Keep this in mind, I'll come back to it.
What the West did in the exploration of the physical world, it entirely failed to do, nor did it consider doing, in the metaphysical world. It is not the fault of metaphysics that religion is Generally Wrong. It is the fault of religion for not budging from its ideas. We are dealing with what Yudkowsky called mysterious answers. Why? I think it's because in science if you prove that Newton wasn't Entirely Right, objects will keep acting in the same way they always did. Your perception of the world changes, but you're relatively safe. Unless you've spent your entire life writing about how Newton was right, you won't invent excuses against Newton's being proved wrong. Well. At least theoretically.
In religion, on the other hand, there was a lot of manipulation going on. Priests wanted power, everybody feared eternal punishment and craved bliss, other stuff like that. It's the equivalent of being told from childhood that if you don't pay respect the Law of Gravity properly, you will be orbited into space, but if you do, you can be eternally happy. Religion wasn't fair. It hogged metaphysics, combined it with superstition and manipulation, maybe consciously, maybe not. And then expect innovators? But from where, for God's sake?
We can of course ignore the metaphysical question, being concerned with science. If there is something out there, well, it hasn't been bothering us so far, so why not go on without it?
Here's why: because there might indeed be something. The possibility merits investigation just like science did. We could be in a world of science and entirely ignore the aspect, just like Japan was in a world of art (I'm saying 'art' in a very broad way here, including martial arts and tea ceremonies) as a Path, ignoring science, since it never bothered the Japanese people.
The fact that religions so far have been offering mysterious answers does not say much about the spiritual nature of the world, I think. It says a lot about our fears and hopes and mental schemes. And I'll quote Yudkowsky again, Reversed Stupidity is not Intelligence:
If a hundred inventors fail to build flying machines using metal and wood and canvas, it doesn't imply that what you really need is a flying machine of bone and flesh. If a thousand projects fail to build Artificial Intelligence using electricity-based computing, this doesn't mean that electricity is the source of the problem. Until you understand the problem, hopeful reversals are exceedingly unlikely to hit the solution.
Metaphysics isn't, essentially, about going to heaven or hell. Or morality. It's not about giving reasons for physical phenomena. It's about who we are and how we can evolve. About our purpose for existence. It's supposed to explain the spiritual world. Except it doesn't, mostly because we're too biased or too afraid to explore. So a lot of religions failed, via Mysterious Answers. Does this mean that spirituality is the problem? Wouldn't it be like saying that the problem with Aristotle's notion of objects coming to rest is that science is wrong in its existence?
I've come across Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality at a somewhat critical phase in my life. And it's what made me think that maybe the way to investigate stuff like the soul or God is to go about it scientifically. Drop all biases, all taboos, all fear and just go for it. Stop worrying whether there's something there or not and try to see if it is. Sure, the evidence is scarce so far and the methods are nigh inexistent, but it's worth a shot.
It pains me to see that Christianity = Wrong leads to God = Wrong, leads to Soul = Wrong, when this chain of thought is not at all evident. Christianity does not equal God, nor viceversa.
So yeah, God and religion are way more difficult topics, since everybody's so biased about them. Theists are very biased about God existing and see him everywhere, atheists do the same, but in reverse and the few agnostics I met didn't know and didn't really want to get into it, either. Also, metaphysics has the unfortunate side-effect that somebody has to put in the effort to experiment a lot with spirituality to get anywhere and you can't just have a bunch of students collecting data for you, at least not as far as we know by now.
I've seen/heard/experienced things that were objectively there, from sticking papers on walls as a kid, without glue or scotch or anything, to the dogs-barking-people-shivering sort of creepy experiences, in which I didn't tell anybody what I saw or went through so the people who shivered weren't biased by what I said, and as for dogs, it's hard to get them to bark in fright because of bias (I was convinced at the time that I was insane and didn't feel like being locked up, thankyouverymuch). As far as I'm concerned, that's proof enough to look into the matter.
Maybe there is something. Maybe there isn't. But right now, whether we say without clearer evidence that either one or the other of the two is correct, we are simply making a guess. To not prove something is not to disprove it. And so far all that has been disproved hasn't been the essence of what religion is supposed to be studying, but certain culturally-coded parts. You know. Flat earth. Lightning being thrown by God personally. But religion isn't a whole except by its own declaration that it is so.