Remarks on Philosophy and Spirituality

By | April 1, 2010

What is the challenge of Critical Philosophy?

Among other things, critical philosophy challenges us to become radical in our thinking, i.e., try to get to the “roots” of things; that we work to examine things, the world and yourself. Recall Socrates’ dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The challenge of critical philosophy is that we be prepared to challenge our ideas, beliefs, and values in a Socratic way.

Critical philosophy requests that we scrutinize the standard, conventional answers (alleged answers) that are given to important questions regarding human existence, values and reality.

Critical philosophy asks that we become skeptical about society’s “sacred cows”; and even become iconoclastic regarding many of society’s false assumptions and hollow values.

Critical philosophy asks that we make use of creative imagination, tempered by critical reason, to develop a better “story” of human reality than the ones generally given.

What does religion ask?

Religion asks that you have faith. that you accept God “in your heart,” that you recognize the significance of certain moving (transforming) experiences.

A religion of salvation, such as Christianity, asks that you do what is necessary to gain eternal salvation.

Some religions ask that you forsake things of this world (wealth, pleasure, glory, power) for a higher spiritual order. Religions offer ways of thinking and acting which purportedly will improve your status in the spiritual realm. Accordingly, religions advance certain doctrines regarding the nature of human reality and the higher spiritual realm, doctrines which must be accepted by all members of the group. (With some salvation type religions, adherents must accept the official doctrine on pain of eternal suffering should their actions and beliefs not be satisfactory.)

A large part of the message of the New Testament is that you must have the right faith in order to achieve salvation. Everything else is secondary.
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At times I’m inclined to speak in terms of neat categories like the preceding one between philosophy and religion. How much of it holds true? How much does it mislead?
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Tavio Tellez and kindred spirits (romantics, for the most part) have seen philosophy an intellectual, moral and spiritual enterprise (as a life-long project). Can we really make much sense of this? Let’s try.

First, we have the familiar idea (expressed above) that philosophy is an intellectual, rational project. Philosophers (and associates in the field) work at thinking things through to their logical ends; they sort things out, work to clarify problems and issues, and, in some cases, reconstruct things.

Some of this is the work of criticism and analysis, and resembles clean-up or maintenance work. Philosophers sort things out in order to identify and expose falsehoods. In a romantic vein we could say that they sweep away nonsense and folly in order to give us an uncluttered road to understanding and truth.

Typically the work of philosophy is a social enterprise. The worker in the field must take into account the work that other philosophers have done and are doing. Generally philosophers build on what others have done and are doing; even the errors that occur can be instructive, even illuminating, and should not be ignored.

Analysis, rational argument and creative imagination play leading roles. The working philosopher strives to clarify and define the parameters of our knowledge and well-grounded beliefs, and to construct disciplined, imaginative theories where these may be helpful.

In short, the philosopher works to clarify matters and to get at the rationally, grounded truth about things.

Alternatively, a practicing philosopher can also be actively involved in what we can loosely call the moral-spiritual area. This is the area in which people aim to live the good life and achieve wisdom. Here the advocacy of particular values, normative judgment and value-guided action play primary roles. The philosopher attempts to inculcate certain attitudes, habits of thought and action in others. Some of the questions that are posed: What can we do to help bring about a good society (good government)? What can I do to realize a good character, and help others do the same? Given that we desire to realize a just, harmonious, and beneficent world, what actions, programs and policies will enable us to attain that end? How do I find meaning and significance in my existence?

Some philosophers work to construct a picture of human reality in relation to the rest of nature and the cosmos; according to this picture human existence takes on special meaning and significance.
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Observations on “spirituality”

In some cases, when we find significance and value in things other than material wealth, power, pleasure and social prestige, we see this as expressing our spirituality. Often people associate spirituality with conventional religious faith; but some forms of spirituality are not religious in the conventional sense of the term “religious.”

[Recall the question from the Gospel: How do you profit, if you win the world, but lose your soul?]

Spirituality is also often associated with moral and ethical values, with an abiding concern for other people’s rights and needs; some might state this as having a certain type of moral consciousness. Others might state things in terms of a life dedicated to realizing the morally good life; and a few will talk about a life of high mindedness.

Spirituality can also associate with a creativity, aesthetic values and artistic expression.

[It may be that spirituality is something you experience and express, not something you talk about and analyze.]

Suppose that you perceive the world spiritually without being a churchman or without submitting to the will of religious authority. You will look at the world, at our life and your fellow human beings in particular ways. Your attitude will be one that places certain values on things.

Do we state it this way: The world has a spiritual dimension?

A spiritual person might say, “My interactions with people are tempered by certain moral, philosophical aspects. The common, temporal, material concerns that drive most people are not my primary motives.”

Such a person is attuned to something else, something higher. Human existence is no longer a mere material, animal existence, but now seen to have essential features beyond physical, biological properties.

Others might say: “We’re not satisfied with merely playing the game well: having many friends, earning great wealth, attaining power and honor. We see life as having certain moral value and significance; we take our existence to be a process of soul development and evolution of the spirit.”

[Sounds good, but what does it really mean?]

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More Questions to ponder:

The worldly skeptic: In real terms, how important is it that you see things this way (spiritually)? For surely we know the nature of human existence; surely when we are honest with ourselves and with each other, we must admit that there is no spiritual, moral dimension to human existence. Like all higher animals in the evolutionary scheme, humans are in a constant state of competition and struggle for power. All this talk about “the spiritual, moral dimension of human reality” is simply a way of coloring human existence, a way of looking at our reality that we have forgotten is merely a way of looking at our reality.

(It is just a way of talking about things that interests us!)
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Do we really deceive ourselves when we speak of morality and spirituality? Sometimes we’re sure that an existence devoid of the spiritual dimension is an empty, meaningless existence; it would be as if human beings were mere things, objects. We have aspirations, needs and ideals which cannot be accounted for in animal, materialistic terms.

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The skeptic continues: “Perhaps it’s simply that you’re not aware of the naturalistic explanation for such things. Certainly high aspirations, oceanic feelings, and moral sensibilities can be explained in natural, material terms.”

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But you’re not completely convinced, are you? You cannot ignore the feeling or suggestion that human reality connects with a transcendent reality and has much higher value than anything that arises from mere, subjective feelings and aspirations.

Could it be simply a matter of conditioning? It may be simply that we have learned look at human existence only in this way. We think that we have gotten hold of a deep truth concerning human existence; but most likely we simply hold a particular perception of human reality, one which is ingrained in our psyche by cultural and religious conditioning.

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Some of Wittgenstein’s style might help here: We have a particular picture of human beings; or shall we say, “We have a particular picture of the world inhabited by human beings.” Working with this picture, we say such things as: “There is a spiritual dimension to human existence. Most wise and morally sensible people recognize this spiritual realm.”

Religions stake their claim to this spiritual dimension and provide doctrines that purport to explain our existence and moral beliefs in terms of this realm.

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Unfortunately, many advocates of such religions have been too anxious to impose their particular versions of the moral-spiritual “realm” on the rest of us (who may not wish to embrace such a view). Too often they have insisted on dogmas that conflict with science and logic, giving the impression that the spiritual view demands irrationality and ignorance.

Without doubt, organized religions have too frequently been oppressive and clumsy in their handling of the spiritual-moral phenomenon. There is a long, bloody history of the religious persecution of nonbelievers and outsiders: Jews, heretics, skeptics, free-thinkers, mystics, “witches”, rationalists, and so on. Organized religions have all too often given a bad name to the spiritual-moral phenomenon.

In fairness we should note that religions sometimes work well and provide many persons with the means for full expression of the spiritual-moral experience.
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Who are the Agents in History?

Does it make sense to ask whether the actions of religion in history have resulted in more benefit than injury?

Much of what has occurred in the history of organized religions has been more about power (the need to achieve and consolidate power) than about spirituality and higher moral values. We can venture that as many evil things have been done in the name of God as good things (the skeptic would say “more evil than good in the name of God”).

Does religion act in the world? Or do only people, religious or otherwise, act in the world?

We often speak as if abstractions, e.g. religion, philosophy, science, act in the world and bring about consequences. But this is just a way of talking, a very misleading way.
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More on this “spirituality” issue:

Let’s get back to the earlier notion of a spiritual dimension to human existence.

Are we really dealing with anything besides delusions and self-deception? Some of us might suspect that there is nothing “out there” but reflections of our own fears, ideals and aspirations. In a truly objective, measurable sense, there probably is nothing there.

Must we then concede that all this talk of the “spiritual dimension” of human reality is empty, meaningless talk?

We are mere products of natural evolution on a small planet reaching for an elusive spiritual significance. Maybe this is all we have.

The evidence that we possess indicates that our human reality is bounded by our natural powers, which we exercise in a natural and social environment. The betting odds are that God and the supernatural realm are nothing but imaginative phenomena projected by the human psyche (call it the “collective and historical human psyche” if you like).

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People seek consolation and significance wherever they can. With the great amount of suffering and the apparent lack of meaning in that suffering, who can blame them for turning to religion? Certainly we know that people can do much worse than practicing some form of religious faith and worship.

But the religious spirit need not align us with the forces of stupidity, ignorance and superstition.

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“The word of God?” Surely this is not some body of writings designated as the “Holy Word” by some particular tribe or culture. Instead, let’s propose as the “word of God” the evolution of life, consciousness, and intelligence on this small planet, earth. Earth, a small planet in the solar system, itself a mere speck in the Milky Way Galaxy, one of billions of galaxies in the known universe.

Is there any clear evidence or signs that a supernatural intelligence or Being plays a part in the reality we experience? If so, what might the evidence be?

Surely not the existence of a narrow, stultifying religious and theological tradition with its “holy scriptures,” but more likely such reality as the evolution and development of intelligent life, the development of culture, arts and the sciences, moral sensibility, beauty (both natural and created), music, poetry. The human mind in its capacity for mathematics, logic, and science, along with its highly developed, disciplined, creative imagination science shows a spark of divinity.

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Surely a divine being would personify the best and highest in humanity. Yes, such a Being would be light years beyond the highest being humanity can imagine. For this reason, the gods of earlier, less developed cultures must be rejected.

It would be a primitive, unworthy ‘god’, not the universal Being, who would say: “I shall save only those among you (my creatures) who avow certain beliefs, bow to certain officials, embrace certain doctrines and perform certain rituals. All others are condemned to eternal suffering.”

The ideas of hell, Satan, demons and the damnation of souls to eternal agony in hell are such primitive, unenlightened notions. How can intelligent, sensitive people associate such low ideas with that which is godly?

The higher beings in the cosmos would not demean themselves by associating with such lowly, primitive-human ideas.

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But isn’t all this too speculative and general?

“No! No!” the man said, “None of this rings true.”

So, then, why do we say it?

At the time it seemed to be the right thing to say. Later I honestly couldn’t say what I could have been thinking. Surely I couldn’t have thought carefully as I wrote; for what I wrote was romantic nonsense at best.

2 thoughts on “Remarks on Philosophy and Spirituality

  1. Firooz R Oskooi

    Anything that transends our animal instinct and inters into surrealims is called spiritual. It is up to us to consider ourselves as animals and live a life of animal, but this an inellectual mind ill reject. Gandhi, Socrates, Christ and Baha'u'llah lived an spiritual life and they were very intelligent believe it or not. Dennet and other like him live in the womb of this world and deny any reality beyond it! What a shame! More than 90% of our so called science and philosophy is in the form of abstract with no attachmet to animal world, otherwise e.g. the cows would be the greatest philosophers as they only believe in what they see and feel!

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