Metaphysics, Spirituality, and Religion
Every now and again someone reminds me that I am an atheist. One does not often think of oneself in terms of what one does not believe, so this is easy to forget. Furthermore my belief system is opposed to at least one proposition put forth by contemporary popularizers of atheism. Therefore I articulate here what I do actually believe.
True, False, or Neither True nor False
Some statements are true.
The approximate shape of the Earth is an oblate spheroid.
Some statements are false.
The approximate shape of the Earth is a torus.
Some statements do not appear to be amenable to the properties of truth or falsity.
Purple whispers sleep ferociously.
This is a syntactically correct sentence of the English, which is a natural language currently being used by humans, but puzzling over whether it is true or false is a waste of time. Indeed one could create many sentences of the form adjective noun verb adverb with a random word generator that would be passable grammatically, but not really mean anything.
Humans are prolific random word generators. We are very good at coming up with lots of statements that are neither true nor false. Let us label this kind of language and belief “metaphysical.”
In order to pursue enlightenment, one must accumulate true beliefs. One of the more obvious obstacles to the acquisition of true beliefs is the trap of being led astray by false beliefs. What we in contemporary society have taken to calling “science” is largely a system for weeding out false beliefs with empirical observation and experimentation. Another, perhaps more insidious, obstacle to enlightenment is the trap of metaphysical beliefs. They are not true beliefs, so they do not aid us in the pursuit of enlightenment, but neither are they false beliefs, so they are not weeded out of our belief system by empirical science.
Thus to best pursue enlightenment we must make some conscious effort to avoid metaphysical beliefs. How can we tell the difference between a true-or-false belief and a metaphysical one?
In order to distinguish between true-or-false beliefs and metaphysical beliefs, let us use a rule borrowed from scientific method and philosophy of science: empirical falsifiability. The principle of falsifiability can be applied to this problem thus: if you have a belief that you think might be a true-or-false belief, ask yourself, “Is there some empirical evidence that, if observed, would convince me of the falsity of this belief?”
If you cannot imagine such empirical evidence, then the belief is metaphysical. If you can, not only have you demonstrated to yourself that the belief is a true-or-false belief, you have given yourself direction on how to investigate it: go try to find the evidence that would convince you of its falsity. Indeed this is the beginning of scientific inquiry.
One common point of confusion on the principle of falsifiability as used here is whether the practical limits of one’s own resources are grounds for classifying a belief as unfalsifiable. For instance, perhaps one has a theory on the formation of the solar system. One applies the principle of falsifiability to this theory in order to make sure it is not a metaphysical belief, and one comes up with a falsification criterion that requires traveling throughout the solar system and taking samples of matter throughout it. One school of thought would classify this, if one lacks the practical ability to perform this experiment, as a metaphysical belief. Another school of thought would classify this as a true-or-false belief because a falsification criterion has been specified, even if we cannot currently perform the specified experiment due to the limits of our technology and resources.
The latter school of thought is appealing precisely because of examples such as these. In this interpretation, a belief is falsifiable if within the limits of the physical world, rather than within the limits of current human ability, we can imagine some empirical observations that, if made, would convince us of the falsity of the belief. The more one thinks about this line, however, the fuzzier it becomes. Also, even if we were to convince ourselves that a belief is true-or-false based on a falsification criterion we lack the practical ability to make, we would next be interested in whether the belief is either true or false. If we lack a practical approach for investigating the potential falsity of the belief, then the inquiry necessarily stops. Thus the onus is on us to come up with falsification criteria that are achievable.
Let us now consider beliefs that do not pass the falsifiability principle whatsoever.
One could come up with various definitions of the term “spirituality,” but one of the most common and the one used here is the positing of entities that exist outside of the limits of the physical world. Another way of thinking about these entities is that they are not subject to the laws of nature.
Beliefs about such spiritual entities cannot possibly be falsified by empirical observation because what we actually experience are physical stimuli. They cannot be shown to be false based on their contradiction with established models of nature because they are believed to be exempt from these laws. These beliefs are, by the way they are conceived, metaphysical. There is no gray area owing to the limitations of our abilities. Even if we had all the resources and technology we ever wanted, we could not disprove spiritual beliefs.
On some level, spiritual beliefs are independent of scientific beliefs. On the one hand, spiritual beliefs fail the test of empirical falsifiability and so cannot be disproved by science. On the other hand, scientific models have no place in them for spiritual explanations of phenomena, and so spiritual beliefs are not useful to science. Because spiritual and scientific beliefs are thus disconnected, it is conceivable one could have two different and unrelated kinds of belief.
The danger with this approach occurs when these spiritual beliefs are the basis from which true-or-false beliefs are derived. It is one thing to believe in a thunder god that cannot be contradicted empirically and is above the laws of nature, and another thing to believe that if one were to wear the emblem of the thunder god and say its incantation while in a thunderstorm, one cannot be hit by lightning. This latter belief is a true-or-false belief, one that can be measured empirically.
Another way of believing that conspicuously contradicts the falsifiability principle is faith-based belief. Faith makes a virtue out of belief without evidence and of belief with the absence of doubt. Whereas spirituality is incompatible with the falsifiability principle by positing a world divorced from the natural, physical world, faith-based belief rejects falsifiability directly. Faith is the denial of the possibility that a belief is false.
Another way of viewing this rejection of the falsifiability principle is as an assertion that a belief is not subject to scientific scrutiny. One of way of excluding a belief from scientific scrutiny is by making it a spiritual one, i.e., by framing it outside of natural, physical terms. Thus faith-based belief and spirituality tend to have a lot of confluence. While it is technically possible to have a faith-based belief that is not spiritual or a spiritual belief that is not faith-based, in practice there is much overlap.
As we explored in our meditation on human nature, there is a relationship between tribalism and mythology. Myths are beliefs that lack a literal truth, but unite humans into a sense of belonging to a group, a phenomenon that we call “tribalism.” One of the most profound applications of spirituality in human civilization has been as a mythology used to unite people into tribes. The use of spirituality as an instrument of tribalism we typically call “religion.” Indeed this phenomenon has led to the largest tribes currently known to humankind, with the adherents of several of the world’s major religions numbering in excess of a billion humans each, depending on whom you ask.
While spirituality can be useful as mythology, not all spirituality is mythology. This can be seen in the number of people who identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Further, the converse also holds: not all mythology is spiritual. This can be seen in the overtly secular ideologies of nation-states such as laïcité of the French Republic or the gosateizm of the (now defunct) Soviet Union.
Not all mythologies are spiritual. Morality, which is in my estimation the greatest mythology of them all, is oftentimes not expressed in spiritual terms in contemporary society. However, I hold that moral constructs do not pass the test of empirical falsifiability and are thus metaphysical.
This leads to the major difference between my way of believing and that of a certain variety of contemporary atheism. Atheism today is often associated with secular humanism. Exactly what “secular humanism” is seems to be a vague proposition, though it can generally be described as morality without religion. This is sometimes expressed as ethical naturalism, which is the belief that there are ethical propositions that are made true by some objective features of the world, independent of human opinion. One of the more famous advocates of this brand of ethical naturalism is Sam Harris, who goes so far as to promote a “science of morality.”
This is an equivocation of the word “science” to mean something that is at odds with what makes empirical, natural science actually work. Furthermore it is a self-delusion that gives an ethical naturalist the conceit that the morality invented by the ethical naturalist is somehow “better” than someone else’s morality.
It is the association between ethical naturalism and secular humanism that makes me cringe at the notion of secular humanism and reject the application of the term to myself. It is the association between secular humanism and atheism that makes me slightly nervous even of being counted as an atheist.
Indeed this is my frustration with atheists. I find it encouraging to find a small subset of humans who have decided to move beyond one particular kind of mythology and metaphysical beliefs (i.e., religion), but then am disheartened to find so many of them immediately replace it with another mythology (i.e., the moralizing of secular humanism) and sometimes even with their own metaphysical beliefs (i.e., ethical naturalism).
This is not a trivial difference. In order to appreciate the scale of the divergence of my views on morality from those of secular humanists and, indeed, mainstream society, several meditations are in order. Therefore this is a theme that these meditations shall return to time and again. Such meditations include a reflection on how and why I enforce a strict separation between my beliefs about reality and my moral sentiments, how moral arguments are self-delusional, how moral constructs are fictional, and how to avoid all these obstacles to enlightenment.