Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why does spirituality exist?

What is spirituality, after all?

When you clear away the theological shrubbery, the social horrors of organized religion, the misogyny, and the self-delusion, the core of religion is a personal experience of spirituality. I don't mean this as a supernatural phenomenon, but as the undeniable experience of happiness and one-ness that comes over many people to various degrees and gives them the idea that- yes!, there is something amazing about the world that lies outside our common experience. Why do we have that feeling?

At the outset, I'll observe that in the absence of supernatural evidence, the question is not which of the world's religions has the correct account of spirituality, but why they exist, despite each being wrong in detail. (Excepting Buddhism, perhaps, if one takes its core as more strictly philosophical than supernatural. It does not even try to account for spiritual feelings, while assiduously cultivating them with arcane mental practices.)

At any rate, we are left with evolution as the plausible source for spiritual emotions, as it is for our many, many other emotions and capacities. People seem quite ready to trace their unpleasant emotions to evolutionary roots- disgust, jealousy, bitterness, hatred, regret. But less ready to trace their pleasant emotions in the same way. But isn't sex just as sweet for dogs and elephants as it is for us? They move heaven and earth for it, so we should conclude that whatever goes on in their heads, they have very strong positive emotions/motivations, likely to be essentially the same as the ones we rhapsodize about.

So, spirituality. What function can it serve, being so abstract and ethereal? Where could that have entered on the long road from oceanic slime to us? I'd suggest that spirituality is an intense form of happiness and  motivation, and thus a critical tool for biological systems. It covers several distinct feelings, from solidarity with one's social group to solidarity with and love of nature in general, to feelings that one has solved the existential mysteries of the universe through blinding, though inexplicable, insight.

The most concrete component or aspect of spiritual feeling, I think, is the epiphany- the feeling of having connected some amazingly disparate dots into a significant relationship. This is in part what our brains were built for, connecting up so many cells, sub-modules, and senses so that we not only can operate on a day-in day-out basis in a complex world, but can model reality abstractly and solve problems within those mental models. It is fascinating to see the squirrels outside our window solving their problem- how to get into the bird feeder. One can practically see the gears turning, and one has to ask- how do they know when they have come up with a solution?

They don't test every model they make in their minds in the real world. They don't even know consciously all the models they are working on (remember our right-brain, intuitive skills?). So how do they know when they have hit upon a solution that connects desire with reward? They know through an epiphany- the coalescence of a model of the target condition with their model of reality, after running dynamically through possible actions. The brain does the work in the background, and signals a positive result with this intense feeling. Of course, then they also get the tangible reward of food, but that would never have come without the first flash of recognition.

Spiritual feelings are, in part, epiphanies of a special kind- not concretely tied to the seed one is after, but to mysteries and puzzles that are both deeper and less accessible. Their depth makes their resolution highly motivated- the whole of existence seems to hang in the balance! But their lack of accessibility and empirical connection allows all sorts of models to substitute for the humble empirical model used to test whether a modelled route to the bird feeder really works.

So it is a free-floating feeling, prompted by a cloud, a waterfall, a look. Something that excites the mind with deep and unusual connections, both between mental points and with the world at large. The simplest characterization might be that it consists of love for the world and existence. Drugs like ayahuasca seem to promote such connections and feelings at high rates, far above what we experience in normal life. But their significance remains steadfastly unconscious.

We may be fundamentally changed, but rarely know why- the world is seen in a new way, felt in a new way. We feel more connected with other people and existence in general, taming that otherwise ever-present existential dread. With any luck it makes us more humane and better people. That this outcome is so frequent is a clue that spiritual feelings have a critical (and evolutionary) role in creating feeling-connections to all that is around us, providing the deepest kind of motivation for living and doing.

It is, incidentally, somewhat ironic that it is the scientists of today who are most up in arms about the whole-ness of our natural world, warning about climate change and other degradations we are visiting upon the biosphere. They express a basic respect and connection with nature that other cultural forces, especially the commercial world and its ideological defenders, work day and night to atomize and destroy. While the scientific position is rationally argued in terms of irreversible species loss, biodiversity loss, plain economic costs, and social justice vs the most vulnerable populations around the world, its core is clearly spiritual- a sense of the sacredness of nature that is horrified by wholesale, irreversible, destruction.

So the spiritual emotion seems partly to signify a tectonic shift in the unconscious. We know consciously that something has happened, and long to make sense of it. Here enters theology, rationalization, and all sorts of magical thinking. Explanatory models are typically implanted by tradition or indoctrination- we are born again, or saved by Christ, or touched by god, or allowed to look into the celestial spheres, etc. As with the Greeks, so it is with us- whatever arises from the unconscious is most easily clothed as divine.

It is extremely tempting to kill two birds with this one stone- to unite mystical, spiritual feelings with the conscious conundrums of existence, and think that the former signify divine sanction for whatever cosmic theology we have devised or learned about. But where's the evidence? There is no evidence. Such rationalizations are mere hypnotic suggestion and indoctrination. Better to value the feeling for its own sake and on its own terms. And better to learn about cosmology on its (scientific) terms, keeping the two separate.

On my desktop, the pictures that give me the deepest sense of awe tend to be those deep views of the universe sprinkled with wheeling galaxies- the more you look, the more you find. The possibilities are endless. Who knows what is taking place in these countless far-off worlds? Who would ever have imagined the scale of this universe?

Detail from one astronomy picture of the day, from the Hubble telescope.

This tonic of awe, with its doses of humility, appreciation, and love, seems a common and important emotion, elevating our sense of reality, humanity, and purpose in direct opposition to the mundane race for existence that occupies us otherwise. It is deeply important and worthy of veneration. But that doesn't mean it has analytic content.

That is why the universal secret of moderate religions is that they value theology far less than they value sensitivity, civility, and the general idea of sacredness. They are humanistic, if you will. The "religio - ligare" of connection is more important than the righteousness of theory and "belief".
"Let the gloomy monk, sequestered from the world, seek unsocial pleasures in the bottom of his cell! Let the sublimated philosopher grasp visionary happiness while pursuing phantoms dressed in the garb of truth! Their supreme wisdom is supreme folly; and they mistake for happiness the mere absence of pain. Had they ever felt the solid pleasure of one generous spasm of the heart, they would exchange for it all the frigid speculations of their lives, which you have been vaunting in such elevated terms." - Thomas Jefferson

"At the risk of anthropomorphizing a social convention, money capital longs for exotic forms."
"And debt can be a great conservatizing force; with a large monthly mortgage and/or MasterCard bill, strikes and other forms of troublemaking look less appealing than they would otherwise."
"From society's standpoint, SIVs are unambiguously harmful." ... "Theoclassical economists also assured regulators that independent experts, particularly top tier audit firms, would never give favorable opinions to fraudulent corporations."
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"The creation of a pool of unemployed people as a method of permanently disempowering workers in the labour market is not the end of the story, because it soon becomes apparent that this pool has to be strategically managed in order to engender the sort of desperate competition for jobs that the policy elites hope will thereafter drive productivity."
I'll note in passing that driving productivity is the least of it. What the agenda mostly drives is upward redistribution of income and wealth, as job scarcity lowers wage expectations through the lower end of the employment ladder, labor costs go down, and more profits can be diverted to management and capital.


  1. William James would argue that some percentage of the population is incapable of having such spiritual epiphany (whatever religious, ethical, social or cosmological couching it may have). If we consider spiritual epiphany to be an evolutionary trait, is not being able to perceive one an evolutionary dead-end? Is it a hindrance to survival? If so, couldn't we envision a future human species which is entirely "enlightened"? Just a thought.

  2. Hi, NK-

    That is a fascinating question. I think the most interesting answer lies in the role of diversity. What struck me most about Jane Goodall's work was the diversity of personalities among the chimpanzees. They are individuals, and in a social species, such individuality is not just an accident or distribution about some mean, but an actively selected feature of the gene pool. Which is to say that many traits, especially social ones, are actively selected to occur only at some fraction of the population.

    Boldness/shyness is a classic example, where there is constant tension between the success of bold individuals in benign environments, and their death in dangerous ones. Both traits are maintained in the population, since over time, each succeeds at some rate, and, through the magic of diploid genetics, can be partially sheltered from selection in alternating generations, or whatever the detailed genetics dictate. I think this trait has a binary distribution, though it might be more gaussian- I am not sure.

    Homosexuality represents a different case, where, from my reading, it seems that extreme male-orientation in females is so heavily selected that the trait bleeds over into males, creating a small segment of the male population with male-orientation. This is obviously a cost, but apparently one that is balanced out in the long term. This would be a trait with an overall gaussian distribution. But even if most psychological traits have a multigenic, mono-centered distribution, the conjunction of many such traits distributed among individuals leads to vast diversity among people's temperaments, etc.

    So not only are we complex beings, but our population genetics are also complex, allowing for extensive diversity. Selection does not optimize to uniform cloned automatons!

    So for spirituality, one can imagine a population which is effective in its selective tasks of making a living and killing neighboring tribes when the spirit strikes, as it were. This would be promoted by a diversity of spiritually relevant traits, from a lot of followers with rather dim but suggestible levels of spirituality, (like me, perhaps), up to shamanistic levels of vision-questing and charismatic conviction. The fact that spiritual emotions are contagious in our species- that charismatic leaders can captivate and move followers to extraordinary acts- is an argument for both the utility of such a strong trait, and the utility of keeping it at quite a low rate of occurence.

    That was just the socially activating aspect of sprituality. With respect to the more humdrum love of the universe aspect, I'd make a similar argument, that a successful population takes all types, from the financier's pathological greed to the tree-hugger's communion with nature.

    So, to your question, universal enlightenment may require selective breeding or genetic manipulation, which is probably not what you have in mind!

  3. Ah, yes, interesting point. The entire system is (obviously) complex, so certain things aren't necessarily givens. Hence the fact that prophets are so few and far between - a nation of prophets may not be capable of survival.
    Regardless of what context you take this 'spiritualism' in, however, one has to admit to the capability of the one having the spiritual epiphany. You may not believe in God, but that doesn't make someone's spiritual epiphany any less of a real response to whatever stimulus may have caused it. If it's a way of speaking with God, it is to be admired; if it is simply a good or novel way of connecting the dots, it is still to be admired. Especially when, as you suggest, it leads to personal growth.