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Today in my class on the History of Emotions, if it is indeed called that (I keep forgetting the titles of classes), a colleague of mine said that science proved that there was no soul, it was all just biology and chemistry and stuff.

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.
A few thoughts and ideas. Also a tiny part of my NaNo novel. Not in wording, but in spirit. Sort of.
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:iconfriendswithtrash:
friendswithtrash Featured By Owner Jun 20, 2013
It's sort of like herbal remedies, which proved themselves efficacious over humdreds of years, and scientists dismissing them, because they decided that it was all based off of superstitions. Now, we know that honey has proteins that help with the healing of burns and cuts, and that soaking in water (any water, not *just* the magical healing springs of Aquia Sulis) is good for the circulation and homeostasis.
No one wants to look too closely at it, because both sides have too many pre-conceived notions.
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:iconelyandarin:
Elyandarin Featured By Owner Feb 10, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Found this browsing the HPMoR group.

Yeah, I know how you feel. Every time I overhear people discussing that this or that house is haunted, or how some glazier nearby has a gift for healing "...which was very handy one day when I forgot my painkillers at home, but take it from me and don't try to drive a car directly afterwards..." I get sort of antsy: "It can't all be delusion and placebo effects, can it? It's so wide-spread! What if there are entire branches of science going undiscovered simply because all the properly scientific minds went on to computers and physics and stuff and no competent person is researching it?"
(And then I have to restrain myself from calling up and interrogating every glazier in the phone-book, since that is the only actual repeatable phenomenon I've heard of.)
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:iconli-nk:
Li-nk Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2013
You simply have misunderstood what atheism is. Atheism does not necessitate an active disbelief in a deity. Even the most stubborn of atheists like Dawkins will not claim that they know for sure there is no god.

We merely consider belief in a god on the same level you consider belief in a fairy living at the bottom of the garden. It's rather childish, and generally harmless, unless someone uses that claim to influence other peoples lives.
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:icontheothersarshi:
TheOtherSarshi Featured By Owner Feb 1, 2013
I didn't say it necessitates that. What I meant when I said that atheists are doing the reverse of seeing God everywhere was that they will dismiss things by using any explanation but the theological, even if sometimes their explanations are shaky and don't hold up.

Which doesn't mean that there is necessarily a supernatural cause to a mysterious event. To draw a comparison with UFO sightings, because they're the easiest example that springs to mind now, sometimes a light in the night is not an artificial satellite because it doesn't act like one - and the fact that you're using it in opposition to the UFO theory of somebody near you doesn't make it more true. (it can just be a flashlight not so far away, or a weather balloon or whatever)

I hate it when people say "self-suggestion" to some things which clearly aren't, just because the other person's theory says "shamanic experience".
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:iconen-cu-kou:
En-Cu-Kou Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2011
The thing here is – if you do study supernatural phenomena, and later you're able to reliably induce an out-of body experience, or stick papers to the wall, then they cease to be supernatural, and become normal. If you cannot reliably use your hypotheses/beliefs to predict what will happen if you do something, then they're useless practically (which doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't study them, to see how they could actually work).
If God or karma or psychic powers really did something you could see, that you count on happening, then they'd not really be supernatural any more. Since the world seems to work as if they did not exist, why believe that they do exist?
If you can stick papers to a wall, good! Go look for an explanation that is not mysterious, and works every time; experiment with different kinds of walls, and objects to stick to them, to see exactly how the phenomenon works. Tell others how it's done, and see them do it as well. And you get back to science.
You see, the problem with mysterious answers is not that scientists reject them, but that they don't really explain anything. The fact that there is a God or Soul or Telekinesis doesn't tell me what happens when I drop a ball: sure you can say God wants it to go down, but if it happens to be a helium balloon and goes up, you just say God wants it to go up, or you're using Telekinesis to make it go up. The laws of physics, on the other hand, tell you the result exactly (or at least they would if you knew the initial conditions exactly and didn't ignore anything). Scientific laws are very practical: you can use them to predict what happen next. You can't do that with a mysterious answer – a mysterious answer can explain any outcome.
And if it can't explain any outcome, but instead it can be used to predict the future with at least some reliability – then it's not a mysterious answer any more: you've found another natural law, and should write an article about it./
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:icontheothersarshi:
TheOtherSarshi Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2011
We seem to think alike.

I don't want mysterious answers. 'God did it' doesn't satisfy me, either. Unfortunately, I lost my skill in putting papers on walls years ago, since I was a kid and it didn't occur to me that it's something special that I should treat as such, but I remember there was a 'trick' to it. I can't remember the 'trick', so I can't experiment.

The fact that there's a God or Soul or Telekinesis doesn't explain why something falls, true. But then, neither does elasticity. These are different things. But if there's a God, or a Soul, or Telekinesis, that might explain other things. You say that the world seems to work without them - but does the world really work without them, or without our knowledge of them? In my example about Japan - they could have said 'well, what do we need physics for? The world works just fine without electricity.'

And as for it not being supernatural as such if you discover the laws behind it - well, it's not mysterious anymore. But what is it? Chemistry? Physics? Biology? If it needs people to prepare to do stuff that we describe as 'telekinesis' and they can do better or worse at it, then it's a question of ability and/or talent. Hence, it's art-like. Should we call it 'the art of physics', then? 'Paranormal'? 'Metaphysics'? I'm saying that the very concept of what 'God' and 'supernatural' mean can and maybe should change.

But this far, I'm sticking to the terms we have. I'm saying this could be a branch of something. It has no name, but I shall call it 'metaphysics'. Because it's just as good a word as others. Maybe it overlaps with physics. Well, everything seems to overlap with everything nowadays. Anthropology with psychology with biology with whatnot. If we were to say that they're all aspects of the same thing and call them by the same name it could get confusing.

I'm not at all for 'mysterious answers'. But if you discover things about the human soul, what do you call that branch of science?
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:iconen-cu-kou:
En-Cu-Kou Featured By Owner Mar 2, 2011
You say that the world seems to work without them - but does the world really work without them, or without our knowledge of them?

To our (or should I say, the scientists') knowledge, it works without them.
True, we might be missing something fundamental like electricity. Trouble is, we can't really experiment with the supernatural stuff, as it somehow always turns out to be about as reliable as pure chance (or to be a cheap trick, whether intentional or not).

And as for it not being supernatural as such if you discover the laws behind it - well, it's not mysterious anymore. But what is it?

I think you can think up a better name when you actually start discovering the laws. If it turns out to be an art, then by all means call it an art. Or name it after yourself, in true scientific fashion, if that pleases you. But unfortunately, all you have now are mysterious answers, so ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ seem like good names. I prefer ‘magic’ myself.

If you discover things about the human soul… then name the things you've discovered accordingly. Naming something before you've seen it seems pretty foolish to me.
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:icontheothersarshi:
TheOtherSarshi Featured By Owner Mar 3, 2011
I know that cheap tricks tend to abound in the area - but there has to be some way of getting some things to work out reliably. I'll fish around and see what I find.

Actually, I think you need to name something when you have a need to refer to it. I'm calling it 'metaphysics' since it's handy and while it's sort of philosophy, it incorporates more than what we'd call 'magic'. Souls and gods are in there, but they're not in magic.

I'd never call a branch of anything after myself. A law, maybe. But otherwise, too grandiose.
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:icondatapacrat:
DataPacRat Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
You might find the 'nine leaps of faith' section in August Berkshire's essay, '34 Unconvincing Arguments for God' at [link] to be worth considering... as well as the various examinations of the supernatural that have already been performed, as exemplified by James Randi's million-dollar prize for any demonstration of anything supernatural.

Or, thinking about it another way - how much of a lack of evidence is sufficient to say that it probably doesn't exist? That it almost certainly doesn't exist? That it's so unlikely to exist that the finite amount of research that can be done would nigh-certainly be more productive if efforts were directed elsewhere?
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:icontheothersarshi:
TheOtherSarshi Featured By Owner Mar 1, 2011
I agree that all those are unconvincing arguments. However, I can give you a lot of unconvincing arguments about the existing of airplanes, too. Most of them would coincide with those 34.

I'm saying drop those arguments. Drop prejudice. Drop Christianity as a referential system - Christianity isn't universal, it's Western. There's other beliefs. There's Buddhism, as I've said, which has entirely different ideas and the 34 arguments wouldn't really apply there.

The question I'm asking is: ok, there's been research. But has there been, not enough, but the right research? Or are we just looking for stuff that we have been culturally conditioned to look for?

I actually know people who have lived through spontaneous out-of-body experiences. Somebody who saw an aura once. I myself have had a few weird experiences which weren't restricted to my own body/sensations alone. Now, I say this: something happened. It may have been metaphysical, or some sort of chemical-biological thingy happened. But either way, an answer is needed. Collective hypnosis? Accidental drugging with an unknown factor that just floated by through the atmosphere? What are these things? Can you stick paper to the walls by an unseen force (aka, not glue), such as electricity, for e.g.? If yes, how is it possible to channel that electricity through yourself? If not electricity, then what is it? (I can't do it now, but I did it as a kid, in front of witnesses, who also attempted to do it and failed - hence it wasn't the wall, or the paper) If it happened, it can't be impossible. What's the explanation?

Also, is it possible that paranormal powers are just an overly good control over one's own body which can lead to unusual results? Is it possible for it to be a fine intuitive knowledge and/or control of usual forces/phenomena? if yes, can metaphysics be considered to be the art-y branch of physics? Are those Eastern people who can do all sorts of unusual things with their bodies paranormal or not?
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