Yesterday I focused on the fundamental similarities between rational morality and ‘mainstream’ futurist thinking. Today I will be examining one of the core differences: the perceived value of the world’s major spiritual traditions.

Spirituality, as opposed to spiritualism and particularly in the context of rational morality, has nothing to do with supernatural phenomena, gods or the afterlife. From wikipedia:

“Spirit in the sense of ‘essence’ implies that spirituality also is how you deal with the ‘essential’ in life. The metaphysical includes deeper realizations about the relationships between things – it is non-physical, but not necessarily supernatural. […] If you have a path that is sacred, and disciplined on the more profound things about Nature and life, has ritual, and so on, but is all based on a naturalistic understanding of the universe – that is spirituality as well.”

Now what does that mean? And why is this such a difficult concept to accept for rationalists the world over? Let me try to explain by examining the example of the scientific genius of Newton before defining spirituality and drawing an analogy to science. Isaac Newton – as is widely known – was a prolific English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher. What is less widely known is his equal interest in the subjects of alchemy and theology. Why then, is Newton still so revered even today despite him being a superstitious alchemist and having been proved wrong by Einstein in the early 20th century?

The reason is two fold: firstly we of course understand that Newton despite being wrong – just as Einstein still being wrong – he was relatively less wrong than Kepler before him and Gallilei before and Copernicus before him. Secondly we understand in regards to what he was less wrong, namely in his scientific understanding of gravity. More generally we can thus understand science as following:

“Science is the conscious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation about that which is true and unchanging about the universe we exist in, in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of material reality in line with our goals and values.”

The value of science thereby lies in the degree of accuracy to which it describes ‘true’ reality insofar as the gained insights enhance our means of reshaping reality by the creation of ever more sophisticated technology that happens to produce a desired effect within the margin of error of the current scientific theory. With Newton that meant the ability to calculate the trajectory of cannon balls with Einstein we got GPS, LEDs and nuclear bombs.

This very particular aspect of scientific truth has been reinforced as a fundamental value since the enlightenment and came to ever greater prominence over the course of the engineering driven industrial revolution followed by the information age with its computers and their extreme literalism and has since become that which closest resembles a transcendent standard of value in our postmodern society and its incredulity towards meta narratives: If it is not scientifically true it has no worth.

But, of course, this still leaves us with the open question of how to determine our ultimate goals and fundamental values that we can then advance with science and technology: the ‘what-do-(can)-we-want’-problem, namely to continue to exist by means of being rational.

That out of the way, consider the following definition of spirituality:

“Spirituality is the (sub)concious quest for the realization of an ever closer approximation about that which is true and unchanging about our existence in the universe in order to enhance the means that enable the reshaping of our consciousness in line with the laws of nature imposing the conditions for our existence.”

Seeing spirituality in this new light we are effectively enabled to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in all matters spiritual, just as our understanding of science enables us to realize what determines the good the bad and the ugly. Or – as Ken Wilber calls it – it enables us to tell apart the the prerational from the transrational:

“The essence of the pre/trans fallacy is itself fairly simple: since both prerational states and transrational states are, in their own ways, nonrational, they appear similar or even identical to the untutored eye. And once pre and trans are confused [people confuse profound spiritual insights with new age nonsensne and vice versa]”

I find the idea of a transrational insight problematic since we are dealing with mystical experiences that – while undeniably real – can only support or emphasize a spiritual insight that must have been arrived at prior to the experience either intuitively or rationaliy. How else could one categorize the nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury the Norse warriors known as Berserkers fought in as less spiritual then the feeling of absolute unitary being experienced during vipassana meditation?

The answer of course lies in the insight that some states of consciousness are more conducive to the fitness (i.e. continued existence) of a group than others. Understanding that the desire to exist derived from evolutionary dynamics has to be expanded to want to ensure continued co-existence so one can want it to be a universal law in line Kant’s categorical imperative is a first step. As a consequence what one does to others becomes equivalent to what one does to oneself, ergo feeling for the other, as one with the other becomes a rational moral value resulting in the breakdown of the illusion of separateness or becoming ‘enlightened’, attaining Satori, or simply wanting to be compassionate in spiritual terms. A generally tough cookie this one, but best explained in Advaita Vedanta – the non-dualist philosophy referring to the identity of the Self (Atman) with the Whole (Brahman).

In this context it does not help of course, that the leading public proponent of ‘reason and science’ – Richard Dawkins – happens to reject multilevel selection by championing a gene-centered perspective of evolution and in so doing not only contradicts Stephen J. Gould and David Sloan Wilson but Charles Darwin himself.  Darwin writes in 1877:

“It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and in increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedienhce, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” (The Descent of Man, p. 166)

Dawkins himself being less a beacon of reason and more one of ‘atheism at all cost’, as demonstrated again very recently by Religulous creator Bill Maher being awarded the 2009 Richard Dawkins Award despite his antivaccine lunacy. Accepting multilevel selection on the cultural level as true however, we can now clearly identify on who’s spiritual giant’s shoulders we stand today: the countless shamans of prehistory, the sages of the axial age, the prophets of the major spiritual traditions advocating compassion:

  • Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
  • Buddhism: ”Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.”
  • Confucianism: ”Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
  • Hinduism: ”One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self.”
  • Islam: ”Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.”
  • Judaism: ”The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.”
  • Taoism: ”Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

All major world religions contain this basic key insight and this is not a coincidence. Just as the eye has evolved so many different times independently in the animal kingdom precisely because of the advantage better seeing individuals had over less well seeing ones so did compassion:

“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. […] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution […] will be erased from the memory of the world. […] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success.” — Valentin Turchin, The Phenomenon of Science, Ethics and Evolution

Now rational morality adopts the insight of cybernetic theory that the ‘plan’ of evolution is to increase fitness and that aligning oneself with this plan is best done by adopting the utility function of ‘ensure continued co-existence’. The fact that not everyone does in fact align themselves with this goal is absolutely irrelevant since only those that do will have a higher chance not to “be erased from the memory of the world”, be it in a Malthusian “struggle for existence” or under any other set of selection pressures. The fact that we are living in a time of extraordinary freedoms allowing us to divert from this principle, a luxury granted to us by modern technology, is another matter altogether. Some more quotes in support of this perspective:

“The deepest spiritual insight lies in the realization that there is no other.” — Andrew Cohen, in What is Enlightenment, German Edition, Summer 2007

Plain and simple: we are all one.

“Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.” — The Objectivist Ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness, 23.

I do have my qualms with Rand’s philosophy, but here it is just spot on.

“Necessary existence is a positive property” — Kurt Goedel in 1941, Axiom 5 of his ontological proof for the existence of god using modal logic.

Existence is better than non existence. No question.

“Therefore, since the supreme Good is the supreme being, it follows that everything good has being and every being is good. And so nothing and nonbeing are not from him from whom only good and being come.” — Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

A bit more esoteric, but expressing the same basic principle: being (or existence) is better than nonbeing (or nonexistence)

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

I especially like this one because it basically says what Turchin says above in archaic, biblical language. And finaly:

“Ego is the biggest enemy of humans.” — Rig Veda

Simple and to the point: failing to realize the illusion of separateness is an existential risk.

In conclusion it is important to realize that this entire process is the result of the simple fact that in the absence of any externally specified reward, self replication emerges as an intrinsic reward and starts to feed on itself. It is a teleonomical, not a teleological process. Until of course, one realizes what is happening and starts to go along with the flow.

9 comments on “Rational spirituality

  1. PS: Shot! Totally forgot to mention how Dawkins pre-rational approach has retarded ‘trans-rational’ progress by at least a decade and how the SIAI could gain loads of credibility by joining the charter of compassion. Anyways….

  2. Pingback: Rational Morality » The Charter for Compassion

  3. Also of interest in the context of interplay of goal (existence, rationality) and means (science, spirituality):

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein

  4. Pingback: Rational Morality » On freedom in the evolving universe

  5. Pingback: Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists « Marmalade

  6. Pingback: Rational Morality » The unfortunate etymology of ’selfishness’ in objectivist ethics

  7. Pingback: Rational Morality » The inconvenient truth about Dawkins’ atheism

  8. Pingback: Rational Morality » Faulty assumptions, Nietzsche’s scythe and postmodernity

  9. Siegfried Herbst on said:

    Lieber Stefan,
    bitte schicken Sie mir doch mal Ihre Postanschrift zu. Ich habe da ein Interview mit Dawkins, das ich Ihnen zuschicken möchte. Darin sieht er gar nicht so gut aus.
    Danke für Ihre Mail. Bald mehr.
    S. Herbst

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