December 06, 2014

#Mysticism, refudiated

Massimo Pigliucci has a guest poster at his new philosophy webzine site, commenting about mysticism in general, and Karen Armstrong's brand of it in general. (I think it's fair to call her a mystic of some sort.)

First, I agree with Massimo (which essayist Daniel Linford didn't so bluntly state) that Armstrong is fluff. But, because she makes Islam look halfway New Agey, she gets respect, or Respect. (And, she's a TED Prize winner, so! So what? The E in TED stands for Entertainment, let's not forget.)

But, she has Grounds for Respect.

Because capitalizing letters for phrases like Ground of Being is of course how you prove mystic claims.

Speaking of, the piece has brought said mystic provers out of the woodwork. Most of them (if they'd actually read and learn) could stand a good dose of Wittgenstein on private languages. They could also stand a moderate dose of Hume coupled with knowledge of the naturalistic, biochemical cause of brain states that exactly parallel "mystical experiences." Hume comes in with the good old is-ought distinction. Just because we evolved agency imputers in our mental makeup that sometimes run wild doesn't mean that they ought to run wild.

This is primarily drawn from my last comment there.

The “mystic experience” is just brain activity. It’s that humans, with a fuller sense of self, in part, and the evolution of attribution of agency as part of that, read into this brain chemistry things that other animals don’t.

On my last comment, I told Mario that Siberians’ reindeer eat the magic mushrooms just like the shamans do.

Why? Presumably, they’re having the same brain experience, and tripping out, in just the same way the shamans are.

But, because they don’t have the same sense of self or the attribution of agency to things, they don’t interpret this as a mystic experience or contact with the Divine or the Ground of Reindeer Being.

They just experience it, then eat some more shrooms. Period.

To wrap this up, let’s go back to the early master of human nature (what a shame he didn’t live post-Darwin), Hume.

This is a classic is-ought, in my opinion.

Just because we evolved these agency-imputing mechanisms is no reason to keep using them today. There’s no mystic entity behind the rustling mental grass waiting to mystically enlighten you, to riff on an old illustration.

Or, again, per earlier comment and Daniel’s theme (which has indeed been addressed by non-mystics), Your Mysticism Is Too Egocentric.

Wm. Burgess believes that atheists haven't rejected belief in his kind of god. He also comes very much from the school of Capitalizing Various Things to Make Them Sound Mystical and Ineffable.

To him, I replied: It sounds to me like you’re either not listening to atheists carefully enough, or reading or meeting enough of them, or to riff on Coel’s article about religious and secular liberties, you’re demanding a laundry list, into which you’ll insert your own version of a “pantheism of the gaps.”

So, if you want it said directly, I for one don’t accept your version of god either. Beyond that, I addressed the use of capitalized nouns in my first post, so I already said I didn’t believe in that version of God/Ground of Being/Dust of Being/Quarks of Being/Higgs Bosons of Being or anything like it. Nor do I believe in the Sacred/Divine/Ineffable/Noumena/Logos/Atman/Wholly Other or any other capitalized Essence that I my have missed.

Or Process/Action/Motion/Movement or any other capitalized Verb or Gerund that I may have missed.

Or Love/Hope/Orgiasticness (thanks, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Diogenes) or any capitalized Abstract Noun I may have missed.

More generally, English isn’t German, and it certainly isn’t German run through the filter of Heidegger. Capitalizing a word proves nothing.

And, lest we get a mystic via negativa popping up, capitalizing a word doesn’t prove Nothing, either.

Michael Ahles along with Fred Eaker are the two mystics who, as I put it my second comment, insist on using a private language to describe (their own?) mystical experience while insisting that the rest of us agree that this is actually a public language and we accept its terms. Ahles goes beyond that to accuse some of not listening well enough, to which I replied: “Private ears” or “selective deafness” fall under the rubric of private languages. Already asked and answered.

Beyond that, they and others refuse to answer basic questions, rhetorically posted. (Yet, Fred can accuse me of missing his point, when my rhetorical questions below are addressed exactly to his point.)

First, how do you know a mystic experience isn’t a hallucination? Or mental illness? Or a brain illness? Or a brain condition from some other illness? Or a brain trauma? (Directly to Fred, I also asked how does he tell true from false mystics, and since he's tripping on Hinduism, specifically mentioned Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Ram Dass.)

Answers to the above? Respectively, peyote and LSD, schizophrenia, temporal lobe epilepsy, the hypoxia often associated with near death experiences, or brain traumas along the general lines of Phineas Gage’s, can all cause all the symptoms and perceptions you think prove your mystical experience is “real.”

Back to the private languages issue, because it connects with a "superior knowledge" issue, and there's nothing new here, either.

It goes back to the Christian New Testament, after all. And Gnosticism, whether Christian, Jewish or Pagan.

Even in the Christian Bible, it’s there.
Hebrews 5:13-14
For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.
And 1 Corinthians 3:2
I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.
Nothing new under the sun, including claims of special enlightenment by “transcendent” means.

Tom Dobrzeniecki seems to think that Gödel and his ideas on incompleteness mean that atheism is just as much a leap of faith as theism. Another old chestnut from some theists, not just mystics. To him, I replied: If you see Gödel implying that methodological naturalism is “incomplete,” well, we could all become Pyrrhonic Skeptics and say almost everything of significance in life is a leap of faith, I guess.

Of course, this ties back to the private languages issue. If any serious event is considered a “leap of faith,” then private languages abound!

Bottom line is that mysticism, like the belief that UFOs are visiting little old me, even though Planet Earth in general, and little old you in particular, have nothing to teach a possible alien life form of that level of intelligence?

Bottom line is that there's a lot of egocentricity and grandiosity in a lot of mysticism.

That said, part of what was discussed applies to good old conservative Christians like Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga.

The "transcendence" of the mystic walks hand in hand with the "inscrutability" of the conservative, and both of them are usually trying to tap dance around Ye Olde Problem of Evil.

Riffing on the old Problem of Evil, I call it the Problem of Psychological Evil and have blogged about this before. Any deity, or any Ground of Being, sufficiently powerful to make him/her/itself comprehensible to sentient creatures, but refusing to do so, creates Psychological Evil.

That said, of course, this isn’t just related to transcendence of the extreme Armstrong sort. I crafted it in response to the traditional conservative theologians like Plantinga who refer to Paul’s quote of Job about god’s inscrutability. Daniel kind of picks up on that in his footnote 12 area, but is pretty much only referring to the Armstrong-type mystic, not the traditional conservative Christian like Plantinga. But, in various ways, it applies to both.

Romans 11:33-34
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Otherwise, any type of theology, or general belief, is also partially subject to the same critique.

The ineffability of the god of the mystics is the same as the inscrutability of the god of the traditional omnipotent monotheists. With both groups at times, and especially and often with the latter, it's an attempt to avoid Ye Olde Problem of Evil. And, it fails.

I've blogged at my secondary blog how this ultimately falls prey to the Problem of Psychological Evil, discussed in a bit more detail here.

1 comment:

Hal Morris said...

I've actually taken an interest in your article
"Adam Smith, mercantilism, 'invisible hand' and Deism"

but usually I find appending comments to 4-year old postings is hopeless. I came to look at your blog after following some of the discussion on Scientia Salon discussed in "#Mysticism, refudiated"

I'd like to get my blog as well organized -- need to learn how to do something like that "Labels" column you have.

Getting to the point, long ago I concluded that Smith's use of "Invisible Hand" was pretty incidental, and that later readers (esp. a certain early editor/interpretor of Smith) turned it into mystical claptrap which it was never intended to be.

I wrote in response to reading Emma Rothschild's book Economic Sentiments (largely an argument on just that thesis):

An "Invisible Hand Explanation" seems to me to be a non-explanation; at best an assertion that something orderly is going on but we don't know why; at worst, an oracular pronouncement that such things are not for mere mortals to understand. Also, there is maybe an implication that the supposed orderly process is a good thing and should be left alone... It is indeed true that some things are working working pretty well, and the onus is on anyone who would "fix" them, to show they know what they're doing. Sometimes market-type arrangements work very well, but if there were general agreement that they always work well in all circumstances, there'd be no need for such a mystifying emblem to represent them.

As presented by Prof. Rothschild, Adam Smith was far from recommending construal of the world as a great exchange and price-calculating machine, indifferent to the intentions (or "sentiments") of the individuals in that world. Smith seemed to distrust large institutions in general, not just government.

Amartya Sen has also said a lot on the topic including his quip "Some men are born small; others attain smallness, but Adam Smith had smallness thrust upon him". Somewhere on the web is a 1-hour lecture by Sen on this point.

Prof. Rothschild and Sen have been married since 1991 so the rescue of Adam Smith from his dogmatic followers seems to be a joint project of theirs.

I might go on in hopes of starting a dialogue; You seem well protected from random emailers or I'd have started off that way.

Anyway, Best Wishes, Hal Morris (I'm the guy who says There is no god, and the Cat in the Hat is his prophet -- well sort of something like that).