We have defined the Covenant recently, but what does that mean? How does following it affect us? How does it shape our choices and beliefs, in practice?
As we said, the Covenant is what divides all things into two worlds, the secular and the spiritual – the secular being the world of fact ruled by Reason alone, and the spiritual being the world of feeling, value, context, and meaning chosen by whatever so moves us to so choose.
To abide by the Covenant, we must take that seriously. When someone tell us that their belief is that the world is less than ten thousand years old, for example, we do not give them a pass. They have made a secular statement – a statement of fact about the age of the earth. The Covenant requires that all statements of fact be justified using the tools of Reason alone. Telling us that their belief (or their holy book) says so does not of course provide any reasons to believe in what is being said. Reason requires proof – that’s how the secular world operates. So we must reject their assertion as undemonstrated until they can do better. Secular statements require secular proof.
(It should be noted, for those who are not familiar, that shooting down a claim is not the same thing as demonstrating the opposite of the claim – see the post on the Skeptic’s Principle.)
So an assertion that the world is only ten thousand years old or less is a secular claim that has to be judged by Reason, what else?
Here’s another example, based on an experience of mine. I dreamed that I was with my father, who died many years ago. We were doing garden work in my dream, digging and planting. It was very pleasant to be able to be with him, very nice to be in his presence again. However, were I to claim that I was really conversing in my dream with the actual spirit of my dead father, the first thing we have to know to respect the Covenant would be “is this a secular claim of fact or a spiritual claim of value?”
The answer should be obvious. If I indeed did claim to have really spoken with my actual dead father in a dream, it is a claim of fact about the actual world. This is not a spiritual claim, as defined by the Covenant, but an assertion of factual truth. Therefore it must be evaluated as strictly as any factual claim – by Reason alone. And if the assertion can not be justified as necessarily true (not just possibly true, according to the Skeptic’s Principle which applies in all secular truth claims) than it is discarded as unfounded.
Let’s take the big elephant in the room: many people claim that a supremely powerful being called God exists. Without getting into exactly what the word “God” specifically means here – which would be required if we were to go forward – let’s move on as if we had well-defined that term.
Well, any statement of “X exists” must be a secular statement, again with respect to the Covenant. To claim that something exists is to make a fact based claim about the actual objective world. Saying that “God exists” is a statement that factually, in the objective world, the entity we have named “God” actually exists. Factually. For real.
The problem is, no matter how much we wish that was a spiritual statement, and up to our wishes and feelings, wanting it to be so doesn’t make it so. “God exists” is a secular statement, regardless of how much the truth of that statement means to us or how important it is to us for it to be true.
And as a secular statement, it can only be permitted according to the strictures of Reason alone. And like all secular statements, if if doesn’t meet the test of the Skeptic’s Principle, it must be discarded as unfounded.
So at this point you might be seeing the Covenant as little more than the final attack of Reason on spirituality. You may well be asking, if the Covenant exposes all this to the rigid demands of Reason, what’s left of spirituality in the first place? If God cannot even be said to exist, how can we even have a spirituality?
The answer is that the Covenant cuts both ways. It may cut us off from making factual claims we cannot prove, but it has another very interesting effect that I will be calling “immanence” which protects our truly spiritual beliefs from any trespass of Reason and the Skeptic’s Principle.
So read on to “The Covenant: Immanence“.
This may seem at first unrelated to spiritualism and more properly a subject of philosophy – and it is. But the Covenant requires us to adhere to a strict separation of the secular and the spiritual, so it is useful to understand the central approach of Reason (the sole arbiter of factual truth) to initially evaluate claims.
The easiest way to illustrate this is with the oft-used “box example”. Two friends, let’s call them Murray and Thomas, walk into a cafe to get their morning coffee together. Murray is an imaginative and undoubting chap, while Thomas is more reserved and skeptical. They notice a plain box on the counter of the bistro as they sip their coffees, and wonder aloud at what might be in it. Murray observes that the box might contain an orange. Thomas notes that while Murray might be right, the number of other possibilities of what the box might reasonably contain is so vast as to make it unlikely that Murray’s first guess is accurate – although not impossible. Murray, doing what he does anytime he’s slightly challenged, doubles down, saying that he knows it must contain an orange.
Thomas is aware that according to the strictures of Reason, Murray is out of line to make such a claim. It’s not that Murray’s claim isn’t possible, it’s that his claim isn’t justified. And that’s the key point here.
In order to be justified, a secular, fact-based claim must not merely be possibly true, it must be necessarily true. There must be a preponderance of evidence supporting a factual claim, or the claim may not be made.
In order to (gently) disabuse his friend Murray of his unjustified claim, Thomas does not have to go as far as to show that an orange couldn’t be what’s in the box – after all, Thomas has no problem with the possibility of that being true, he has a problem with Murray saying that it is not just possibly true, but actually true. What Thomas needs to do, therefore, is to demonstrate that Murray hasn’t justified his claim.
In other words, Thomas isn’t saying that there’s no chance an orange is in the box – he’s simply saying that at this time with current evidence, Murray cannot say that he knows for a fact that an orange is in it.
Many people get this wrong. Many people think that in order to show one shouldn’t claim that a certain thing is true you need to prove that it isn’t true. However, that is wrong – in order to show that a claim cannot be made, all you have to do is show that it is unfounded – that it lacks proper justification to be made in the first place.
Ultimately, when anyone considers a factual claim, there are not two responses, but three. (Actually five, but that goes beyond the scope of this topic – I do list them at the bottom for anyone who wants to know.)
One can say the claim is justified, and true.
One can say the claim is factually wrong, and demonstrate the falsity of the claim.
Or one can say the claim may or may not be correct, but we do not at this time have enough information to say.
Many people forget the third is a proper possible outcome. People tend to think of a claim as being accepted as true or rejected as false – they don’t often see that the third response of “We can’t say” is sometimes the best response – but it is.
In the case of the box example above, Murray made a claim that there is in fact an orange in the box, despite any evidence to that effect. Murray’s claim can’t be said to be true just yet, but nor can it be said to be false yet either. The correct response is simply that Murray’s claim is not justified, and therefore cannot yet be made, whether it turns out to be true or not. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but we would not call that a good way to tell time!
The Skeptic’s Principle respects this truth – sometimes the right course of action in response to a claim is neither to believe it true nor false, but to reject it as unjustified and to simply say “We can’t say.”
The box example above is silly, and unlikely, yet it illustrates clearly the Skeptic’s Principle, something that people get wrong every time they respond to being challenged to justify their claims with “Well, you can’t prove me wrong!”
Note: for any who wish to know the five potential ways to evaluate claims of factual truth, they are:
- internally not well formed: the claim must be rejected because either it is internally inconsistent and in some way contradicts itself, or the claim contains one or more items that are vague, imprecise, undefined, etc.
- demonstrably true: we have enough reasons to think this factually true
- demonstrably false: we have enough reasons to think this factually false
- unknown: though well formed, the claim cannot be reliably said to be be true or false because we don’t yet have enough information
- unknowable: still well-formed, but of such a nature that no evidence is possible, therefore can never said to be known true or known false
Now that I have lain down the foundation for resonance, let me take up the other lexicological challenge facing me: an apt name for what may well be the most critical, central, and vital part of the whole thing – the division between the secular and the spiritual.
- the secular – which is everything factual, objective, every truth about the actual real world, and
- the spiritual – which is everything subjective, all the values, contexts, and personal truths
The balance is maintained by treating them differently. Reason is the sole arbiter of what can be claimed true in secular matters. However, in spiritual matters, Reason no longer gets to reign supreme, and is demoted to performing only the clean-up work of finding and removing inconsistency. Other methods – intuition, faith, revelation, our innate sense – can be brought into play in spiritual matters without reproach.
This arrangement works splendidly at three critical tasks.
First, it prohibits any method other than Reason from being allowed to produce facts about the objective world. Under this approach, there would never be another moment of having some spiritual text say one thing while the scientific evidence says something completely different. No more would our religious leaders say one thing about the world, like the earth is only 10,000 years old, while the incontrovertible evidence demonstrates an age of billions of years. No more would any spirituality or faith have any right to make any pronouncements with regards to facts about the world. Under this approach, that right belongs to Reason alone.
Second, this arrangement permits truly spiritual beliefs – beliefs about value, meaning, purpose, morals, understanding and wisdom – to be free of the rigid strictures required by Reason. The only justification for a spiritual belief needed is “This is what I feel”. By these means, all spiritual statements of all kinds are forever protected from being challenged by philosophers and scientists. Each person can truly embrace what’s in their heart and spirit without fear of attack on their logic. (With the only exception being the pursuit of internal consistency.)
Finally, this approach (were people to follow it) utterly and completely ends the incessant tug-of-war between religion and Reason, church and science – at least as far as disagreements go – for if the disagreement be over a secular matter, then only Reason decides it, but if the disagreement be over a spiritual matter, then the matter is decided by one’s spiritual beliefs.
This arrangement, which (if followed) would end a war that has raged since the dawn of humanity, I will be calling the Covenant – a pact amongst us all to (hopefully) finally settle these matters in the way that benefits all and respects all truths, secular and spiritual, each in their own appropriate way.
Part of this journey for me is finding the right concepts, the proper words to correctly zero in on what we are doing here. It’s all about achieving a certain amount of precision – because, I think, precision can be an integral component that leads to clarity, a clarity is (as always) the goal.
There are key concepts that if well-described and well-defined get us a long way down the road of finding our way. And there’s one cornerstone concept in particular that I have been having difficulty encapsulating in language.
Let’s go back for a moment. Let’s consider again the world of facts, the objective “it’s really real” world. That is the world that exists. We can reasonably debate about what the real, factual world contains, but the fact remains that there is a real factual world, and when we make factual statements, those statements are either correct and accurate representations of the factual truth, or they are inaccurate, incorrect, and basically wrong.
Then there’s our subjective feelings of the world. A pencil is a pencil is a pencil, but showing a #2 yellow pencil to an academic star and to someone who flunked out may yield very different visceral reactions to the same fact. Put another way, the world of feelings is unique to everyone. And feelings are not bound by fact, though they are often influenced by them, of course. There’s nothing about a sunny day that mandates being happy, and a rainy day doesn’t require anybody to be bummed. Some folks in fact dislike sunny days and enjoy the rainy ones – and that’s fine.
Somewhere between fleeting and ephemeral feelings and solid, dependable facts lies a hazy middle ground. Sometimes we have feelings that seem more profound, more significant, or more compelling. Sometimes we have an experience that seems more than just ordinary, that seems especially fulfilling, deep, or engaging.
It is this extra aspect to an experience that I am calling resonance. When you are deeply moved by a film, you’re experiencing resonance. When a sermon seems to speak to your heart or soul, that’s resonance. When you look at your beloved and feel an undeniable transcendent love, that’s resonance too.
Plenty of experiences and feelings can be extraordinary without having resonance, however. You can feel a rush as your sports team wins without feeling any special meaning about it. You can have a scrumptious dinner without that experience touching you all that deeply. And you can be genuinely happy about a good day you are having without it being particularly profound. All these feelings are normal, day-by-day happenings.
But when a piece of you begins to think “this means something” or “this is important”, when you feel deeply, when you are consumed by the experience, even if only for a moment, that is resonance.
A phrase came to me, that itself exhibited resonance to me, causing a feeling of something worth noting: “The intersection of fact and feeling is meaning.”
Feeling is emotion, and facts are, well, facts. But where feelings become more than just emotion is where our facts gain context and dimension – where their meaning to us unfolds. And though plain facts are dry and mundane, where they begin to take on purpose and heft is where they speak to our hopes and needs.
The intersection of fact and feeling is meaning. And resonance is the built-in “radar” we have for early detection of these vital spiritual truths.
I think the key to spirituality that fulfills us is keying into the idea and reality of resonance.
Carl Sagan was the first figure of authority in my life that spoke to something inside me. Watching Sagan’s miniseries Cosmos on PBS all those years ago really informed me and my approach to life. You see, although Cosmos was a journey through what humanity knew and the thousands of years journey humanity went on to get there, it wasn’t simply dry or academic. Oh, there was plenty of science, and the history of science, but Sagan went further and deeper than that.
Sagan spoke of transformative experiences he had along his personal journey in science. He spoke of the wonder of seeing this universe, its awesome majesty, its elegance, and its scope, from the almost absurdly tininess of sub-atomic particles to the ego-shattering vastness of the Cosmos itself. He also spoke of the context of being a member of a people who were able to not only determine that the earth is round, but it’s rough size – and this way back in BC times, thousands of years before anything resembling modern technology. He spoke of the breath-taking endeavor that was the Library of Alexander. He spoke of the struggles of men of reason against oppressors that did not like the facts as they were presented to them – such as a solar system where the Earth was not the center. And always he came back to the grandness, beauty, and sheer joy of the naked truth of the universe itself.
This wasn’t merely a recitation of facts, though one could learn a lot from Cosmos, even today. What Cosmos represented was Sagan’s journey and experiences of this wondrous world we inhabit. Far from being passive or boring, it was engaging, emotional, profound – it was not just spiritual, it was essentially spiritual. Although Sagan may not have described it so, his Spirituality leaped from the screen to our hearts, as we got to expereince his journey and what it meant to him.
This is why I think many scientists do not seek or need traditional religion – they already have a Spirituality in place. Their muse is the world itself, their values those that embrace truth, honesty, and pragmatism – and both personal and societal evolution. Their communities are their fellows seekers, their spiritual leaders not the most eminent in their field, but the scientists that go beyond truth to meaning, who connect science to humanity and humanity to science, men like Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, and the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson.
So one might ask, is the Spiritualism of Science the one true religion, the best Spirituality?
Well, to put it bluntly, no. There can be no best spirituality. That’s not to say there can’t be total wrong spirituality or religions – there totally can be. Absolutely, utterly, earth-shatteringly wrong belief systems. The one that said the sun revolved around the earth was utterly wrong, for example.
But, if approached correctly, deferring to Reason in all aspects where it needs to be deferred to, such as matters of fact, then there is more than enough room for an unlimited number of spiritualities!
For me, while I am deeply touched by Sagan’s spirituality, and am honored whenever I get to be in its presence – or in the presence of those of Kaku, Dawkins, Tyson – my own personal spiritual needs require more of a community aspect. I want to gather with “my people” whomever they may be, I want to “pray” with them, I want to share with my “congregation” our struggles to be better than we might otherwise be.
Perhaps if I was a scientist professionally, I would meet that need in my day to day work. Since I am not, I must find other ways.
Still, Sagan’s Spirituality is compelling, and when I hear scientists speak from the heart of their joy and reverence for the natural world and our yearning to understand it, I know that they have fulfilled their spiritual needs, just like Sagan did.
In the first post I got to ruminating on why people didn’t just go with the division of the secular and the spiritual, and I came up with four things that get lost if one keeps the religious stuff on the spiritual side and away from facts. Let’s look at the first of those a little more in depth.
- A feeling of specialness, or being “the chosen ones”
Let’s take a (made-up by me) religion called Jerseyism. Among the tenets is that Jersey rocks! and that people from Jersey are a better class of people.
Jerseyism certainly gives everyone from that state an ego boost, but what if Jerseyism preached that if you are not one of the faithful, all is not lost. Simply move to New Jersey, and you too can join the chosen ones!
Think about it. If I am a Jerseyan and accept the doctrine that I’m better than people who aren’t, sure, I feel good about myself, but I feel bad about everyone else who isn’t as “special” as I am – but I can do something about that! I can save them! All I have to do is spread the word and open their eyes to the truth, and then they can be special too – just as soon as they move in state!
It’s a silly example, but that’s how it works. I become special by being X. I want to help you feel special too by converting to X. and the cycle repeats.
This need to be special can be rooted in a need to be above others. Or it can come compensating from a poor self-image. Regardless of the cause, peer pressures with in-group/out-group relations can be intense.
And that not to say that feeling special is bad. Feeling special for who or what you are is pretty pointless. Feeling special because of what you are doing on the other hand makes total sense.
For example, two people, Don and Jerry, both with spare money in their pocket walk by a homeless woman. Don gives her 10 dollars, Jerry gives her nothing. And yet both feel special. Why?
Well, understandably, generous Don is feeling good about reaching out and giving a hand to a fellow human in need. There’s nothing wrong with that. Anyone can do that – being generous and caring for your fellow humans doesn’t require to join an exclusive group – you just have to act.
Jerry feels special because he’s a Jerseyan. In his mind, he’s a chosen one. He doesn’t have to do anything to feel special, he feels special because he in the club, not because he’s a good person or having a beneficial effect on people.
And that’s the problem. Feeling special because you are in the club is easy – it is in fact a lazy way to feel special. And it’s not even unique to religion at all, social groups also have a tendency to create in-group/out-group boundaries. But religions can take that further. A sure sign of this is a claim to have the “only truth” without proof to back it up. Instead, one is told that the way to become special/chosen is to be willing to believe in these unproven claims in the face of lacking any reason to do so.
Feeling special, or feeling like you’re “on the inside”, can be powerful, especially if the church, cult or sect can create an interior sense of closeness while painting the “outer people” as scary, inhuman, or lesser. So, how do we move beyond this?
By realizing that it is not our religion or spirituality that makes us special. It is not who or what we are that makes us special. When we are special, it’s because we overcame a challenge or made a difficult decision correctly. Its’ because we accomplished something significant or made the choice to help others, and followed through.
To put another way, if anything makes us special, it’s not our spirituality itself, but the effects our choices have on the world around us. You can have ten different belief systems that applaud generosity and giving – and those who do so are special, not because of their belief system, but because of their actions and effects.
Still, the special-because-I’m-in-the-club type believers won’t like separating the secular from the spiritual, because by the use of Reason and facts alone, they cannot defend the idea of their exceptionalism. They need to be able to state their uniqueness as a fact, and have it be believed, without having it be factually true. And so these types will not want to see belief systems kept out of the part of our universe where factual truth lives. They do not want to submit their assertion to the test of Reason – because it cannot survive such a test.
So there it is. One reason many may object to the Truce is that it utterly undercuts their ability to achieve unearned superiority.
That’s one reason, but there are three more. We will continue examining them in the next installment.
Early in the process of thinking about this stuff I had a moment of equal parts eureka and kumbiyah where I supposedly stumbled over a way to get all this religion versus science stuff straightened out. If you’ve read my Reason and Spirituality pages, you know what that was: an understanding that all questions as to the nature of the universe, all matters of fact and objective truth, are the sole domain of Reason – which answers those questions with science, math, history, etc. Likewise, all matters of value, context, feeling, meaning, and personal truth are decided largely by what moves us and appeals to us, only limited by Reason insofar as to keep us from embracing irrational options.
If we do that, of course, if we handle our truths that way, we permit Reason to do what it does best and we permit ourselves to go beyond Reason where it is insufficient. It quite obviously, elegantly, and self-evidently works. It also allows people to still have spiritual beliefs, religions, etc, with only two stipulations: that just like Reason cannot forbid a true spiritual truth from being chosen or embraced, Spirituality cannot ever speak about the world of factual truth, and that our beliefs should still be free from contradictions.
So I ask myself, why hasn’t this already been done? I’m no genius, I certainly did not think of this first. What is it that gets lost if we do this that is so terrible? Why isn’t this already the way it is?
I think there are four things that get lost, that if we want to pursue a path of tolerance and of accepting the facts of reality, we are required to leave these four things behind – and they each are quite seductive:
- A feeling of specialness, or being “the chosen ones”
- The safety net of believing in life after death.
- The relief of believing that no matter the injustices of this world, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished in the next.
- The inertia of thousands of years of belief and tradition.
We’ll start by looking at the first one in the next post.
As I examine religions and other spiritualities, there are repeating motifs – not perhaps that surprising since I do believe that most people have fundamentally similar base spiritual needs. And since one of my goals is to understand the patterns of spiritualities while the other is to develop my own, it behooves me on both counts to dig into this – and especially to dig into the rituals, traditions, and practices that seem to exist in one form or another across most spiritualities.
Having a moment of some kind of spiritual communion, for example, is a practice common to most spiritualities. Many western spiritualities enfold that as prayer, while many eastern spiritualities use meditation for that purpose instead – but scratch the surface and you will find both answer a very similar spiritual need.
Or take the passing of wisdom from spiritual leaders to those who gather to hear them. Some call this practice giving a sermon, say call it preaching, some simply call it teaching, depending on the spirituality – but again, the common thread is evident.
There are many of these common traditions or methods. For the sake of this website’s continuing discussion, I will from now own refer to them as “praxes” – or if only talk about one, a “praxis”.
So, a prayer is a spiritual praxis. So is meditation. Sitting outside in stillness listening to nature speak to you can also be a praxis. In fact, it is likely that all three are actually the same praxis in different forms, using different expressions – but ultimately addressing the same need.
It is this collection of praxes that make up the most visible aspect of a spirituality. That and the creed – more on this later.
I guess part of the process of understanding something is learning its parts and pieces, its components. If you want to understand, for example, the Episcopal Church, you could start by learning the various aspects and methods that the Church employs.
To understand spirituality as a whole, however, you aren’t looking at specific components, you’re looking at the templates that they follow. You have to learn the ways that spiritualities are in general, one assumes by looking at various example spiritualities and finding what they have in common, while also looking at the human spirit and listening to what it needs from these systems.
Praxes are I think going to be a big part of that – identifying and understanding the root praxis underlying each common need and method.
Note: “Praxis” is of course singular, while “praxes” is plural. Praxis is pronounced much like it looks – “prak-zihs”, rhymes with axis. Praxes is pronounced “prak-zeez”.
It occurs to me that not only do people have different belief systems – different spiritualities – they have different ways of expressing and celebrating them. For example, while it’s true that several of the Christian franchises may have some differing creeds or fundamentals, one of the most obvious differences amongst them is how they engage in their beliefs.
One church I went to was filled to the rafters with “a joyful noise.” There was great song, a very emotive experience. Another church was a very somber affair, very serious, very rigid and traditional. A third seemed almost more community oriented and all inclusive to the point of vagueness. All three were basically standard Christian churches, but the experience each member went to have was utterly different.
This I think points to a different dimension of spirituality. It’s not just about what you embrace, but the form and method of your embracement that feels the most appropriate and fulfilling. For some, that’s somber and serious, but for others that’s joyous and enthusiastic.
So even people who share a fundamental similar spirituality – at least as far as the content may find that they nonetheless belong in different choices depending on their mode of worship or observance.
Modes – another wrinkle in discovering/choosing spirituality.
Just wanted to note (for posterity?) that this entire website is a WIP – work in progress.
Specifically, that can (and will) mean any and all of the following:
- Parts of the site may be buggy or look wrong. If anyone sees such a glitch, feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Likewise, some links may be non-functional – either because the content is “Coming Soon(tm)” or because the link itself is broken.
- Any page or post can be reworked and rewritten to better make it’s point. For example, I will probably be writing and re-writing the main Reason and Spirituality pages on an ongoing basis – both to better put forth the desired thoughts, and to reflect a hopefully evolving understanding.
- As with many blogs, but especially with this one, the posts are in no specific order – I just post ideas as I think of them. For orderly examinations, check out the pages in the top nav bar – the blog posts are far more stream of consciousness.
- This post itself represents (in quite a meta way) an evolving chunk of data – as I think of other things that belong here, I will go back and add them.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or constructive criticism, please don’t hesitate to email me at email@example.com