Mystical Atheism

I’ve probably described my position regarding calling me an atheist in previous posts. Many of my atheist friends call me an atheist … after sometimes hours of arguing about the categories and what they mean. I think they are wrong. I am not an atheist. I had yet another opportunity to explain this the other evening when a Satanist (atheistic satanism) asked me how long I’ve been (or when did I first realize) I was an atheist. I had to be clear that I’m not an atheist. I am an agnostic, which I regard as fundamentally different.

Luckily, she did not proceed to lecture me on the 4 types (agnostic atheists – those who believe but admit they cannot know, gnostic atheists – those who don’t believe and think they know, agnostic theists, etc.). So, score one for Satanists not being as self-righteous as regular atheists in man-splaining my own beliefs to me.

Anyway, as a result of that whole conversation, which ranged over the various types of Satanists, including theistic ones, I pursued my long predilection toward the mystical. I know I’ve mentioned that somewhere. But it could have been on my old log. I’ve been suffering with the self-ascribed label of methodological atheist for awhile, now, because it does an adequate job of describing most of my approach to religious belief. But it’s inadequate because of how I treat the unknown (and perhaps the unknowable).

Being reared Catholic and having been exposed to Wittgenstein, no-go theorems, paraconsistent logic, and the like, I have a healthy respect for mystery — things that are either unknowable or simply problematically knowable (e.g. paradox). The end result is that I an an atheist with respect to any defined god(s) — or you might say any definite concept of god(s).

I don’t entertain definite conceptions of god(s). But I do entertain indefinite conceptions, vague, ill-defined conceptions. Gods that are (somehow) indescribable, unspeakable (Hail Lovecraft!), indefinable, are OK by me. As such, it’s perfectly reasonable to call me a “mystical atheist” as at least a partial synonym for (or perhaps a specialization of) “agnostic”. I’m agnostic, but in a particular way. I am atheist, but in a particular way. And you might even say I’m theistic, but in a very specific and particular way. Anything mysterious can reasonably called a “god”. But as soon as we remove the mystery, it is demoted from “god” to “mechanism”.

Final comment: What I find disconcerting is that the definition of “mysticism” seems antithetic to the definitions of “mystic” and “mystical”. Mysticism is commonly defined as the belief in the ability to know (or learn/experience) reality through a mystical experience, whereas mystical is commonly defined such that it relies on the unknown or unknowable … i.e. mystery. Stupid English.

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The Secret (aka the “law of attraction”)

I was cajoled into watching The Secret. Here’s a little back story so you understand why I watched it. Identities have been changed to protect the innocent. 8^)

I mentioned, rather casually, that I’m likely to be dead in 4 years because that’s the statistical median amount of time between diagnosis of my type of cancer and death. Don’t take that the wrong way, though. I have a very benign type of cancer: indolent follicular lymphoma. It kills people. But since it’s indolent, there’s plenty of “survivors” among us. I only use the statistics when the conversation might be more useful with a little reminder to be mindful and live in the present.

But my friend immediately responded by mentioning “the power of the mind”, in particular the importance of a good attitude to survival. I agreed, somewhat, and tried to be clearer, talking about how important it is to be present in whatever situation you happen to find yourself rather than pining for counterfactuals. He then clarified his point and insisted that the mind has more power to heal the body than we think and explicitly cited The Law of Attraction, which I’ll abbreviate to LoA. I was a bit shocked because he had just finished expressing his disdain for organized religion and all their made up beliefs. To me, a metaphysical claim like the LoA is not merely religious but one of the more insidious forms of it.

In any case, I tried to compromise and admitted that people who tend to think positively will tend to dwell on the good things that happen to them and spend less time worrying about the bad things, which can facilitate the achievement of one’s objectives. By contrast, those who dwell on the bad things that happen to them risk a downward spiral (as well as being unpleasant to be around).

In the end, my friend (and his SO) insisted that I watch “The Secret”, which they claim was very convincing to them. I don’t put a premium on my time. So, I agreed. I watched it the other evening. Here are my notes:

  • Thoughts have a (unique) frequency
    • Here they show an EEG
  • When you think that thought you emit that freq
  • law of attraction doesn’t hear that you don’t want some thing… it only hears the thing
  • Focusing on what you dislike yields more of what you dislike and the opposite as well… but they specify no mechanism
  • John Hagelin – quantum physicist
  • Fred Alan Wolf – quantum physicist
  • “No one knows what electricity is.” – Bob Proctor philosopher
  • Its been proven scientifically that a positive thought is 100 times more powerful than a negative thought. – Michael Beckwith – visionary
  • Your thoughts cause your feelings. – bob proctor
  • Every tradition has told us that theres something bigger than us. – James Arthur Ray philosopher
  • The universe will start to rearrange itself to give you what you want.
  • they seem to imply that you don’t have to plan for stepping stones along the way… only envision the possibly distant end goal.
  • Telling quote “what can you do rightnoe to turn your life around?”-Joe Vitale – metaphysician
    • Indicates that they’re targeting the vulnerable.
  • “Turn it over to the universe…”
  • Cathy Goodman claims to have healed her cancer in 3 months without radiation or chemo !!!
  • Disease cannot live in a body thats in a healthy emotional state. Bob Proctor
  • The anti war movement has created more war. The anti drug movement creates more drugs.
  • Often elections are tipped in the direction of the person people arebreally against because hes getting all the attention and all the focus. – Hale Dwoskin author
  • The “limited resources” lie.
    • Indicates they’re relying on some form of the abundance argument.

As usual, I quit taking notes after awhile. So, what you see above is mostly from the first half or so of the show. Now, there are lots of things I could say about this thing. But I want to sum up the positive take away first. Basically,

  • you are responsible for your current state
  • focusing on a situation will make it more achievable and more recognizable
  • you, if anyone, are the only one who can control how you react to some situation

I personally believe that if we could get everyone to act according to those 3 tenets, the world would be a better place. So, to that extent, this … video … is a good thing. But the problem comes in two forms: 1) the mechanism they sorta kinda propose — thoughts emanating from you into the universe and the universe being your slave-like djinn and 2) the risk for catastrophic error about how the universe actually works. (1) is only relevant for people who care about reality and how it actually works. I’d say roughly half the people I know care about that. The other half just want it to work according to some fictional mythos they understand. That includes many scientists, by the way, who think they understand how science works and think talking about how it works is a philosophical waste of time. They just don’t care. For that half that doesn’t care about ontological truth, a recipe for how to think and behave like the LoA may be just fine. In many ways, it’s much better than the horrifying 10 Commandments, for example.

However, (2) is much more important. And the most important error involved, I think, is the risk of victim blaming. It’s a matter of fact that some people, regardless of their attitude or ability to project their will onto the universe, are unlucky. They die in an earthquake or are horribly damaged (brain, spine, etc.) by acts of the gods or nefarious actors like Islamic State militants. The Secret tells us that these victims brought their fate upon themselves because they just didn’t think hard enough, long enough, or in the right way about the outcomes they wanted. Or, a more personal example, when I die of lymphoma, it’ll be because I didn’t take this … video … seriously enough. 8^)

The more immediate problem in category (2), however, is the trap my friend (and his SO) have been caught in. No matter what happens to them, they will never have the ability to falsify the LoA. When good things happen to them, they will claim it’s their doing. When bad things happen to them, they will blame themselves. The only way out of this trap (for them) is to disbelieve the LoA. And, to be honest, that scares me a little bit and makes me want to punish the predators who advocate it.

As a side note, watching the video was important. You don’t get the “pyramid scheme” feeling when you simply read about the LoA on wikipedia or somesuch. But when you see the video, it looks and feels EXACTLY like all the self-help, get rich quick, pitches that parade by on infomercials, at “seminars”, at big box bookstores, etc. These people are selling a product. And the product they’re selling is more evil than any pharmaceutical, any multi-level marketing scheme, or any religion. They’re selling justificationism – the idea that the truth of something depends on how you rationalize believing in that truth.

The universe is not your enslaved djinn. I wish you all the best of luck. But if you turn around and claim your luck is an effect caused by your “right actions” or positive attitude, then I really have nothing of substance to say to you. I just have to stop with “Good luck with that!”

atheist/secular conversion story

Inspired by this.

I frequent a few atheism/humanism meeting groups and a common ice breaker is to ask someone how long they’ve been a [insert-group-name]. Both the humanist and atheist groups are awkward for me because I’m neither an atheist nor a humanist. I’m an agnostic and (I think) a post-humanist.

But what’s really awkward is that I have no conversion story. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve always felt the same way about both religious beliefs or the relationship between humans and our environment. I do have a conversion story from my proto-libertarian to my current political self. And that conversion was heavily influenced by both my agnosticism and ethical foundation. So, I usually tell that story.

To be honest, I often think the conjunction of a) my lack of a conversion story and b) the prevalence of everyone else’s conversion stories is a primary cause of my distrust of atheists (less so re: humanists). Most of the outspoken atheists I run across seem like jilted lovers or somesuch… still bitter about being stabbed in the back by their prior belief systems. It’s a bit like the way some of us view ex-smokers or ex-drinkers. Nobody is more anti-something than those who used to engage in that something.

If I don’t manage to offend the atheists I meet when talking about my non-conversion, and there is still some hint they want to continue the conversation, I usually end up telling them the story of my childhood friend. This friend had some serious issues with drugs and petty crime, and was eventually committed to a psych hospital. He struggled quite a bit with his life direction long into adulthood. But, he finally found God. We’d both been raised Catholic. But neither of us, as children, believed the silliness they tried to program us with. The God he later found was a much more personal one. I think he finally found a church/people who allowed him to participate in defining the God he would worship. That participatory relationship (with the other humans) seemed to give him the right mix of freedom and self-imposed constraint he finally needed to take control of his life.

The point of the story, as I tell it to newly met atheists, is that I think newly minted atheists are similar to my friend. They are basking in a new found freedom by which they can construct their own ideals and their own recipes for how to live their lives. As such, they define their selves as much by contrast against what they once believed as they do positively by the open horizons in front of them.

But most importantly, I’d like the story to demonstrate that they are not so very different from my “born-again” childhood friend. For what it’s worth, I’m rarely successful.

Innate Metaphysical Belief

The Development of Children’s Prelife Reasoning: Evidence From Two Cultures, by Natalie A. Emmons and Deborah Kelemen at Boston University. (That one costs money.  Here’s a free author copy.)  Here’s the abstract:

Two studies investigated children’s reasoning about their mental and bodily states during the time prior to biological conception—“prelife.” By exploring prelife beliefs in 5- to 12-year-olds (N = 283) from two distinct cultures (urban Ecuadorians, rural indigenous Shuar), the studies aimed to uncover children’s untutored intuitions about the essential features of persons. Results showed that with age, children judged fewer mental and bodily states to be functional during prelife. However, children from both cultures continued to privilege the functionality of certain mental states (i.e., emotions, desires) relative to bodily states (i.e., biological, psychobiological, perceptual states). Results converge with afterlife research and suggest that there is an unlearned cognitive tendency to view emotions and desires as the eternal core of personhood.

It strikes me that the source of metaphysical belief is both natural and a consequence of systemic enteroceptive-proprioceptive (EP) feedback. If that’s the case, then the only effective escape from belief in the supernatural is the same reasoning process that enforces a regimen of experiencing things beyond our selves. That means a regular embedding in science, including conversations with scientifically minded people. And it has to be actual science, not scientistic fanboism. If a person has any hope of swimming upstream against the continual onslaught of this EP feedback, constantly telling us that “I” is fundamental, we have to present our ideas for criticism, criticize others’ ideas, and participate in experiments.