Ah sweet Reason, you merciless yet loyal mistress.
In my youth, Reason was the first Big Thing I discovered. It took me years and years to get a handle on the concept and the myriad implications that followed. A set of concentric circles of indirect discovery and subtle yet solid truths, it all starts out with a basic idea, usually called the principle of non-contradiction:
Contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.
To put it more simply, contradiction is falsehood. Anything that inescapably leads to contradiction is falsehood.
If we claim a box contains only a single apple, we can’t simultaneously claim that it contains also a nectarine. Those two claims contradict each other, they can’t be both true in the same sense at the same time.
It may seem foolish, but this approach, along with a handful of what I sometimes call “primaries” – starting beliefs or assumptions – can get you quite far. So far, in fact, to yield the best (the most likely accurate) approach to understanding the cosmos. Yes, that short idea brings into fruition all of science and math.
Here’s one quick, rough illustration of how someone can leverage such a simple thing into useful, practical results.
Many (if not most) religions are exclusive. That is, the claims they make are not compatible as written with each other. For example, the old Norse religion – with Asgard, Odin, Thor, Loki, etc – is very fundamentally different in its “truths” than the old Greek religion – starring Olympus, Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes, etc. There are similarities, of course, but compare the truths of one with the truths of the other and they simply don’t match up, unless you turn a blind eye, which we will not.
The fact is, the Norse religion could be true. It’s possible that upon dying you may wake up in Valhalla. Alternatively, the Greek religion might be the true one – perhaps you might find yourself on the slopes of Mount Olympus after death. Or it could be some other religion – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, the list goes on and on. Any of them might be the true one. Of course, another option might be that none of them are accurate. It may be that upon death, you die, and you don’t ever wake up anywhere else.
The thing is, while we can talk about the science of the mind, what if anything happens supernaturally after death is not a subject anyone can prove or disprove. The Greek and Norse religions are as valid now as they were when everyone believed them – and will continue being so.
So that means it’s OK for people to believe whatever they want about what happens after death, since they can’t be proven wrong – after all they might just turn out to be right, yes?
Actually, if you apply Reason, you will see that such a choice is not rational. This is why:
Whatever the justification someone uses to believe that the Norse religion is really true, it’s the same justification the person following the Greek religion is using. And yet this justification yields two very different religions that contradict each other.
Therefore the tool that produced such contradictory “truths” is itself invalid, and simply must not be used as justification.
In fact, only the kinds of justifications that do NOT produce contradictory facts are useable, are valid.
And there we have it. Starting from the abstract principle of non-contradiction, we end up at a practical yardstick for what is a permissible justification for our beliefs and what isn’t.
Of course, that’s just one simple admittedly off-the-cuff example of how to get pragmatic results from Reason. There are countless more examples: all of science and math result from Reason applied to our observations of the universe.
I will go one step further, and state what most rational people think or feel:
Reason is the ONLY appropriate tool for understanding the objective truths of the universe, for discovering facts and knowledge relating to anything that we can claim exists. If Reason cannot deliver a truth to us, it is better not to pretend to know such a “truth”. Or to put another way, sometimes the only rational answer to a question is “We don’t (yet) know.”
Reason alone – and all that is generated by it (like math and science) – is the sole and only arbiter of factual truth. If asked “Does X exist, is X real?”, Reason is the only valid way to find the answer – and the answer will either be yes, no, or “we don’t know (yet)”.
So when a religion says “the earth sits on the back of a giant turtle” and claims that idea is factually true, the religion has overstepped its bounds onto Reason’s court. There are still vast spaces for religion and spirituality to expand into: explorations of value, metaphor, purpose, intent, personal evolution, and so on.
But when it comes to factual and objective truth, it has to be justified using the tools of Reason. It has to be proved. The only reason to accept any statement as true, ultimately, is because to not do so would be demonstrably irrational – that is, lead to a contradiction.
Now it’s perfectly fine for religions to have metaphors, creation stories of the world to teach and inspire us. Just so long as no one tries to claim that these stories are factually true. Even when they claim something small – for example, the existence of a city in the ancient past located at such-and-such a place. If no proof of this place is found, then it is a story, not a demonstrable fact. And if proof of this city is found – say archaeological remains – then the proof isn’t the religious writings, it’s the result of the science of archaeology, a branch of science, the daughter of Reason. We can only come to factual truth through Reason or its descendants.
This is the core life philosophy I have been on a journey discovering and developing for the last few decades – that to know truth you must know Reason – and that if you ignore or subjugate Reason, you no longer have truth.
I thought that was it, that no more was needed. After all, if Reason is the sole avenue to all truth about the world, about what is and isn’t, about basically everything in the cosmos, than why would anyone need anything more, right?
Actually, no. As it turns out, Reason is sufficient to give us factual truth, objective truth – but understanding this world and how it works is not enough. It is not enough to answer the question how – we still have the need to understand why.
And we also need to do more than understand stuff. We need to connect. We need to find our place. We need to figure out how we should live our lives and why. Sometimes we need stillness to look within, other times we need the support of a close community.
We need to pursue regular transcendent and meaningful experiences that resonate with depth and profundity.
Life isn’t just about understanding the facts of the world, the science, math, and history. That’s just the beginning of living life – knowing what’s what. But after embracing Reason and the truths that flow from it, many new questions follow, questions that Reason cannot answer on its own:
What’s next? Why bother? How can I feel most alive? How do I get what I need?
What do I need?
This is the domain of Spirituality, I think. This is where you go when Reason’s work is done – or at least well underway.
So go there, if you like, and see where that leads: Spirituality.
I am a devotee of Reason, and an Atheist. I don’t have any use or time for the supernatural. I am convinced that the only road to truths about our universe is through the application of Reason. (You may be well served by clicking here to read more about that, before going further.)
And yet, I know there’s more to the pursuit of living our lives than simply knowing factual truth.
Spirituality is one of those vague words that means everything to everyone. However, it is not my intent to hide behind vagueness to pretend we all agree on the same stuff. I would rather dig into it, and get at the heart of the matter. And I think that heart lies in what I will call the Inner World.
To be clear, these Worlds I will be describing are metaphors. I am not saying that there really are two worlds. I am really saying that there are two approaches, two paradigms – each one appropriate in the proper time and place.
The Outer World is the obvious one. It is the world we all share, the world of facts and of factual truth, the world of science, math, and history. The world not of perceived reality, but actual reality. Differences of opinion, values, intentions – none of those matter here, the only thing that is relevant is the answer to the questions of “What exists (or has existed, or will exist?)” and “How do things happen?” – not why, mind you, but how.
The Inner World however, while being immanent, is less blatant as it lies casually and quietly draped over the Outer World. The Inner World is everything we feel, everything we think, everything we believe, and more. It contains both value and context, interpretation and intent.
In the Outer World, what’s true for one is true for all. In the Inner World, on the other hand, that is often not the case. I’ll try to give some examples:
One person grew up excelling in academics. To them a No. 2 pencil is a reminder of their skill. Another person had a father that worked at a pencil manufacturing company, who was laid off as digital content drove the demand for pencils to historic lows.
Seated at a desk, both see the same pencil in the cup with regard to its Outer World existence – they both see the pencil as yellow, solid, sharpened, the eraser fresh and unused. However, with regard to the Inner World, one sees the pencil as a badge of achievement while the other finds it a depressing reminder of what was lost. And both people have real and visceral reactions to its presence.
A less whimsical example is this: one person believes that freedom is the highest, most noble goal – that a person’s freedom is sacred. Another person believes that while freedom is important, we all have a mandatory obligation to help our fellow human, like it or not – that one person’s freedom of choice ends where another person’s true need begins. And so the first believes that people are only entitled to that which they can get on their own, while the second maintains that a person of means owes some portion of what they have to those who are living in abject poverty.
To be clear, the discussion about the effects that occur to the economy or government when certain actions are taken or not taken, while many people may have differing opinions on the matter, is not a matter of opinion, but fact. It is an Outer World problem of “If we do X, what will follow?” That’s a question of factual truth.
But the question of whether we ought to do X (or Y) – of which values we shall live by, or what outcomes we deem worthy – that is an Inner World question.
And it’s not just about philosophy and conditioning. Think of the finest piece of music you have ever heard, the one that moved you more than any other before or since. The music that took ahold of your very self, down to your toes. Or think of that scene in that movie, or TV show, or book, that gave you a moment in time that took your breath away. Maybe it brought you to tears, or filled you with joy, or brought you up off of the couch, vibrant with success.
These emotional experiences aren’t fake. They aren’t meaningless. Quite the opposite. The more they make you feel, the more compelling they are, the more a kernel of your spirit is coming alive. This is also part of the Inner World.
Let’s shift our terminology a little. The phrases Inner World and Outer World are evocative, but it’s simpler just to use the terms “spiritual” and “secular”.
The domain of secular truth is the domain of Reason, of facts, of the so-called Outer World that’s the same for everybody.
The domain of spiritual truth is the domain of feeling, sentiment, experience, value, and personal “reality” – what we’ve been calling the Inner World. Reason still holds sway here – but only to guard us from error, not to guide us to our base choices – because those base choices come from the deepest parts of us.
One way perhaps to get right the division of what is secular and what is spiritual is to get at the base dichotomy by looking at our very mind and spirit. What are they?
The mind is, in short, the collection of neurochemical impulses and fields resident within the brain. Brain and mind sciences have shown that this is the factual, dry, objective truth of what we are. To put another way, with regard to the fact-based secular truth, the essential truth of what we are is our minds, and that which influences our minds.
The spirit, on the other hand, is also us. It’s our values, our sense of right and wrong, our appreciation for art and music, our love for those dear to us, and our capacity for personal evolution and depth. It is the spiritual truth of who we are.
So if the mind is the secular truth of what we are, and the spirit is the spiritual truth of who we are – what does that mean?
It means that the mind and the spirit are the same thing, and that each interpretation is correct within the proper context.
Mind and spirit are two side of the same coin. Researchers can hook us up to machines that can tell us exactly what happens in our brains when we experience love, for example. They can even isolate what causes those feelings and perhaps even trigger it at will.
Still, that is not the meaning of love, it is merely the process. If you want to understand the neurochemical basis for the experience of love in our brains, you turn to Reason and science – for that’s a secular question.
But if you want to experience love more fully, to be more worthy of love, to “walk” in love and embrace the aspect being loving in your life – that’s a matter of the spirit. That’s a spiritual issue.
Everything divides into one or the other, into a question of fact – where we have no leeway or flexibility, or a question of personal truth – where it’s really up to us, to what appeals to us, to what moves us.
I have spent most of my life until now, in my mid 40s, focusing only on matters of Reason, on secular questions – yet almost all of the really important questions are spiritual matters.
So now I realize that I must begin a new journey. Without questioning the undeniable right of Reason to reign supreme for all secular matters, I need to go beyond (though not in the face of) Reason to discover my spiritual path.
I need to discover/create my own spirituality.
While Reason is never to be abandoned, not even in spiritual matters, Reason alone is not sufficient to find your way in this place. After all, all Reason can do is tell you what to avoid (contradictions and that which leads to them) – which is all you need for the secular stuff, but not enough to get you anywhere specific for the spiritual.
Which brings us to the purpose of this site.
- Creating/discovering a sound grounding in understanding the overall structure, function, and experience of spirituality, especially as potentially practiced by people of reason. Learning over-arching spiritual truths that apply to the endeavor of spirituality as a whole, possibly regardless of which exact spirituality is focused on. Thus, seeking the common elements and experiences that all or most spiritualities share.
- Finding, creating, and/or tailoring a specific spirituality for my personal spiritual needs, a spirituality that can provide me what my spirit craves in the manner and mode which nourishes it best. This likely may also entail finding or building a community of people to share this journey with.
Those are my two goals – and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that the answer to the first one may in and of itself provide the second – which would be something amazing if it worked out that way.
In the process of, well, stumbling forward on both goals, I will be considering all kinds of ideas and processes, chronicling my greatly imperfect journey post by post in the SF blog. As I come to specific understandings, I will add pages to “bookmark” these ideas – like the pages for Reason and Spirituality referenced above. However, expect to see even these anchors change and evolve over time as the journey unfolds.
Other pages to keep an eye on (which will be coming soon) are:
- The Glossary - a handy reference for not just words used here that may seem unfamiliar, but also for checking to find out the exact way familiar words may used in an unfamiliar or novel context. Spirit is a common word, for example, but to find out exactly what that word means here check our Glossary.
- The Summary - an ever-evolving set of “Cliff’s Notes” of the base structure being developed here. While not as readable and illustrated as the more detailed pages and posts, it’s a good basic breakdown of the current state of the site, a “TL:DR”, if you will.
- Contact - for constructive criticisms, ideas, suggestions, questions, and more.
- About Me - in case you wanted to see from whom all this madness is springing.
- And of course the main page of the site, the blog itself.
I hope that any of you who stumble over this blog will find my stumbling entertaining, illuminating, thought-provoking, perhaps all three. Ultimately I hope that some time from now I can look back of my notes on this journey – represented by this site itself – and gather from it an integrated and complete answer that serves my two intentions.
For now, I am content to simply put one foot in front of the other.
For those who need a briefer summary of what is in this website, the TL:DR version:
There are two “worlds”, the secular and the spiritual. The secular world is the world of facts and reality. The spiritual world is the world of values, context, meaning, and experience.
The Covenant is both the idea that we ought to acknowledge the above truth and the commitment to treating the secular differently from the spiritual: all secular matters are governed by Reason alone, and all spiritual matters are governed by whatsoever is called from within us so to do.
A key concept of the Covenant is immanence – the idea that even if the object of our experience is not demonstrably real, the experience we have is nevertheless very real, and quite possibly very meaningful.
However, fact-based statements such as “God exists” are actually secular, not spiritual, and as such must be justified as necessarily true (not just potentially true) or discarded.
Still, one can still have the experience of praying to one’s god, listening to the god, even being in that god’s presence without the god’s existence being factually (and secularly) true, and these experiences and practices lose not one whit of their spiritual meaning in the process. This is the true meaning of immanence.
Any religion, belief, or spirituality is potentially compatible with the Covenant, so long as all secular statements or claims made are discarded. For example, so long as the creation story of the Christian Bible is not taken to be factually true, it may still be embraced for the lessons and meanings it contains.
The goals of this website are two-fold: to rationally understand the base nature of spirituality as a whole, and to develop a set of spiritual beliefs and practices (and hopefully an associated community) to answer the needs of the author of this website and others.
This is the summary so far, and will be added to as needed.