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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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