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Musings

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.

We’ve discussed Reason and Spirituality, and now we frame my intentions here at Stumbling Forward. There are two endeavors I am embracing by writing SF, and they are (in no special order):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

I had a dream last night that I was with my Dad.  (My long dead stepfather, not my biodad – but my stepfather was the only Dad I knew for most of my life, so to me he is just Dad – or Bob.)  In this dream, which I now can recall only vaguely, I was helping him tend to some outdoor stuff – digging or planting, or something.

I’ll skip right over the fact that I am very much an indoor person and don’t dig or plant, to get to the heart of it.

I was with my Dad. I was keeping company with him.  Despite the fact that he’s be dead for over a decade.

Now, as will be more and more obvious, I don’t think I was really, factually, with him last night.  I am a devotee of reason, and don’t believe in the factual truth of the supernatural.  It was a dream, nothing more.  Factually.

But this got me to thinking – perhaps while it is inarguably true that I wasn’t with my father factually, perhaps it is equally factually true that nevertheless I had the very real experience of being with him.  In other words, perhaps an experience can be true and real, even if the object of the experience is not.

Food for thought, right?

In other musings, it occurs to me that I will have to think deeper on my twin goals of creating an over-arching meta-framework for spirituality while also separately coming up with my own personal implementation of it.  Perhaps the meta-framework can be not just a framework, but a valid instance of itself, in it’s own right whilst still being useful as a template for other spiritualities.

I guess I’ll keep pondering and fumbling and see what happens.

Another thought that just occurred, it’s value potentially anywhere between worthless and priceless (which, in a way, have the same price tag, grin):

A spiritual journey is one where you are looking for answers that only after you find them, you realize you knew all along – but it takes that journey to reveal it.  Perhaps the purpose of the journey wasn’t to find the answers, but to discover that you already knew them.

That rings true to my spiritual ears – but it could be nothing more than new-age sounding BS.  Or it could be something real.

I mean to find that out.

Update: Someone just suggested to me that this is like Dorothy’s journey (Wizard of Oz), where it was only at the end that she found out that she had the means of returning home with her all along.

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.

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”.

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.

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.