Saturday, June 30, 2012

Meditating on Patience

Meditating on patience today, I had a somewhat counter-intuitive insight. I'll get to it in a moment, but first a quick preamble.

People (including myself) often resist being patient because they see it a hopelessly difficult exercise in frustration. We associate it with clock-watching, standing in long lines, filling out bureaucratic forms, feeling mistreated in ways that are really awkward to address, or watching hopelessly while a political cause near and dear to our hearts is frustrated--again. Who wants to be patient? Probably only masochists, right?

Of course the better angels of our nature know that this isn't the right way to think about patience, that's it's a virtue eminently useful for our own sakes and in our interactions with others, blah blah blah. But rarely do any of us eagerly seek out lessons in patience, the way we would in, say, scuba diving or Photoshop or whatever we are paying obscene amounts of money to get a degree in. But those lessons always come anyway, as we all know.

In short, our objections to patience usually have something to do with the fact that, in the times and places where we actually have to be patient, time seems to slow down. It seems to stretch out, giving us the feeling that we are wasting our time instead of doing something more useful or valuable to us. No matter how long it lasts, whether several seconds (why is the internet so slow?) or several years (when will this uninteresting project finally be finished?), we literally can't wait for the situation to be over. And yet, this is precisely the thing about patience that makes it so eminently wonderful, as I discovered today.

We live in a society that is constantly pressed for time. Many of us complain that there is literally not enough time in a day to do everything that we want or need to do. For some of us, it's an unavoidable situation with which we may be forced to be patient, and when it ends is out of our control. But many of us create such a situation for ourselves. Rather than focusing on doing a couple of things really well and slowly developing skill in them over time, we try to gulp down as much knowledge and experience as possible in as little time as possible. I myself have been guilty of this on numerous occasions, especially since it's behavior that our society rewards in various ways (admission to schools, acceptance for employment, social prestige, etc.).

But the great thing that I realized today (after realizing a few ways in which I really needed to work on my patience) is that being patient actually gives me more time. When I decide to be patient about something, the artificial deadlines I (or at times others) have set for myself seem to melt away, and time slows down to what I could call "patient standard time." Suddenly, problems seem a lot more solvable. Anxiety diminishes. The need to have an immediate solution or answer disappears. Many books have been written about "the power of now" and learning how to live in the present moment rather than the past or future. This is, in fact, a core practice in many Buddhist traditions. It seems to me, now, that "patience" is precisely the "present moment." It knocks us back to what is happening right now and both confronts us with the reality of our suffering around that and immediately works to alleviate that suffering. When I am patient, I have time.

But not only does patience slow down time and give me more of it, it also gives me perspective on that time. Patience may be about living in the here and now, but paradoxically, it also focuses on the bigger picture. When I am impatient, the present moment feels constricting, suffocating. It's all I can see--and often it's all I can project into the past and future. But patience gives me space in the now. When I am patient, I recognize the now as just one moment in a very long succession of moments of which each is different. When I am patient, I do not judge myself or others based on where they are right now, but remind myself of my ignorance about the future and look at my life and theirs as a whole. Patience is intimately tied in with compassion. Perhaps that is why people who regularly meditate are said to become more compassionate with time, especially if they have the explicit intention to cultivate patience and compassion through meditation. Time makes us more charitable towards one another.

Perhaps, in the end, what Saint Augustine said is true: "'The reward of patience is patience."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Undescribed Spiritual Experiences?

Buddhist teacher Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche has an article in Tricycle where he talks about the importance of letting go of one's spiritual experiences in order to avoid fixating on them and getting derailed from the path of realization. He writes that there is a difference between spiritual experiences and spiritual realizations, and that the latter are far more valuable because they represent a transformation in the way a person sees the world. Experiences may precipitate realizations, or they may not, but either way fixating on the experience can stall a person's progress by obscuring the larger truth(s) that may be contained in the experiences.

This is a useful rebuttal to the "phenomena junkie" trap:  the trap whereby spiritual practitioners focus on collecting the novelties of cool stuff happening either for the fun of it or in order to indicate their mad spiritual powerz. It's one trap among many on the Path.

Importantly, Rinpoche argues that so long as we have not let go of our attachments to concepts--to our very need to immediately make meaning out of an experience by putting it in terms we already understand--we can not fully understand (or experience!) the experience in an unmediated way:

Eventually, in order to be totally free, we learn to let go of concepts. Ultimately, we need to relinquish our fixation on the reification of concepts, of things being "this" or "that." Thinking of this and that binds us to a particular way of experiencing things. Even spiritual experiences will not be given complete, spontaneous, unmediated expression as long as the subtlest kind of conceptual distinction is present. Experience will still be mediated, adulterated, and tainted by all kinds of psychic content when we make discriminations. Therefore, it will remain impossible ever to be truly free.

 This is where Buddhism and other similar religious teachings pose a profound challenge to the social sciences:  they assume a realm of direct, unmediated experience and knowing. There's a broad (but by no means universal) consensus in the social sciences and humanities that all knowledge and experience is somehow mediated; that no one has a direct line to "the truth," even if there is something like "the truth" out there. What Rinpoche argues here is that by letting go of our very attachment both to know and to experience, we can, paradoxically, directly experience and know. He continues,

The ultimate goal of the spiritual journey is to realize the union of your mind and ultimate reality. You discover eventually that not only are you in reality, but that you also embody that reality.

 A pretty profound teaching on experience. Have you found that it works out for you?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Skeptical Creationism in Texas

The Economist recently ran this great review of a Texas Observer article about the many combinations of creationism and evolutionary thought in the small Texas town of Glen Rose. Apparently, the town has a large constituency of Biblical literalists but is also home to some very old dinosaur tracks. The tracks bring in about $23 million in annual revenue, so the town residents can't easily deny their existence or ridicule the scientists and science tourists who come to study and look at them. To make the story more complex, they share the same geological stratum with tracks that look like human tracks. The result is a series of compromises between young-earth creationism and long-duree evolution.

 “Most everyone in Glen Rose that I know believes man and dinosaurs coexisted,” Alice Lance tells me at the annual tractor pull. “The only conflict we have is when people move from metropolitan areas and have different value systems. I think some don’t have a strong [religious] belief system, and they’re more likely to go with science than faith.”

Indeed, the people most intransigent about young-earth creationism seem most concerned not about the literal truth of the Genesis account, but about one thing:  values. For them, any challenge to their interpretation of the story of creation represents a challenge to the existence of God and can only lead to moral anarchy. Complicating the story of Genesis means complicating morality, and complicating morality means relaxing human beings' moral accountability.

Mary Adams, the niece of George Adams, who found the dinosaur tracks more than a century ago, recently delivered a presentation to youth at the First Baptist Church warning them against belief in evolution.

“If we were not created by God,” the 87-year-old Adams tells me, “there’s no one to whom we are accountable. We can live exactly as we please.”

[ . . . ]

For Adams, the idea that God may have worked the miracle of life through the mechanism of evolution, or that science explains “how” and religion explains “why,” doesn’t hold water. It’s “too much of a mixture,” she says.
But others are more willing to embrace the complexity offered by seemingly contradictory evidence:

“Mixing,” though, is how residents like Alice Lance reconcile science and religion.
“How long was that week [described in Genesis]?” Lance wonders. “Until the seasons were established, we don’t know how time would have operated. If you believe in a superior being, he could manipulate time.”
Even kids are willing to read the Genesis account in a more complex way:

One student recently told [biology teacher Wendy] Thompson how she and her father reconciled evolution with the Genesis account. God created the sun and moon on the fourth day; before that, a “day,” the student reasoned, could have been millions of years long.

Then there are the Busseys, who own a fossil shop:

Morris Bussey runs the Stone Hut fossil shop in an old whiskey cabin close to the state park and the Creation Evidence Museum. Though his formal education stopped at sixth grade, Bussey knows a lot about fossils.

Unlike his wife, he’s not religious. “You ask me what I believe in, it’s the almighty dollar,” he says, pointing upward.

Over the years, the Busseys have learned from professional geologists and paleontologists. “One thing they taught us was about pseudofossils,” Sue says. “That’s a wannabe fossil. Either someone’s made it, which happens around here, or more likely it’s just a rock that looks like a fossil.”
Of interest in Bussey's statement is the metaphysical significance he jokingly attributes to the dollar--a gesture which would have great significance both for Adam Smith, who formulated the doctrine of the "invisible hand" of the market, reflecting a popular strain of early modern theology, and for Karl Marx, who theorized that commodities are "fetishized" under capitalism, meaning that people attribute the power of gods to them (under capitalism, money is also treated as a commodity).

It's notable also that while he is not religious and his wife is, they both are quite capable of discerning fake fossils from real ones.

Clearly, "creationism vs. evolution" does not characterize the real debate in Glen Rose, Texas--and perhaps this can give us a more complex picture of the priorities that people bring to the table when they interpret evidence.

Subjectivity and Objectivity in Religion and Science

A few months ago, literary theorist Stanley Fish published a thoughtful two-part Op-Ed in the New York Times critiquing the idea that science has direct access to objective truth while religion is hopelessly subjective. His argument can be summarized as follows:

"It is certainly possible to distinguish between [different] sets of arguments and to conclude that one is better supported than the other. And there will be many reasons that might lead you to that conclusion, including the fit or non-fit of the arguments with other arguments you already accept and the authority within a discipline or within the institutions you belong to of those who propose them. But one reason that cannot be given is that one set of arguments enjoys the advantage of being in touch with the world as it is apart from anyone’s beliefs, allegiances, assumptions and theories. No set of arguments can claim that advantage, although any set of arguments can claim a host of others."
Pointing out to people who place total trust in scientific empiricism that the scientific endeavor is shaped by history, culture, and politics predictably elicits defensive responses, as Fish's Op-Ed certainly did. While he addresses many of these responses in part two of the Op-Ed, he did not satisfactorily respond to those who critiqued him for abandoning any aspiration to objectivity. The problem with Fish's approach, therefore, is not that he finds subjectivity in the scientific method and in scientists themselves; rather, it's his disavowal of objective knowledge as such.

The way I see it, conversations about scientific and religious knowledge often operate within a false either/or binary: Either the knowledge obtained through them is 100% objective, or it is 100% subjective. Either we are capable of grasping the world "as it really is," or we're not capable of grasping it at all. This stark binary does a disservice to both science and religion, but it's certainly great for generating obfuscating polemics.

As I pointed out in my last post on the nature of evidence, religious claims are also subject to validation or discrediting by inquiring believers. It is simply not true--to use an objective statement--that once one leaves the "realm of science" one is entering territory where people no longer care to or can possibly verify what is true. Major religions did not gain converts only at sword-point, by authoritarian trickery, or with threats of economic or political disempowerment; they relied, especially at their very beginnings, on persuading people of their truth through evidence. To use only examples from the three great Abrahamic religions:  Moses outdid Pharaoh's magicians with a miracle of God; God parted the Red Sea, through which the Israelites actually passed; Christ/God cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, and predicted the future; Muhammad, the illiterate and unschooled prophet, produced (through an angel of God) a work of high Arabic poetry whose inimitability persists to this day (although some great Arab poets have attempted to imitate it--precisely to discredit the revelation). These are all signs which believers have seen and, after deliberation, determined to be the work of God. But they all also encountered much disbelief and skepticism in the communities within which they occurred, as well as throughout all subsequent history.

What is at stake in accepting or denying these "signs" is nothing less than one important kind of objective truth:  for the religions above, whether there is a God and whether Moses/Jesus/Muhammad is His prophet or, as in the case of Christianity, His son or even God himself. Religions, like sciences, also aim to discover the truth by way of evidence; they just do so in ways that differ from the Baconian scientific method. Much of it relies on a kind of empiricism with which mainstream science is only beginning to grapple:  the mystery of intersubjectivity--of the direct (empirical) encounter of a human being with another human (or other-than-human) being. And this is only one empirical dimension of religious experience.

But here is the crucial point:  this does not mean that the scientific method is wrong or that it does not also lead us to some kinds of objective truth. We rely on the knowledge gained through this method in countless ways every day, ways which prove again and again that our trust is well-placed--so well-placed, in fact, that we are mostly consciously unaware of all the ways in which scientific truths underpin our most mundane activities, which often have life-or-death stakes:  driving a car; flying in a plane; getting vaccinated; using sterile plastics; drinking purified water; etc. However, the fact that our reliance on these truths is not conscious does not mean it is not there; the fact that most people don't understand or often think about scientific theories does not mean that they don't trust them. Stanley Fish appears to make this claim, which is mistaken. He writes,

What is difficult for many to grasp is the irrelevance of theoretical speculation about faith and evidence (or anything else) to the conduct of everyday life. As ja, a scientist, put it, an argument like the argument that both science and religion rely on “assumptions about their own first principle … seems to be of purely academic interest. Most humans spend the vast majority of their time worrying about practical … issues like the availability of food and water, the suitability of climate, maintaining health, and combatting illness.” Exactly! Not only is the argument that science and religion cannot be distinguished on the basis of fidelity to reality true (a word I do not shrink from for the same reason I do not shrink from the word “objectivity”), it is also harmless.
This statement is the opposite of the reality. Both science and religion are nothing if not ways through which humans resolve practical issues like locating food and water, settling on places to live, maintaining health, and combatting illness (especially the latter)! The word "religion" comes from the Latin religio which has connotations of discipline, practice, and method--its root has to do with binding, which is the action at the root of discipline that enables us to do anything skillfully. The Arabic word shari'ah, which is often translated into English as religious law, literally means a "way" or a "path"--literally the path to a spring of water, the source of nourishment in the difficult desert of life. Religion, in other words, is a method for living life skillfully and fruitfully, in a nourished, nourishing, and healthy way. It is not at all a stretch to say that science--and its sister discipline, philosophy--are to a large extent the same thing. What is interesting is that between and among them, they encompass so many different methods for doing so.

Moreover, against Fish, I would say that debates about the relative distance of science and religion from reality are by no means harmless. They shape the fabric of knowledge by which we, as individuals and collectives, know that reality (or those realities). And needless to say, that fabric is always being reshaped and reformed, often in terribly violent ways. It really matters how we access objective truth--because how we access that reality, as Fish so clearly demonstrates, often determines what reality (or realities) we access. The fact that the method mediates the object which it seeks to apprehend does not mean that the object becomes any less "objective;" it only means that there are multiple ways of apprehending the same object and multiple objects to apprehend, and therefore multiple objectivities. People can--and do--trust in more than one method for knowing the world (or worlds).

This leads me to my final point:  No matter how conscious or unconscious, people all carry within themselves theories about why things are the way they are and work the way they work--in other words, about objective truth. There is no such thing as an a-theoretical person. As John Maynard Keynes once wrote,

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back... soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

-- John Maynard Keynes, "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money"
Since everyone is an amateur theorist about many things (meaning that everyone operates based on socially conditioned ideas about what is true and uses socially influenced methods in order to arrive at that and other truths) that means that everyone is operating by balancing subjectivity and objectivity in their own ways. In the same way, "official" discourses of science and religion also balance subjective and objective data and claims. Without any notion of objectivity, there's no point in seeking positive knowledge, and without any notion of subjectivity, the stakes for every truth claim become immeasurably high. As an anthropologist, I am always balancing my desire to be faithful to each individual's subjectivity and capacity for error (including my own) with our shared human desire to make positive, reliable meaning out of our existence on this earth. My hope for the conversation about science and religion is that it continues to interweave subjectivity and objectivity in ever more complex and interesting ways. The days of binaries, I hope, are numbered.

Friday, June 15, 2012

What is "Evidence?"

People who have unexplained experiences often find themselves in a curious position when they share what happened to them with self-proclaimed rationalists or skeptics:

"There's no empirical way for us to determine whether or not spiritual experiences are real," the rationalist will often say, echoing a position long popular in the anthropology of religion and still popular in many academic and non-academic circles. 

"What do you mean by empirical?" asks the person who had the experience. "It happened to me, didn't it?"

"I mean measurable," the rationalist will often reply, "by one of your five senses, or by a scientific instrument." 

"But when I say I heard a voice say, 'Turn left,' I mean I really heard it," insists her interlocutor. 

"How can anyone know you really heard it if no one else heard it?" comes the retort. "If there is no measurable sound entering your ear canal, it's probably just a brain twitch or memory or something else. Who knows?"

"But I was alone in my car when it happened - I don't know if it was just inside my head or if someone else would have heard it too." 

"Listen, you may want to get yourself checked out for hallucinations." 

"But the voice saved my life - if I had turned right, I would have gotten in the major car crash I saw in my rear-view mirror just after turning." 

"Well then you probably already saw the situation getting dangerous and your subconscious just steered you away from it." 

"But I didn't even see the intersection clearly yet when I heard it. The situation seemed totally normal."

"The fact that you weren't conscious of it doesn't mean that you weren't picking up signs beforehand."


"Does your subconscious ever sound like a human voice in your head?" asks the person who had the experience with defeat in her voice.

"The brain is a strange thing. We don't even know how it works. I don't rule out the possibility that it could." 

And so it goes. This conversation reflects a few common but mistaken presuppositions:

 1) Science is the realm of empiricism.
 2) Spiritual experiences are totally subjective and unverifiable.
 3) When they are verifiable, spiritual experiences are most likely the results of neurochemistry (a brain-deterministic view) or the subconscious (a psychoanalytic view).
 4) If a spiritual experience has a positive outcome for the person to which it occurs, it is probably being engineered, consciously or not, but that very person.

These assumptions are quite widespread in our culture among both religious and non-religious people. The first two assumptions, that science is the realm of empiricism while religious experience is not, produce the contradictory claim that experience is not empirical, yet empirical evidence is only that which can be directly experienced. The converse of this contradiction is the blanket trust in empiricism:  that everything that earns the label "empirical" counts as solid gold evidence which forms the foundation of Science. In short, these presuppositions create an inability to talk about the evidence of experience itself--namely, how experiences can be evaluated to make different claims about reality. By both dismissing and valorizing experience, the worldview reflected by the presuppositions above labels some experiences as "evidence" and others as "non-evidence."

This labeling often proceeds based on a priori but unarticulated criteria, like "Can this experience be reproduced publicly, in a lab, for everyone to verify?" If not, the experience either must not be real (and if it's not real it can't be evidence!) or it is simply irrelevant to the advancement of human knowledge.

One wonders how this worldview would have dealt with someone like doubting Thomas in the Christian tradition, who would not believe in the resurrection of Christ until he put his own finger into Christ's wounds. Many rationalists would likely say, "His experience was of a religious nature; therefore it is completely unverifiable!" Yet for Thomas, no greater verification could have been provided for his faith. But Christ chastised him for needing that degree of evidence in the first place, believing that he had already, during his lifetime, provided enough evidence for his closeness with God and therefore for the trustworthiness of his promises. What we have here, at the heart of the Christian tradition, is a controversy about evidence--about what God's signs are and what they mean for people living in the world.

Of course, these debates about evidence are by no means limited to the Christian tradition. People rarely, if ever, believe something they consider to be untrue or completely unsupported by any kind of evidence. This doesn't mean that people don't engage in all kinds of complex self-deception about what they do and do not believe; it only means that people rarely will say from a place of full integrity that they trust in a falsehood or a lie. This is why you hear many people stating that myths are "true" even if they know they didn't "really" happen:  the myths articulate truths about the world which are larger than the veracity of a particular historical occurrence, and they continue to express those truths in the lives of those who trust in them. Some may even divide "the" world into worlds, arguing that while they myths didn't happen in the world of living human beings, they happened in the underworld, or the spirit world, or another world entirely. These are only two highly generalized approaches to the many ways that people evaluate the truth or falsehood of spiritual experiences.

I would like us to move beyond simplistic understandings of evidence which state that evidence is only that which can be reproduced under the conditions of a controlled experiment. That is one particular kind of evidence--and a very important one--but not the only kind of evidence there is. Before we can start to make judgments about the veracity of people's spiritual experiences, we first have to suspend judgment long enough to listen to their stories and pay attention to the effects those experiences have on the world around them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Welcome to "The Skeptical Spiritualist"

Welcome all to a blog that seeks to provide a resource for people who want to have a conversation about unexplained experiences in a validating, nonjudgmental environment that is also analytically rigorous and deeply respectful of differing worldviews. Please take a moment to read the "Why This Blog?" and "Who Am I?" pages, and feel free to contact me at any time if you would like to talk about your experiences or you have an idea for the blog.

I look forward to meeting you.