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Science and Religion

 
no_profundia
 
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no_profundia
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17 March 2019 14:51
 

@Poldano

I think the Christological debates are residues of the Jewish Jesus cult meeting Greek philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism. The latter has a lot of body-denying stuff in it, and was very influential on early Christianity. I basically ignore it as informing about any procedural basis for Christianity. However, it might bear on it via the notion that anything material is evil, another strain of thought in the Zeitgeist of the Roman Empire and its environs at the time. I don’t know if you have already considered these potential connections; if you already have, I may have some more information (or misinformation) to pass on.

Yes, and I think the mystery religions are mixed in there as well. From what I gather, there were a large number of people in the Roman Empire looking for a divine savior and a particular interpretation of Christ fit the bill (wasn’t Christ’s birthday an inheritance from Mithras?). And that is where I get hung up: what does ‘divinity’ signify? Why is there such a desire for it? If we are really just looking for practical knowledge about how to live why not turn to Epicurus or Epictetus? Why turn to a Mithras or a Christ? Is it because the symbols are more striking and, therefore, more memorable?

I ask this question because, on one hand, I do not believe in anything that could be called supernatural (at least, not anything with intelligence and will), and yet, I feel an impulse for something ‘divine’ that I can’t totally explain.

I think the husk is the memory-enhancing part. The procedures themselves can be forgotten, especially across generations, but because of the vividness of the declarative imagery, they can easily be recalled or reinvented.

This makes sense to me. It may be hard to pass on specific practices or practical knowledge but with certain formulas or symbols it is possible to reinvent them. I don’t think I have ever read a Christian theologian who claims that Christology is about how we should treat our bodies, and yet, I can deduce that certain forms of asceticism may be inappropriate if I hold a particular Christological view. I suspect the symbols of Christianity are losing their ability to pass on these truths. Theology just seems like opaque non-sense to a lot of people these days. So, is that when religions die? When people can no longer make sense of the symbols and extract the kernel from the husk?

One aspect that I am currently interested in is the ontological extent of personhood (which is not the same as personality). Does it extend only as deeply as our neural activity, or is there more to it? Subjectively, we tend to think of our personhoods as extending through every aspect of reality, while the most objective science we have can only measure any effects related to it to the level of molecules, or perhaps atoms in some cases. Christianity, you may have observed, makes a big deal about personhood, particular the triple personhoods of God. What does that implicitly say about the nature and status of ourselves as persons?

Yes, Christianity places personality in a prominent place. That is part of its appeal to me but also part of the reason I ultimately decided I am not a Christian. I don’t think personhood extends that deeply. What are your thoughts on the ontological extend of personhood?

@TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher

This leaves the additional point of showing that at their heart, religions are about morality, i.e. about good community—something I think even de-supernaturalized religionists will acknowledge…

...Regarding your second point—that secular attempts at spirituality won’t satisfy the specifically religious motive for a “greater reality”—again, I agree: they won’t.  In my opinion Harris’ “spirituality” drains it of its, well, spirituality, as well as of moral—i.e. communal—significance.  In effect what Harris proposes is interesting and fruitful for exploring a private reality, but it hardly satisfies the urge for a transcendent reality.  Rather, as advocates of Buddhism et al. acknowledge, meditation techniques deal with transcendental, not transcendent, reality…

...I would say that religious faith properly is the openness to this possibility of discovery, not just in morals (where it primarily takes place), but also in science.  Where religious advocates have erred so far is in inverting the “reality” of this discovery from a transcendency ‘ahead’ of us as yet to be realized into a supernatural reality ‘behind’ us that both justifies and insures success in the search.  So I’m advocating a faith that’s prospective, not retrospective, one that looks ahead for possibilities that can only be “ideal” because there are no yet known, not belief in actualities that are real in some supernatural sense…

This is quite interesting. Can you clarify how you are using transcendental in opposition to transcendent? The use of transcendental I am familiar with is from Kant and I have a feeling that is not exactly how you (or the Buddhists) are using it.

I like your ideas, especially about community, and about future ideal possibilities. I sometimes wonder if my “religous impulses” are urges for genuine community. I know there has been a lot of discussion about the loss of genuine community in contemporary American society. And the focus on future (currently unknown) possibilities is possibly a way to understand a desire for something that goes beyond everyday quotidian reality. Perhaps my feeling that secular spirituality fails to satisfy certain religious impulses is because I imagine a reduction of the unknown (future possibilities) to the known (current rules for how to live). Maybe I have too narrow a view of morality.

Nietzsche described philosophers as people who build a little raft and head out into the ocean and that has always been part of my go to when people ask what I think philosophy is. It is an exploration of all the different possible ways of conceptualizing the world (including moral conceptions and ways of living). Perhaps the religious impulse I am describing is partly an impulse to leave the shore (our standard conceptualizations) and head out into the unknown? And perhaps, as you are indicating, that impulse is misinterpreted when we imagine it is an impulse for a greater reality that already exists?

But, I also am not sure if I am ready to reduce religion to morality, even if we extend it into the unknown future. It seems that both your position and Poldano’s position tend in that direction. Here is a quote from Friedrich Schleiermacher that I would be interested in getting both your thoughts on:

Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. ... Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle.

Schleiermacher’s version of “religion” is a bit too Romantic for my taste but he does seem to see the religious impulse as distinct from the moral impulse. Schleiermacher probably goes too far in making this separation, there is no religion that I am aware of that is exclusively concerned with an individual’s “feeling for the infinite”, without also being concerned about moral behavior, but I am curious what you think about the Schleiermacher quote? Is there a distinct religious impulse? Is it possible to interpret this impulse in terms of moral striving or exploration?

@burt

Basically (as in another thread) they are identifying morality with social practices aimed at promoting cooperation. I think that at one level this makes lots of sense, but also that as you say about Harris, it misses the transcendency. I see human evolution as a sort of bootstrap process where we develop our cultural and moral ideas as a means of constructing ourselves: who we are, how we relate, and what it all means. It’s the last of those that gets tricky when meaning gets extended beyond everyday and group survival. Then it begins to tie in to tradition (with ties to the past) and projection from this into a mystical (i.e., non-physical) future through myth, religion, and so on that is expressive of current levels of understanding.

Yes, this is what I am wondering about, whether it is possible to preserve the “transcendency” without necessarily positing supernatural realities (or, perhaps, without making any ontological/propositional claims at all). I know I have seen you post on other threads about your interest in Sufism. I am curious how you interpret that? When you study or practice Sufism do you feel you are constructing a story about “what it all means” or do you feel you are connecting to something mystical or non-physical?

 
 
burt
 
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burt
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17 March 2019 16:50
 
no_profundia - 17 March 2019 02:51 PM

@Poldano

I think the Christological debates are residues of the Jewish Jesus cult meeting Greek philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism. The latter has a lot of body-denying stuff in it, and was very influential on early Christianity. I basically ignore it as informing about any procedural basis for Christianity. However, it might bear on it via the notion that anything material is evil, another strain of thought in the Zeitgeist of the Roman Empire and its environs at the time. I don’t know if you have already considered these potential connections; if you already have, I may have some more information (or misinformation) to pass on.

Yes, and I think the mystery religions are mixed in there as well. From what I gather, there were a large number of people in the Roman Empire looking for a divine savior and a particular interpretation of Christ fit the bill (wasn’t Christ’s birthday an inheritance from Mithras?). And that is where I get hung up: what does ‘divinity’ signify? Why is there such a desire for it? If we are really just looking for practical knowledge about how to live why not turn to Epicurus or Epictetus? Why turn to a Mithras or a Christ? Is it because the symbols are more striking and, therefore, more memorable?

burt

Basically (as in another thread) they are identifying morality with social practices aimed at promoting cooperation. I think that at one level this makes lots of sense, but also that as you say about Harris, it misses the transcendency. I see human evolution as a sort of bootstrap process where we develop our cultural and moral ideas as a means of constructing ourselves: who we are, how we relate, and what it all means. It’s the last of those that gets tricky when meaning gets extended beyond everyday and group survival. Then it begins to tie in to tradition (with ties to the past) and projection from this into a mystical (i.e., non-physical) future through myth, religion, and so on that is expressive of current levels of understanding.

Yes, this is what I am wondering about, whether it is possible to preserve the “transcendency” without necessarily positing supernatural realities (or, perhaps, without making any ontological/propositional claims at all). I know I have seen you post on other threads about your interest in Sufism. I am curious how you interpret that? When you study or practice Sufism do you feel you are constructing a story about “what it all means” or do you feel you are connecting to something mystical or non-physical?

Sorry to have cut some very interesting parts from your post, have limited time at the moment. Regarding your first thought, why Christ or Mithras (or Sol Invictus, etc.) rather than philosophy. Very easy reply: 95% of the population was basically illiterate. Philosophy was only available to the educated elite. And serious philosophy at the time was not just an intellectual pursuit. Some time ago I came across a quote from about 100BC (give or take 100 years or so) that laid out the course of study for some one interested in philosophy. It included math, music, gymnastics, and so on and the goal was to develop the entire person.

As for Sufism, my own studies have been studies of some of the classical writers but primarily working with the writings of Idries Shah. The point of view that comes through those works is that what’s important isn’t constructing a story about what it all means, or connecting to something mystical, but rather developing a particular attitude toward the world which allows greater clarity and understanding of both practical events in the world and of other people, with a practical morality that grows out of that. Something along the lines that it’s better to have the tools to develop understanding than it is to be told what’s going on because that changes but with the tools one can always adapt to change (One of Shah’s comments about that was that if somebody tried to learn Sufism from medieval dervish manuals they would turn themselves into exemplary medieval gentlemen.) As for working on those tools, I’ve done other work with a group called Arica.

 
Poldano
 
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Poldano
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19 March 2019 04:02
 
no_profundia - 17 March 2019 02:51 PM

@Poldano

I think the Christological debates are residues of the Jewish Jesus cult meeting Greek philosophy, particularly Neoplatonism. The latter has a lot of body-denying stuff in it, and was very influential on early Christianity. I basically ignore it as informing about any procedural basis for Christianity. However, it might bear on it via the notion that anything material is evil, another strain of thought in the Zeitgeist of the Roman Empire and its environs at the time. I don’t know if you have already considered these potential connections; if you already have, I may have some more information (or misinformation) to pass on.

Yes, and I think the mystery religions are mixed in there as well. From what I gather, there were a large number of people in the Roman Empire looking for a divine savior and a particular interpretation of Christ fit the bill (wasn’t Christ’s birthday an inheritance from Mithras?). And that is where I get hung up: what does ‘divinity’ signify? Why is there such a desire for it? If we are really just looking for practical knowledge about how to live why not turn to Epicurus or Epictetus? Why turn to a Mithras or a Christ? Is it because the symbols are more striking and, therefore, more memorable?

My answer is basically the same as burt’s, ignorance. I could go into more detail with my opinions but it would all be speculative.

I ask this question because, on one hand, I do not believe in anything that could be called supernatural (at least, not anything with intelligence and will), and yet, I feel an impulse for something ‘divine’ that I can’t totally explain.

Here’s my chance to get all Joseph-Campbell-ish. Reality is Divine; our explanations for it are not. You are Divine, but you’re explanations of yourself and others is not. Another word for explanations is story. If I could summarize most types of meditation that I know about, the gist of each of them would be “dump the story, and get what the story means.”  Better yet, “dump the story and become what it means.”

I think the husk is the memory-enhancing part. The procedures themselves can be forgotten, especially across generations, but because of the vividness of the declarative imagery, they can easily be recalled or reinvented.

This makes sense to me. It may be hard to pass on specific practices or practical knowledge but with certain formulas or symbols it is possible to reinvent them. I don’t think I have ever read a Christian theologian who claims that Christology is about how we should treat our bodies, and yet, I can deduce that certain forms of asceticism may be inappropriate if I hold a particular Christological view. I suspect the symbols of Christianity are losing their ability to pass on these truths. Theology just seems like opaque non-sense to a lot of people these days. So, is that when religions die? When people can no longer make sense of the symbols and extract the kernel from the husk?

When has theology not been opaque nonsense to most people?

Some Christian symbols are losing their ability to pass on the truths they represent. Others are not. We have still not grasped, as a civilization, the meaning of some of the things put in Jesus’s mouth. Another Campbell thesis is that the Christ symbolizes self-transcendence (the dissolution of the mental boundaries we use to separate our concepts of ourselves from our concepts of the rest of existence), and we certainly have not absorbed that in the West. I speculate that the many times in the Acts of the Apostles meet Jesus in their travels without at first recognizing him are signals of self-transcendence.

One aspect that I am currently interested in is the ontological extent of personhood (which is not the same as personality). Does it extend only as deeply as our neural activity, or is there more to it? Subjectively, we tend to think of our personhoods as extending through every aspect of reality, while the most objective science we have can only measure any effects related to it to the level of molecules, or perhaps atoms in some cases. Christianity, you may have observed, makes a big deal about personhood, particular the triple personhoods of God. What does that implicitly say about the nature and status of ourselves as persons?

Yes, Christianity places personality in a prominent place. That is part of its appeal to me but also part of the reason I ultimately decided I am not a Christian. I don’t think personhood extends that deeply. What are your thoughts on the ontological extend of personhood?

To the extent that personhood is not a fictional construct (i.e., a story), it is existence.

Ontologies themselves are stories. Right now, with reference to our currently dominant secular scientific ontology, I don’t know of any way to test for any sign of personal boundaries or identity below the atomic/molecular level, but I don’t rule out that it might someday become possible. Then there is the holographic principle to consider: Every action we take and every thought we think becomes part of a horizon for indeterminable future states of the universe. In a classical sense, and on the atomic/molecular level, all our personal residue is submerged in the noise of much more energetic processes. We don’t know what happens where classical physics doesn’t apply, however.

 

[ Edited: 19 March 2019 04:21 by Poldano]
 
 
burt
 
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burt
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19 March 2019 08:55
 
Poldano - 19 March 2019 04:02 AM

I ask this question because, on one hand, I do not believe in anything that could be called supernatural (at least, not anything with intelligence and will), and yet, I feel an impulse for something ‘divine’ that I can’t totally explain.

Here’s my chance to get all Joseph-Campbell-ish. Reality is Divine; our explanations for it are not. You are Divine, but you’re explanations of yourself and others is not. Another word for explanations is story. If I could summarize most types of meditation that I know about, the gist of each of them would be “dump the story, and get what the story means.”  Better yet, “dump the story and become what it means.”

Hits the nail on the head I think, with qualifications: The catch is to grok what the story means. As I see it, we’re separated from reality by several layers. Our sensations give us a sensory world that’s secure enough that we stay alive, but then we have our interpretations of what those sensations mean beyond any intrinsic significance, which takes us another level away into the world of constructed meanings. That snake I see in the grass could mean danger, could mean dinner, or it might just be a piece of rope. Our interpretations and projections of significance are biased by expectations, fears, desires, past experiences, and so on. The fanatic who shoots up a Mosque or Synagogue or Black Church; or who flies a plane into a tall building has, in a sense, become what his story means. With all of the stories that are intended to point to some sort of transcendence there is a danger involved when the ego assimilates the story into a biased fantasy structure rather than allowing itself to become adapted to the conditions indicated by the story. (The afterwords in Doris Lessing’s book The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 has an example of a person who adapted himself to the early 20th century British and Christian ideal of a decent human being, while the tale in the book is in part about bring oneself into reality.) I think it is extremely important to have a better understanding in society of the way that cultural “stories” have multiple layers of interpretation and how they structure the worldviews of individuals. Wittgenstein’s aphroism: “Tell me how you are seeking and I will tell you what you are seeking for” seems to fit here. If a person is really seeking for a story that allows them to feel powerful, in charge, on top of the world, that is how they will interpret every story.

In those dim and distant days that we call youth
I styled myself a shrewd and mystic sleuth.
It was truth that I sought
But the work that I got
Was not to seek or find but become truth.

But

The Potter casts our fate upon the breeze,
Leaves it up to us to find the keys.
There’s dust on the wheel
From what once was real
As present potters throw new pots to please.

 
no_profundia
 
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no_profundia
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19 March 2019 22:12
 

@burt

Regarding your first thought, why Christ or Mithras (or Sol Invictus, etc.) rather than philosophy. Very easy reply: 95% of the population was basically illiterate. Philosophy was only available to the educated elite. And serious philosophy at the time was not just an intellectual pursuit. Some time ago I came across a quote from about 100BC (give or take 100 years or so) that laid out the course of study for some one interested in philosophy. It included math, music, gymnastics, and so on and the goal was to develop the entire person.

Ah yes, this is of course the answer to my question about why ancient Romans largely turned to Christ or Mithras rather than Epictetus or Epicurus. The symbols and rituals associated with a cult do not require literacy or the leisure time necessary to master mathematics, music, gymnastics, etc.

However, I am curious if you think that these activities - reading Epictetus, studying mathematics, engaging in gymnastics - fulfill the same impulse as the mystery religions? Is the difference between someone who decides to join a philosophical group and someone who joins the cult of Mithras simply a difference in educational levels? Do they both want the same thing and would the uneducated person who engages in the cult gladly trade for the philosophical group if they had the necessary education and leisure time?

This is what I am not sure about. If religion is just a misplaced desire for something else which can just as easily be fulfilled through secular pursuits - which I am defining as any pursuit that does not make reference to anything that transcends quotidian reality - or if there is a genuine impulse, among some people at least, that is not fulfilled through secular activities.

As for Sufism, my own studies have been studies of some of the classical writers but primarily working with the writings of Idries Shah. The point of view that comes through those works is that what’s important isn’t constructing a story about what it all means, or connecting to something mystical, but rather developing a particular attitude toward the world which allows greater clarity and understanding of both practical events in the world and of other people, with a practical morality that grows out of that. Something along the lines that it’s better to have the tools to develop understanding than it is to be told what’s going on because that changes but with the tools one can always adapt to change (One of Shah’s comments about that was that if somebody tried to learn Sufism from medieval dervish manuals they would turn themselves into exemplary medieval gentlemen.) As for working on those tools, I’ve done other work with a group called Arica.

My familiarity with Sufism is limited to a few Rumi poems and an image of whirling dervishes. The image you are presenting is much more interesting and complex. Would Idries Shah’s book The Sufis be a good introduction to this more interesting and complex view of Sufism?

With all of the stories that are intended to point to some sort of transcendence there is a danger involved when the ego assimilates the story into a biased fantasy structure rather than allowing itself to become adapted to the conditions indicated by the story.

This is very well put. One of the frustrating things about religious stories - and I think why some people like Sam Harris seek a more scientific morality - is that it is not always easy to tell these two cases apart. It would be nice if we could adopt a principle like “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, define that mathematically, figure out how to measure happiness, and have a scientific answer to this question, but I don’t think that is possible. We have to have some discernment to determine whether someone is, as you say, interpreting a religious story through the lens of a biased fantasy structure.

Perhaps this discernment (or clarity) is part of the what the Sufis are trying to develop?

@Poldano

Here’s my chance to get all Joseph-Campbell-ish. Reality is Divine; our explanations for it are not. You are Divine, but you’re explanations of yourself and others is not. Another word for explanations is story. If I could summarize most types of meditation that I know about, the gist of each of them would be “dump the story, and get what the story means.”  Better yet, “dump the story and become what it means.”

Like burt I think you hit the nail on the head here. This is something that I think might answer to my “impulse for a greater reality”, something beyond the story that we tell about ourselves. I was in Jungian analysis for many years, and while it was definitely helpful, I eventually began to feel like it was just a process of continually changing the story that I told myself about myself. The analogy I came up with at the time was: it felt like all I was doing was rearranging the furniture in a room when what I really wanted was to get out of the room entirely.

If there is such a longing among a large segment of the general population I would say that it constitutes what I am calling a religious impulse that is somewhat separate from ethical concerns, aesthetic concerns, or scientific/philosophical concerns.

When has theology not been opaque nonsense to most people?

This is true if we are talking about most people. But I think I had intellectual elites in mind. I suppose what I see as a loss might just be a result of a much larger population and more specialization. It is very likely there are more theologians in absolute numbers today - people for whom the symbols of Christianity still have meaning - than there were during the Scholastic age, but in relative terms I think they make up a smaller proportion of intellectual elites.

We have still not grasped, as a civilization, the meaning of some of the things put in Jesus’s mouth.

I completely agree with this. Somewhere Jung says that even though the West is ostensibly a Christian civilization (or it was) our psyches are still pagan.

I was planning on responding to a bit more but I have to go to bed now.

 
 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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20 March 2019 03:21
 

no_profundia

The use of transcendental I am familiar with is from Kant and I have a feeling that is not exactly how you (or the Buddhists) are using it.

I am using “transcendental” in a way analogous to Kant, just absent the epistemology, as in: the conditions for the possibility of experiencing anything.  Consciousness is transcendental to transcendencies because without consciousness, those transcendencies wouldn’t even be experienced, and therefore couldn’t mean anything.  This is just a traditional word for what Harris describes as consciousness being the one thing that cannot be denied because it is irreducibly real.

I like your ideas, especially about community, and about future ideal possibilities. I sometimes wonder if my “religious impulses” are urges for genuine community. I know there has been a lot of discussion about the loss of genuine community in contemporary American society. And the focus on future (currently unknown) possibilities is possibly a way to understand a desire for something that goes beyond everyday quotidian reality. Perhaps my feeling that secular spirituality fails to satisfy certain religious impulses is because I imagine a reduction of the unknown (future possibilities) to the known (current rules for how to live). Maybe I have too narrow a view of morality.

Nietzsche described philosophers as people who build a little raft and head out into the ocean and that has always been part of my go to when people ask what I think philosophy is. It is an exploration of all the different possible ways of conceptualizing the world (including moral conceptions and ways of living). Perhaps the religious impulse I am describing is partly an impulse to leave the shore (our standard conceptualizations) and head out into the unknown? And perhaps, as you are indicating, that impulse is misinterpreted when we imagine it is an impulse for a greater reality that already exists

The way you describe your outlook captures what I had in mind with the ideas you find quite interesting.  So thanks.

But, I also am not sure if I am ready to reduce religion to morality, even if we extend it into the unknown future. It seems that both your position and Poldano’s position tend in that direction

I would not want to reduce the religious to morality either.  I wouldn’t even reduce the religious impulse to a need for community.  If I had to boil it down to anything, without reduction in the scientific sense, I would say the impulse usually reflects a desire to posit some kind of explanation or justification to offset our ignorance or any apparent non-bindingness on something vitally important—this is essentially what happens with supernatural explanations of natural events and supernatural justifications for moral norms.  I wouldn’t want this as a “reduction,” as though being religious boils down to something else more cognitively basic, like Dennett and his agency module gone awry (though I would say basic cognitive mechanisms are exploited by the religious impulse).  But I would note that this religious impulse can take the above usual form and another form, what you and I both describe—an openness to possibility as opposed to a closure through supernatural explanation.  I might even say that the latter is the authentic religious impulse and the former is an inauthentic derivation, meaning that the former relies minimally on the latter but adds something that need not belong to it, while the latter stays true to all that needs to belong.  But either way, if I described supernatural religion as an impulse gone awry, it is not in the sense of Dennett explaining it in terms of a useful cognitive mechanism for natural cognition gone awry, as though it’s a misuse.  Rather I would say that supernatural religion emerges from an authentic religious impulse for the possible, just with an added imposition that posits something supernaturally actual, a positing rooted in an need that can be—dare I say—“outgrown” (but whence this need?).  Lastly, as I’ve indicated without specifying, absent positing something supernaturally actual, I’d say the authentic religious attitude subtends all progress in morals and science.  Science and moral progress emerge from the beginning of faith, as it were; they are not something threatened by faith itself, as though that needs to end so that science and morals can thrive.  So once again, like with his view of morals, Harris gets the true meaning of the religious exactly backwards.

Does this capture the gist of the Schleiermacher you quote?

 

 
TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher
 
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20 March 2019 03:24
 

burt

At a glance, I would say Curry and Norenzayan have a lot in common.  In Big Gods Norenzayan shows how religion transformed and cooperation and conflict, specifically how it makes cooperation in large groups possible.  When religion gives supernatural sanction to moral norms, they become binding on everyone—that is how Norenzayan says we construct ourselves and our moral communities through religion (recurring to Murray and Leaf’s idea of “generative” systems, religion might be one too?).

...it begins to tie in to tradition (with ties to the past) and projection from this into a mystical (i.e., non-physical) future through myth, religion, and so on that is expressive of current levels of understanding

.
This is interesting.  Yes, I suspect myth, religion and so on ties into our current levels of understanding.  In fact, would you agree that both supply explanations where current understanding is foiled by the possible, where possibility cannot be coherently tied in to existing reliable knowledge?  Hence myth emerges to capture the ambivalent possibilities into a coherent story, one full of meaning for action as opposed to information for natural explanation…

I am ambivalent on Socrates, or should I say Plato.  Plato represents to me the beginning of religion in philosophy, a covering over the religious impulse with a quest for certainty in the face of the possible and unknown.  Since Plato, the Western cannon seems addicted to finding antecedent justification for its beliefs—what pragmatism essentially overcomes with its focus on tested consequences, not confirmation by some kind of knowledge of an antecedent basis. 

[ Edited: 20 March 2019 03:27 by TheAnal_lyticPhilosopher]
 
burt
 
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20 March 2019 08:38
 
no_profundia - 19 March 2019 10:12 PM

@burt
However, I am curious if you think that these activities - reading Epictetus, studying mathematics, engaging in gymnastics - fulfill the same impulse as the mystery religions? Is the difference between someone who decides to join a philosophical group and someone who joins the cult of Mithras simply a difference in educational levels? Do they both want the same thing and would the uneducated person who engages in the cult gladly trade for the philosophical group if they had the necessary education and leisure time?

This is what I am not sure about. If religion is just a misplaced desire for something else which can just as easily be fulfilled through secular pursuits - which I am defining as any pursuit that does not make reference to anything that transcends quotidian reality - or if there is a genuine impulse, among some people at least, that is not fulfilled through secular activities.

I’d say that everybody wants the same thing, more or less, but it gets conceptualized in different ways, depending on the person. And there was a strong connection between the philosophical systems and the mystery religions. The most popular philosophical system in Rome was Stoicism, which had its own pattern of transcendence although no Stoic ever claimed to have finally attained. The goal in the mystery religions was transcendence through direct identification with the central deity of the religion, who was a god who had suffered, been killed, and reborn. Through identification an initiate gained a sense of personal transcendence, of rebirth. This pattern was taken over into Christianity, but there was a big difference: the deity in the mystery religions was mythical. Jesus was a historical person. So in Christianity there isn’t the possibility of identification, one could not “become” Jesus in the same way that one could “become” Mithra, Osiris, Dionysus, etc. So instead of an identification that carries the initiate through the entire passion, all that was possible was to develop a sense of compassion or sympathy. (It may well be that this was an important and necessary new element introduced into ancient culture). So Christianity took on the form of a mystery religion, but destroyed the substance by directing the focus outward rather than to the persons internal development. 

no_profundia - 19 March 2019 10:12 PM

@burt

As for Sufism, my own studies have been studies of some of the classical writers but primarily working with the writings of Idries Shah. The point of view that comes through those works is that what’s important isn’t constructing a story about what it all means, or connecting to something mystical, but rather developing a particular attitude toward the world which allows greater clarity and understanding of both practical events in the world and of other people, with a practical morality that grows out of that. Something along the lines that it’s better to have the tools to develop understanding than it is to be told what’s going on because that changes but with the tools one can always adapt to change (One of Shah’s comments about that was that if somebody tried to learn Sufism from medieval dervish manuals they would turn themselves into exemplary medieval gentlemen.) As for working on those tools, I’ve done other work with a group called Arica.

My familiarity with Sufism is limited to a few Rumi poems and an image of whirling dervishes. The image you are presenting is much more interesting and complex. Would Idries Shah’s book The Sufis be a good introduction to this more interesting and complex view of Sufism?

With all of the stories that are intended to point to some sort of transcendence there is a danger involved when the ego assimilates the story into a biased fantasy structure rather than allowing itself to become adapted to the conditions indicated by the story.

This is very well put. One of the frustrating things about religious stories - and I think why some people like Sam Harris seek a more scientific morality - is that it is not always easy to tell these two cases apart. It would be nice if we could adopt a principle like “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, define that mathematically, figure out how to measure happiness, and have a scientific answer to this question, but I don’t think that is possible. We have to have some discernment to determine whether someone is, as you say, interpreting a religious story through the lens of a biased fantasy structure.

Perhaps this discernment (or clarity) is part of the what the Sufis are trying to develop?

I was planning on responding to a bit more but I have to go to bed now.

The Sufis is a good introduction. Another would be Learning How to Learn. One point is that the label “Sufi” carries lots of cache in the Middle East and there are lots of imitators and fakes, as well as dedicated religious minded people who are carrying on systems that have lost their power for development. One of Shah’s points is that a teacher appears and sets up a system designed for the time, place, and people. Later, this system gets carried on by followers and becomes fossilized until somebody comes along who can grasp the essential elements again. Many Middle Eastern Sufis don’t accept Shah because he presented Sufism independent of Islam while the standard view is that it is a part of Islam. Shah, on the other hand, said that Sufis had worked within Islam because that was a local condition. 

no_profundia - 19 March 2019 10:12 PM

@burt

Here’s my chance to get all Joseph-Campbell-ish. Reality is Divine; our explanations for it are not. You are Divine, but you’re explanations of yourself and others is not. Another word for explanations is story. If I could summarize most types of meditation that I know about, the gist of each of them would be “dump the story, and get what the story means.”  Better yet, “dump the story and become what it means.”

Like burt I think you hit the nail on the head here. This is something that I think might answer to my “impulse for a greater reality”, something beyond the story that we tell about ourselves. I was in Jungian analysis for many years, and while it was definitely helpful, I eventually began to feel like it was just a process of continually changing the story that I told myself about myself. The analogy I came up with at the time was: it felt like all I was doing was rearranging the furniture in a room when what I really wanted was to get out of the room entirely.

If there is such a longing among a large segment of the general population I would say that it constitutes what I am calling a religious impulse that is somewhat separate from ethical concerns, aesthetic concerns, or scientific/philosophical concerns.

When has theology not been opaque nonsense to most people?

This is true if we are talking about most people. But I think I had intellectual elites in mind. I suppose what I see as a loss might just be a result of a much larger population and more specialization. It is very likely there are more theologians in absolute numbers today - people for whom the symbols of Christianity still have meaning - than there were during the Scholastic age, but in relative terms I think they make up a smaller proportion of intellectual elites.

We have still not grasped, as a civilization, the meaning of some of the things put in Jesus’s mouth.

I completely agree with this. Somewhere Jung says that even though the West is ostensibly a Christian civilization (or it was) our psyches are still pagan.

I was planning on responding to a bit more but I have to go to bed now.

 
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20 March 2019 13:39
 
burt - 20 March 2019 08:38 AM

I’d say that everybody wants the same thing, more or less, but it gets conceptualized in different ways, depending on the person. And there was a strong connection between the philosophical systems and the mystery religions. The most popular philosophical system in Rome was Stoicism, which had its own pattern of transcendence although no Stoic ever claimed to have finally attained. The goal in the mystery religions was transcendence through direct identification with the central deity of the religion, who was a god who had suffered, been killed, and reborn. Through identification an initiate gained a sense of personal transcendence, of rebirth. This pattern was taken over into Christianity, but there was a big difference: the deity in the mystery religions was mythical. Jesus was a historical person. So in Christianity there isn’t the possibility of identification, one could not “become” Jesus in the same way that one could “become” Mithra, Osiris, Dionysus, etc. So instead of an identification that carries the initiate through the entire passion, all that was possible was to develop a sense of compassion or sympathy. (It may well be that this was an important and necessary new element introduced into ancient culture). So Christianity took on the form of a mystery religion, but destroyed the substance by directing the focus outward rather than to the persons internal development.

Offering a bit of insight my own experiential (not dogmatic) Christianity: the main way that Jesus offered his disciples the personal, internal experience of the kingdom of God was through the experience of the Holy Spirit.  “Truth” was not supposed to have been determined or transmitted by dogma, tradition, or charismatic preachers, but through the direct experience of God inwardly by the “Spirit of Truth.”  The Gospel of John, chapters 13-17, are the best expression of this idea.  John was also responsible for incorporating the Greek idea of “Logos” into Jesus’ history, teaching that he was the “incarnation” (embodiment) of the universal Logos, the inner nature of the cosmos.  As time went on and as the church developed in power and influence, this concept got pushed to the backburner.  Emphasis on it has manifested itself from time to time, but today’s average Evangelical is more focused on doctrine and today’s average Catholic is more focused on tradition than anything Jesus ever intended.  “The kingdom of God is within you”, He said, but that is not the predominant experience of most Christians, IMHO.

 
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21 March 2019 19:30
 

I just wanted to quickly thank everyone on this thread for the very stimulating discussion. I feel another long break from the forums coming on for me so while there are definitely lots of interesting thoughts in the most recent posts worth responding to I think I am going to bow out for now. Take care everyone.

 
 
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