Monday, March 19, 2007

One more harm of categorizing

Coturnix compiled the following list of behaviors and conditions as examples of what people might be referring to when they speak of being "spiritual"[ I added the last two]:

  • A) People who really believe in ghosts, spirits, talking with the dead and Ouija boards.
  • B) People currently under the influence of LSD
  • C) People who get the strong emotional feelings of awe when contemplating the vastness of the Universe, the endlessness of Time, the beauty of a mountain, the elegance of a mathematical proof, the amazing adaptations of a tapeworm, or the complexity of the human brain.
  • D) People who get into a trance when dancing
  • E) Atheists when asked by an angry mob of aggressive, dangerous and heavily armed believers.
  • F) Believers when asked by an angry mob of aggressive, dangerous and heavily armed atheists.
  • G) Dogs after marking the fire hydrant.
  • H) People whose goal is to alienate the least number of potential matches on online dating sites.
  • I) People who bought into some New-Age crap.
  • J) Westerners who practice an Eastern religion.
  • K) People who read their horoscopes, burn the incense, use untested health products from Health-Food stores and keep their dentures under pyramid-shaped toys.
  • L) People bearing up with something more than the shrug of stoicism when they are facing the crushing harms that living inevitably dishes out: loss of health, wealth, friends or life itself.
  • M)An inclination to experience, when in the presence of particular harmonious groups of persons, the additional presence of that harmony itself.

The term "spiritual" is vague enough to cover belief systems I find laughable but by the same token vague enough to encompass unaccountably compassionate behaviours too. So the basic point of this post is a pretty safe assertion. But there is more than a whiff of cynicism in the post, as if the falibility of intuitive operating is per force always inferior to some more rational view. Not always. Wanting logic in its workings, the intuitive ways cannot guarantee or explain why they sometimes achieve benign states and consequences yet that is a baby some are unwilling to toss with the bathwater.

To imply that acting on anything but logic and verifiable facts is always a wrong or inferior way to live is arrogance...the data simply is NOT available for some conclusions which we must none the less reach. Are we answering the arrogance of fundamentalists or their self serving delusions with more arrogance? The inclination to question does not make one better than the 95% of humanity who are, after all, doing the best they can within their scant resources. Skepticism without humility or sympathy is less effective than it imagines itself to be.

The burden here should be on the mockers of the "spiritual" to use, by coining new categories if need be, accurate labels for the things they disrespect and can prove to be detrimental or selfish. When those are pared away, something may still be left to respect. We who know enough to think it a trivial exercise to debunk the intellectual laziness of new-age healing quackery and appeals to impossible miracles should be wary of the laziness of tossing a blanket category that covers the follies and then castigate by association everything that has fallen under the blanket.

We can not blame our own catch-all for what it caught.

Footnotes: This post grew out of Coturnix's which in turn grew out of several posts on the topic, mostly among the SEED science blogs...its a rich thread and has some good commenting if you dig back through the ancestry that Coturnix has linked to. I see that PZ's post on spirituality in response to Charles Taylor's winning the Templeton prize was actually where I first brought my two cents to the discussion.


etbnc said...

Thanks for this. And thanks for posting it over at Scienceblogs also.

My summary of last week's slow-motion brawl is: "Denying people the right to their own experiences". Although it's brief enough to quote here, it needs an accompanying graphic image to make sense.

Thanks for contributing to a dialog!

GreenSmile said...

Your welcome. Any place you've weighed in, I have to take a hard look. You are relentlessly fair.

etbnc said...

Aw, shucks. Thanks.

My own blog post is my reaction to the undercurrent that I found most dysfunctional. So my summary might seem less fair than usual, I'm afraid. In the few comments I contributed to the kerfuffle, however, I tried to shine a feeble light upon the things people seemed to overlook in their haste to bash each other.

GreenSmile said...

Its almost like the typical commenter feels some need resort to exageration in order to feel that they have said anything at all.