Spirituality for an Athiest Rationalist (My Work January 1-9)

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Two friends were praising flexible beliefs. Seeing a storm or a bird as a sign. Believing in karma, since there’s no way to know it’s false. Drawing a tarot card, and believing it was meant specifically for you.

If you’ve been here long, you know I’m not spiritual. Science and rationality, Bayesian atheism with a belief in spirits-as-artificial-intelligences, that’s where I live. My friends and I had, well, not an argument, but a discussion more focused on winning than on connecting.

Growing up, my father would denigrate spiritualists and psychics and healers. I’ve tried to shed that, but our conversation showed me a place where I still have that disdain, and how it will prevent me from connecting and collaborating with some really awesome people. So this week, I explored spirituality and how it relates to science and rationality.

This isn’t a definitive answer. This is me thinking through my own prejudices and ideas. I’m hesitant to expose this work-in-progress to the internet, but I also want to share my work. I hope you enjoy it.

Debunked by a 9-Year-Old

Here’s where I started:

Scientific belief is about accuracy. Evolution is true, creationism is false, that sort of thing.

I went to a Therapeutic Touch class a few years ago. This is the NIH-approved energy healing, used in hospitals, taught by nurses for medical professionals. If anyone should be scientific about energy healing, it’s these guys.

Explaining energy, the teacher said, “If you bring your finger so it’s almost touching your other hand, you’ll feel tingles. That’s energy.” And indeed, we did feel it.

But it took me less than a minute to debunk her claim: I closed my eyes and had a friend choose when to almost-touch my hand. I didn’t feel anything. Which means the sensation is proprioception, not energy.

You know who else debunked their claim? A 9-year-old girl. When your claims are debunked by fourth graders, you can’t gain credibility for the work that really is worth studying.

(Could a skilled mage create sensations with energy? You betcha. But that’s not what the teacher claimed.)

Accuracy and Meaning

Here’s my quick definition of science vs spirituality:

  • Science starts with, “Is this accurate?” Then it tries to find meaning within the accurate. This is where I live. For me, meaning is in helping my fellow man (through energy healing and exploring magick, mostly).
  • Spirituality starts with, “How can I find meaning here?” Then it discards overly-inaccurate beliefs that would interfere with daily living. Spirituality also seems to accept special cases, like “this storm means something, but storms in general do not.”

The Secret and Cancer

You remember The Secret, right? Choose what you want, act like it’s already true, and it will happen. Great advice for people trying to start a business or find a job: Dress and act the part, and you’ll probably find success.

But some reader said, “I have cancer. But if I didn’t have cancer, I wouldn’t go to the doctor, I wouldn’t get treatment. So I’m going to act like I don’t have cancer, and by the Law of Attraction, my cancer will disappear.” Details here.

In other words, that reader took what should have been a domain-limited temporary belief, and applied it like a scientifically-accurate belief.

We all do this. It’s pleasant to believe I listen well, so until recently I didn’t put in the work to become a better listener. And I decided that fashion doesn’t matter, because that was easier than learning about it.

We all let pleasant beliefs trump reality sometimes. The only defense I have is to reflexively reject a belief as soon as I notice it’s untrue. I’ve trained myself to do that, not always, but often. I think that’s a virtue.

But if someone doesn’t reflexively discard false beliefs, I don’t want to consider that a vice.

God Doesn’t Cause Breakups

On the subway, the woman next to me is reading a facebook post: “When a relationship ends, maybe it was God deciding it was time for it to end, that this was best for your growth.”

No one thinks God causes breakups. But that’s not the point. The point was, this woman was in pain, and finding this meaning in her suffering helped her get through her day, get to work, make money to feed her kids. (I read Viktor Frankl in college, it’s stayed with me.)

Finding meaning only in accurate beliefs is good. But who am I to deny that woman her comfort?

I’m lucky enough to have the right sort of intelligence and background that lets me find meaning in a scientifically-accurate world, but someone born without that type of intelligence would have to choose. How can I fault them for choosing meaning?

I think intelligence is a blessing, but I don’t think that people born with less intelligence are somehow morally inferior. And seeing this, I felt my science-as-a-virtue moral superiority start to fade.


You know a strawman, right? That’s where you present a weak form of your opponent’s argument so you can demolish it.

Steelman is the opposite. It’s a technique among rationalists, where we make the strongest possible argument, even if our opponents aren’t actually making it.

Here’s my spirituality steelman:

Meaning creates happiness, confidence, and health. It lowers stress and improves the drive to create. It is a goodness.

Accuracy is also a goodness. Accuracy gives us vaccines, airplanes, science and technology.

Meaning provides short-term value, accuracy provides long-term value. We need both.

A placebo works even if you know it’s a placebo. So shouldn’t we allow ourselves to find false-but-non-harmful meaning, while still knowing deep down that it’s false? Can’t we adopt a belief but flag it as “not-true,” and still get the meaning-centric benefits?

Reflexes and False Beliefs

That argument resonated with me. If you do a steelman right, it usually will.

I still don’t trust false beliefs. We can’t know the true cost of a false belief. And it’s so easy to believe pleasant fictions. I don’t want to train my brain toward accepting fictions.

(That reflex, to turn toward painful-but-accurate beliefs, is what drove me to explore spirituality, after all. It would have been easier to just look down on my friends than to examine a value I learned as a child.)

And yet, I can see how an intelligent person could choose differently, not through logical errors or flawed thinking, but through having different goals. And I can respect that.

Gandhi’s Not Lazy

The next morning, I woke with a sentence in my mind:

Spirituality is the lazy man’s philosophy.

But that’s not fair. Sure, spirituality can be a lazy man’s philosophy, but that’s true of anything. You’re supposed to use rationality to update beliefs and change behaviors, but plenty of people use it to justify the stupid things they were already doing. And you can use scientific terms without understanding the actual science. (New rule: Anyone proposing Quantum anything must be able to calculate Schrodinger’s equation.)

There’s a lazy form to everything. That’s not unique to spirituality.

But Gandhi’s not lazy. He did spirituality right, used it to motivate hard action and real change.

And I find myself wondering, is there a set of spiritual practices, focused on finding meaning, that also support a scientifically-accurate worldview?

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15 Responses to “Spirituality for an Athiest Rationalist (My Work January 1-9)”

  1. Ananael Qaa says:

    Mindfulness Meditation is at least close to what you’re talking about. The technique originated as a spiritual practice, but it has been shown to have significant cognitive and health benefits in controlled studies. I’m not sure that it quite fits your qualifications because the method does not concern itself with metaphysical speculation or a search for meaning, though.

    In order to say whether any system can be constructed that way, we need a viable scientific model of consciousness. Meaning is created by the observer, so understanding the process by which that occurs is vital to working out whether or not a particular system of meaning can be scientifically supported. I do think that as we continue to research cognition we are getting closer to understanding the process, but we’re still not as far along as we need to be to draw likely conclusions about it.

    • You know, I learned mindfulness meditation from the Center for Applied Rationality last year. The class was like a neurologist’s take on Buddhism. I still use it when I feel stressed or threatened, though I could probably use it more. Thanks for getting it back into my thoughts.

  2. George says:

    Interesting stuff. Some thoughts:

    We all let pleasant beliefs trump reality sometimes.

    We have to be careful here. There’s a different between ‘thinking pleasant thoughts’ to make oneself feel better, and actually believing something. True belief is a baked-in knowing. That’s one of the reasons why LOA and The Secret are, basically, going to be highly ineffective, just as ‘positive thinking’ is generally.

    This is not to say there’s nothing in them, but certainly nothing as described. It’s as if you’re trying to do your healing by thinking words in your head like ‘the energy is going from here to there; I am tuning into the cells’ without actually summoning the feeling and connection.

    And I find myself wondering, is there a set of spiritual practices, focused on finding meaning, that also support a scientifically-accurate worldview

    Well, the “spirituality” you’ve described doesn’t sound very spiritual to me – it sounds like ‘thinking nice thoughts’ and ‘looking for signs’. A straw man version of spirituality, albeit the exact sort that people who self-declare “I’m a really spiritual person” seem to align with. They really mean ‘I make myself feel nice by thinking nice things’.

    This isn’t a practical, lived spirituality.

    The broader problem is of having a “general scientific magick”. The difficulty with this is that traditionally they operate from different ends of a description of reality.

    – Science says “let’s look at our experience as it is, identify facts, and formulate useful re-usable descriptions about them”.

    – Magick says “use descriptions only insofar as they generate ideas, assert facts as true, look for them to be reflected in our experience”.

    They are at the same level. Magick cannot be “inside science” and science cannot be “inside magick”. This is because they are both aspects of experience, and without investigating the nature of experience itself, it is pointless trying to formulate one in terms of the other.

    To link the two, you need a metaphysics which relates experience to belief. Science is after-the-fact of the nature of experiencing. Magick is before-the-fact. Science is based on attending to experience using your mind as it is now, magick is based on altering you mind before attending to experience.

    If you play with this yourself, you’ll find something along the lines of: experience passively structures beliefs and beliefs passively structure experience – there is one structure of mind. With science, we accept these structures as given and explore them in greater detail. With magick, we try to change these structures deliberately to influence subsequent experience.

    Meanwhile, Ramsay Dukes’ SSOTBME: An Essay on Magic is worth a read for a take on this. It’s the text that predates Chaos Magicians, and is a pretty straight take on the whole thing.

    (Edward de Bono once had a good book called The Mechanism of Mind which discussed beliefs, structuring, experience and creativity but it’s long out of print now, alas.)

    • Interesting points about belief, and living spirituality vs happy thoughts.

      On magick and science: We can use science to explore any real phenomena. If we agree that energy healing is real, then science can explore how it works, what factors make it more effective, what mechanisms are at play and how to use them in better ways. Same with manifesting: How does it work, how can we use these mechanisms better. That’s basically my interest, as a scientist exploring magick.

      It sounds like your take on magick might be different. That’s awesome, we need lots of different takes from lots of different people. But just something to keep in mind when it seems like we’re using the word “magick” to refer to two different concepts.

      • George says:

        It sounds like your take on magick might be different.

        Hmm. I think it’s the same, surely: “making changes to the world using the mind” – whether that means by communicating with ethereal software (you), or space intelligences (Ted Owens), or ‘God’ (Neville Goddard) or amending yourself. (Correct me if that’s wrong!)

        What I was getting at is to get a science of magick, we’re going to have to tackle the fact that belief and non-attachment and ‘feeling’ rather than thinking do seem to have a strong effect on magickal success – so those things are going to need to be captured somehow. At the moment, our science comes a bit ‘too late’ for that (it takes things for granted as being ‘real’, but people don’t when it comes to magick).

        The more I look into things, the more I think pinning down what ‘belief’ really is and how it operates will be important for really establishing something ‘objective’. It tends not to be a problem when you create your own system (I speak from experience), though – perhaps because one builds confidence step by step?

        Or do you perceive the Direct Magick approach to be a way to circumvent this?

        • Belief affects performance in a lot of fields. Sports, political debates, job interviews — all of them are affected by the person’s belief that they are skilled, that they will perform well. Confidence does great things.

          Does confidence help me relax and focus on my magick technique? Sure. If I despair that none of this is real, will that interfere with my performance? Absolutely.

          But beyond that ordinary affecting-any-performance sort of issue, belief doesn’t have a special role in Direct Magick.

          Why does belief have a role in other systems? I see belief having 2 uses in magick in general:

          – Get ethereal muscles to engage
          – Transmit your intent to your unconscious (same as visualization and ritual)

          But in Direct Magick, we use mental posture to engage our ethereal muscles. Then we guide our ethereal muscles consciously, rather than transmitting intent to the unconscious. Belief isn’t the tool we use for either of these steps.

          More on belief and doubt: https://magickofthought.com/2013/10/belief-and-basketball/ and https://magickofthought.com/2014/07/overcoming-doubt-through-mental-posture/ and https://magickofthought.com/tag/belief/

          (I’m going to ask you to comment on belief-as-the-tool on those posts, and let this post stay about spirituality. Thanks!)

          • George says:

            Your point about belief and intent makes sense.

            The larger point is really about belief and perception, which is where I think it affects spirituality: people literally experience the meaning of these signs, and that’s what leads to false spirituality. To an external viewer, the connections seem ridiculous. I think the same challenge exists for external viewers of magick. (We already see this with established psi research.)

            Thanks for the links!

  3. Sonia says:

    About the tingling sensation that did not occur some parameters that might cause different experience on your test.
    Thing is, it is a common experience by energy workers that if you work
    in a “group-energy-field” – especially when it is a group that does focus on energy itself – all sensational senses are heightened.
    So if you repeat the test on your own in your house with just two people
    your energy-reservoir is not nearly as high as it was with the group because
    you lack X- Batteries that help you sense more.
    The more Energy you gather the more sophisticated your sensations if you
    open the specific channel.

    Thats a reason why things like Channeling-Mediumship does work best when you have a whole big group of people gathered in a room.

    So in order to make the test better it would be necessary to take the presence
    of this group in count as it IS a part of the parameters that do influence the outcome. And to learn to differentiate between being alone in a room and being with a presence. Easiest when in group. not so easy when alone, but practice does the trick. This can be done with spirits AND living person.

    If you translate this to simple Kinesiology, you may send a person outside the room and produce negative energy in the group by just imagining something sad. When the person enters and you just do the Kinesiology testing without telling the person what the test is about, it will respond accordingly as it does when you let the group imagine something wonderful.
    Now all this does say, that we do respond to the energy around us, but it also puts some information into the field we all read – unconciously if untrained – that influences us and more important-> that we sense.

  4. Sonia says:

    Something more… the secret and cancer…
    well this is more like I take a bike because it works fine for the street
    and try to swim with it.
    This is just not it. While the body and all around us is a product of occurences
    in our inner world, this does not mean, you can just close your eyes while holding
    your finger on a flame and tell yourself the flame is not real.
    Just like you can’t lie to your true self while you feel pain because you lost a person and tell yourself this does not hurt me.
    You may lie on the surface and convince your EGO-self that you are not hurt,
    but underneath its a whole other story. And THIS causes disruption inside your soul, that finds a way to show on your “outside” world including the body.
    So what does it mean if I stumble upon a book or see a frog, might not be the answer to everything, because to me this is the focus on the wrong side. Its the inner self that directs one to the important things for oneself. And this is no magic at all. This is Psychology.

  5. Kol Drake says:

    Scientific ‘belief’ is not about accuracy. A scientific ‘fact’ is the belief that anyone, anywhere, can take a proposed theory / situation; do the procedure as described and come up with the same results. Repeatable, conclusive evidence/results.

    Not certain one 9-year old’s school experiment with 21 participants actually takes a realistic enough sample to use as a all encompassing ‘debunk’ result though I suppose many pills on the market today were approved with lesser percentages of sample size.

    • Some claims require a big study. If a procedure improves 5% of patient outcomes, and you try it on 10 people, I can reasonably complain that the sample was too small.

      That wasn’t the claim. Therapeutic Touch practitioners felt something. They claimed they were feeling the biofield. They claimed this worked reliably and easily. But those sensations disappeared under proper experimental conditions. That means that whatever they were feeling, it wasn’t the biofield.

      When someone goes to the trouble to scientifically test something for us, the only polite thing to say is, “Thank you for showing us more about how our art works.” Even when we dislike the outcome. Especially when we dislike the outcome, because of the temptation to ignore unwanted evidence.

      If we expect other scientists to accept our evidence of healing, we have to accept evidence that we dislike. Accepting that we can’t easily feel the biofield gives us the opportunity to go back to the lab and develop techniques to feel it properly, which gives us the opportunity to get better at healing and maybe, just maybe, uncover new mechanisms behind this thing we’re so passionate about.

  6. Dear Mike,

    Thank you for tackling your own mind and its beliefs. I really respect that.

    I think we agree with the phrase “Don’t believe everything you think.”

    RE: Longterm Effects
    I think that Spiritual Belief can have long-term as well as short term positive effects.

    If believing in something greater than ourselves, and/or assigning positive meaning boosts our immune systems, that could do so across our lifetime as long as we believe.

    Appreciating the inquiry,

  7. Erin says:

    The short answer is no. The long answer is no, because as you yourself have said: Spirituality is the lazy man’s philosophy.
    Until you start seeing spirituality as not philosophy, but its own thing, you will never be spiritual. Because magick is not spirituality. Sure magick can be spiritual and it often is, but it is not spirituality in its own right. Magick is a combination of unknown forces harnessed by art and/or faith and applied via scientific methods. Spirituality is more comparable to Gnosis or inner spiritual experience. As in, actually having vivid dreams of angels sending you messages through strobe lights or having an OBE.
    The answer is also no, because as you’ve said you are a scientific materialist.
    This is the equivalent of a UFO conspiracy theorist going into NASA and “teaching” them how to do their job.
    Spirituality cannot be integrated into materialism. Or science. Or anything based on empirical knowledge. It is too personal for that.

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