Skip to content

Science and philosophy

August 14, 2015

A common refrain that I’ve heard a fair few times is that philosophy is useless and science in useful. Science gives us knowledge a practical inventions, philosophy just waffles on without answering anything. Obviously I disagree.

Let’s start with a common claim – “science is the only way of knowing things”. Right off the bat, we need to modify this slightly. Science doesn’t necessarily provide us with knowledge, but rather with “the best explanation”. Scientific theories are subject to revision, and although this may be highly unlikely, what we call scientific knowledge is, a lot of the time, actually just the best explanation. It’s an explanation that we should accept as true on the basis of current evidence, but it is still only the best explanation. If you want to use the word knowledge to describe that, then great, feel free. But I will modify the statement above to “science is the only way of acquiring the best explanation”.

A further modification is required. What are the “best explanations” explanations of? This will obviously depend on how we define science, but sticking to an understanding of science as the hard sciences, we basically mean that science is the tool with which we find the best explanation of features of the natural world. Physics, chemistry and biology, applied with the scientific method, attempt to give an objective answer about questions relating to facts about the world as it is. They provide tools for describing the world as it is. So, we come to “science is the only way of acquiring the best explanation of facts about the natural world”.

The consequence of this restatement is that the original statement that science is the only way of knowing things can only be true if every “thing that we can know” can be reduced to a fact about the natural world. One area where science shows it’s weakness in this regard is the claim that science can form the basis of ethics, a claim made by, among others, Sam Harris. It’s wrong.

As far as I can see, the only route into ethics available to science is consequentialist. Roughly, this is the claim that an act is morally good if its net consequences are positive. How we define “positive” in this regard is obviously an important question. My best recollection is that Sam Harris says that this positive is “human well-being”. This is something that can, allegedly, be measured by science, and therefore science can provide us with a “science of morality”, tools for deciding what is right or wrong.

I’ve heard similar claims from others. If we could measure the amount of endorphins, or some “happy chemical” in our brains, we would somehow be able to say whether an action was good or bad depending on whether the presence of this chemical was increased or decreased by our actions. What are we to make of this and similar claims?

Suppose we could somehow measure, for each person, whether our action increases or decreases some objective measure of their well-being. Presumably, because of the real world complexity of actions and consequences, we would need to keep track of a large number of such measures over a large number of people. Possibly, given the far reaching consequences of such actions as charitable giving and international aid, we would need to keep track of the entire human population. So let’s suppose that possible, with the help of some powerful computer that tells us whether an action is good or bad.

We can already see that this is ridiculously complicated and impractical. But it has further implications. Suppose in this situation that some terrible piece of news is broadcast – say the start of World War 3, or some similar global catastrophe. This could cause a massive decrease in “well-being” measures, and a huge increase in “negative well-being”. The way to maximise global well-being in this case would be to kill everyone. That would instantly give a higher well-being than the current state, given the previous events. Surely this is wrong?

OK, replies the consequentalist, we need a machine that can tell us whether the net future impacts of our actions are positive on well-being. Clearly killing everyone isn’t, so it is wrong. But now we are assuming that for our ethics to work we need perfect foresight about wide-ranging consequences. This is surely impossible, certainly on current technology and possibly future.

What are we to conclude from this? Well, it might be that I am right, and science can’t be used to reduce ethics to some algorithmic system. Or I might be wrong – I have used a somewhat simplified characterisation of consequentialism, and it might be possible to refine the account, although I haven’t seen it done. But, there is a more important thing to notice. In the discussion of whether or not this is possible, or how it might be done, we engage in philosophy. We are analysing concepts, which is just what philosophy is.

If you think science can operate independently from conceptual analysis, then good luck to you. But to say that conceptual analysis is unnecessary whatsoever is wrong. We engage in philosophy all the time, possibly without realising it. Just because it’s not being published in an academic philosophy journal doesn’t mean it isn’t philosophy. There may even be an argument that it is necessary to the scientific enterprise. Consider philosophy of mind, and current neuroscience to try to understand the biological basis for conciousness. As Nagel once said, if you are to successfully reduce something to a lower level (e.g. reducing conciousness to the physical), you have to understand the thing that you are trying to reduce. Conceptual analysis is the way that conciousness is currently being discussed at this higher level. The finding of neural correlates does not form the basis of this understanding, but supplies to reduction.

But there is more to philosophy than just its use as a way into scientific understanding. It can contribute its own unique understanding. Staying with the conciousness theme, phenomenologists are currently discussing what it means to be a “self”, and what the first person perspective is. This may seem like an esoteric ivory tower philosophical discussion, but it is now adding to our understanding of psychiatric problems. For example, Sass and Parnas are applying phenomenological approaches to the study of schizophrenia. This is not some case of philosophy hijacking some other discipline – it is a genuine addition to our understanding.

Where does this leave me? Science is the best way of understanding the natural world. That cannot be denied. But it is not the only way of knowing things, and it doesn’t displace philosophy. We engage in philosophy all the time, often without realising it. If you like to think about “the good life”, or ever wonder if you “did the right thing”, you are a philosopher.

Kierkegaard – No excuses

August 4, 2015

A few books and an audio course have been making me think about existentialism, and the positive message it can bring to life. Obviously it can and has been associated with some pretty negative doctrines, so this is good! I personally like some of the lessons that I’ve taken from existentialists that could be viewed negatively – they help me come to terms with life as it is, not as what I’d like it to be. At the same time, the positive message can help reinforce our responsibility for shaping that life. I have just listened to a series of lectures on existentialism from the “Great Courses”, with the title “No Excuses” (hence the title of this post). That slogan, no excuses, really comes through in how the lecturer describes the existentialists, and I want to try and capture how I now understand existentialism to be a much more two-sided philosophy.

Let’s start with Kierkegaard, someone I’ve written about before. But possibly not understood. Not that I understand him now, but I’m getting closer… He wrote things like “the self is a relation that relates to itself”… Impenetrable! Or maybe not so much any more.

What is a self? This is existentialism, so let’s ask what it means for the self to exist. For Kierkegaard, to exist is to live with a beginning and an end, it is to have a finite (human) existence. But, he says, this finitude has a consequence, which is that we are aware of ourselves as existing with a beginning and an end – that is, we relate to our own existence. So we start to see the relation that relates to itself – existence involves awareness of existing.

We don’t exist as disembodied selves. Rather, we are embodied in a history – we have a physical body in a particular time. Our relation to this embodied self involves a relation to the history we live – both backwards, in terms of memories, and forward in terms of anticipation, dread etc. It also involves a relation to the person that we are and what we have done. But, crucially, it means relating to myself now as the person who did what I have done. I am the self who has to take responsibility for the history that I have made and lived through. There are no excuses.

Whether or not this model of the self works is a question for another time. What is important now is the reflection that it causes in us. How do I relate to myself? Do I take responsibility, as the locus of my actions and words, for my history? Do I rely on excuses for who I am, or do I own up to my part in becoming me, now, here? This is the positive existential message from this line of Kierkegaard’s thought.

There is a flip side. We exist embodied in a history, relating to a past with all sorts of factors affecting it. We therefore exist in a way that has a sense of the contingency of history – but can we see a potential contradiction here? We have no choice about being here, now, but so much could have been different. Things outside our control brought us to this point. It is necessary that we are here, yet contingent, and this is part of the existential crisis, dealing with this absurdity.

This fits in well with how I view the general existentialist message. We construct narratives about our lives that create order, that explain who we are and where we are going in a way that makes it seem like we were, and are, and will be, in control of our world. But we are not. As much as we try, our lives are contingent, and there is so much that we have no control over. These may be the things that have shaped us into the people we are today – I know in my case that there have been some events completely outside of my control that have had a profound influence on the course of my life. The existential angst kicks in when we suddenly confront the contradiction of these two message, control and chaos.

How we deal with this crisis is what is important, and if we do so by embracing Kierkegaard’s ideas then maybe we are going the right way. Acknowledge the contingency of your situation, but take responsibility for the person that you are. Make no excuses, shape who you are and who you become, and maybe the future will turn out a little bit better.

Does not believing result in belief?

August 4, 2015

A while ago I was in a facebook argument about religious belief and agnosticism. For some reason one part of it popped into my head last night, so here are some thoughts.

Agnosticism is the position that we cannot know whether or not god exists. Theism is the belief that he does, and atheism the belief that he doesn’t (glossing over wrinkles in which god we may be talking about…). Now, it seems to be commonly taken to be there case that there are therefore three positions:

  1. I have the belief that god exists (theism);
  2. I have the belief that god doesn’t exist (atheism); or
  3. I have no belief whatsoever about whether god exists (agnosticism).

The first thing that bothers me about this is that it seems to be a category error. The first two positions in this list are statements about belief, but agnosticism is a statement of epistemology, how we come to form knowledge (hence the word “know” in the definition of agnosticism above). The agnostic is saying that they don’t think there is a way to transform a belief about god’s existence into knowledge. But they could still hold a belief on the matter. You could be an agnostic atheist, or, for that matter, an agnostic theist.

So, this traditional tripartite scheme leaves me uncomfortable. So, at one point in the facebook argument I was in, I said that I didn’t think agnosticism was a way of absolving yourself of any commitment, and that if you didn’t believe in god you were as good as making the claim that you believe god doesn’t exist. This got some quick push back, probably rightly at the time. Why? Well, it is certainly true from a logical perspective that denying a positive existence claim does not necessarily imply a commitment to belief that the opposite is true. So, saying “I don;t believe in god” does not commit you to saying “I believe god doesn’t exist”. But…

What struck me recently is that in a lot of other cases, this would not be the case. Suppose I say “I don’t believe in fairies”. You would, rightly, assume that that means “I believe fairies don’t exist”. Certainly that’s what I mean when I say it. Similarly for more mundane examples – if I say “I don’t believe there is a beer in the fridge” I mean, and I would assume be understood to mean, that “I believe there is no beer in the fridge”. If I say “I don’t believe homoeopathy works”, what I mean is “I believe homoeopathy doesn’t work”, and I would bet good money that if I said that to a homoeopath that’t what they’d understand.

So here we can see that denying a positive existence claim does imply a belief in the negative existence claim.

What is different in the god case that makes it different? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the issue of god has become so complicated by theologians and philosophers that we think it is some totally different concept that we can treat differently. Maybe people just don’t want to take a stand, they’re too unsure or don’t want to offend. Or maybe I’m just wrong about my examples above.

Making virtue ethics less self-centered

February 27, 2014

Virtue ethics is often accused of being “self-centered” or egoistic in some way. The virtuous person is only doing what they are doing “because they want to”. It strikes me that one way of dealing with this is to consider the case of some trying to become virtuous.

One way of looking at this seems open to the egoistic objection. This is when we consider the student of virtue saying “I want to become generous” or “I want to become modest”. This certainly seems self-centered. I want to gain this virtue because it is good for me to gain this virtue and be seen as virtuous – my reason for becoming virtuous seems centered on me.

But what about if we look at the learning of virtues as a widening of ethical considerations? Instead of saying “I want to become generous”, I say “I want to be concerned for those who have less than me” and “I want to always bear in mind that I do not need all my wealth”. These phrases point the desire to be virtuous away from me and towards the other. So, can we characterise being virtuous in terms of ethical considerations?

We can. The virtuous person acts as she does because she is virtuous (ok, that sounds circular, but…). A generous person responds in the way they do because that is how a generous person responds to a particular ethical consideration. What makes the person generous is the fact that they consider the specific ethical consideration they are responding to worthy of consideration in the first place and that they place a particular weight on such considerations and the need to respond to them. We learn to become generous by realising that particular ethical considerations are worth paying particular attention to (someone is worse off than me, someone is my friend etc.) and becoming the sort of person who cares about these ethical considerations and is willing to respond to them appropriately. And so on for other virtues. We are virtuous when we have a broad range of ethical considerations and respond to them as part of who we are.

Socrates would have us believe that the only virtue is “good judgement”. This isn’t the case, but applying good judgement to our range of ethical considerations is what the virtuous person does. It is the range of our ethical considerations that determines what virtues we are capable of embodying when doing so.

Heidegger and Being

May 2, 2013

In the past I’ve often been very dismissive of continental philosophy. In comparison to analytic philosophy it has seemed less rigorous, more dismissive of knowledge claims and to be the source of the relativism and post-modernism that I dislike in much contemporary discourse. That dismissiveness is now changing. I’ve been trying to expose myself to a wider range of philosophy, including continental philosophy, and I think it actually has a lot of important things to tell us. Like any philosophical tradition it gets it wrong at times, but such is life.

The first thing that I now realise about continental philosophers is that even if I don’t agree with all (or any) of their conclusions often they are still talking about issues that are important to me, in ways that can start me thinking about deep and meaningful questions. Camus’ discussion of suicide for example, or Sartre’s “existence precedes essence”. And I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard for just this reason. Now I’ve discovered Heidegger, who for some reason has got me very interested in his take on “being”.

The question Heidegger asks is “what is ‘is’?” He thinks that there is something fundamentally flawed with the approach that philosophy had previously taken to the nature of being. When we ask “what is a chair?” or some such question, we miss an implicit assumption in the use of the word “is” – we assume we know what it means for something to be.

I have a copy of Being and Time that I have been reading about more than actually reading, but which I will be getting stuck into soon. In it, Heidegger lays out what he sees as the three modes of being.

Firstly we have the “present-at-hand”. This is the traditional “substance ontology” – there are objects and they have properties. The presence of the object is in terms of it’s properties: “This wooden stick is brown”, “this lump of metal is solid” etc. This is the sort of being that Heidegger takes to be at the heart of how Western philosophers have treated metaphysics. It is rooted in the use of the word “is” to denote presence in the present – “what is a hammer” means “what are the properties of that object that I call a hammer now” or something like that.

But, says Heidegger, there is a second kind of “being”, the “ready-at-hand”. Consider the wooden stick and the lump of metal. When they are combined in the form of a hammer we do not perceive them (at least when we are hammering and the hammer is functioning properly). We perceive the hammer as a hammer, we use it without being conscious of the present-at-hand nature that it may possess.

Finally there is the mode of being called “Dasein”. This seemingly untranslatable German term is the mode of being that we as humans have (that isn’t to say that non-humans couldn’t also have it, but we are the only beings we are aware of who do). It is that mode of being for which this being is itself an issue (to paraphrase Heidegger). We are entities that exist in such a way that we have a pre-reflective understanding of being, distinguishing us (or our mode of being) from the present- and ready-at-hand. However, we shouldn’t think of Dasein as a subject, something separate, an entity in its own right. Rather, Dasein emerges from our interactions with the world and our understanding of “being”. Obviously this is all rather complex, and I need to get stuck into Being and Time before I can actually claim to understand any of it.

So, after that cursory summary, an obvious question is why we should care if this is true or not. Listening to a series of lectures on Heidegger by Dreyfus he gave a striking example of how Heideggerian philosophy has impacted the field of artificial intelligence that I think shows why this sort of talk matters.

What Dreyfus calls “good old-fashioned AI” has as its basis the idea that artificial intelligence can be formed on a basis of facts about the world – what objects there are and what their properties are. According to this view the present-at-hand is all that is necessary for an intelligence to interact with. However, Dreyfus came along and pointed out that there is something missing.

Consider an AI system that has a description of a hammer. It knows what the object is made of, what its properties are. But there are two important things to note. The first is that there is a fact missing from the substance ontology, the fact that “this is a hammer”. How do we know that it is a hammer? It is something that we learn by using tools in a ready-at-hand way. We may be able to recognise equipment as a hammer, but only through having learnt that it is indeed a hammer by using one as a hammer. It is not simply present-at-hand.

Secondly, what are the relevant facts about the hammer that we have to know in order to use it? We should know for instance that the grooves on the handle are designed our us to grip better. Which means we need some facts about hands and how we hold things. But what is a hand? Do we need facts about the body? Where do we stop. The problem of deciding what facts are relevant is difficult to solve. It was proposed to have a list of facts and a list of which facts were relevant. But which of these “relevances” are themselves relevant?? And so on.

These are both points that come from a Heideggerian standpoint. His philosophy was used to demonstrate that good old-fashioned AI was a doomed project – and indeed it hasn’t gone anywhere. So Heidegger and his concept of “being” has something important to tell us and can help us think about interesting problems.

And one final reason to like Heidegger – Terrence Malick was a Heidegger scholar at MIT. He studied Heidegger and proposed a phd thesis on “worlds” in Heidegger, but was told he had to do real philosophy. So he quit philosophy, went to film school and made some awesome films that make use of Heideggerian concepts. The Thin Red Line is one of my favourite films, and it turns out that when I thought is was more philosophical than most films I wasn’t imagining it…

Why philosophy? Should I spend my time philosophising?

April 3, 2013

Why should you find philosophy interesting? Even if you do find it interesting, why should you spend your time reading and thinking about philosophical questions? Is it a waste of time? These are questions that have been plaguing me for a while now, and I think I’ve finally got some (at least partial) answers.

This all got started when I was thinking about a classical thought experiment relating to consequentialism. Basically the thought experiment asks you to consider a situation in which you are walking along wearing your brand new £1000 suit and you pass a pond and see a child in danger of drowning. You are the only person in a position to help. Do you jump in and ruin your suit or keep on walking?

Hopefully you dive in and save the child. If there are no other considerations than the ones given above this seems like the intuitive (and right) response. Peter Singer draws the conclusion that, if you should effectively lose £1000 to save a child you should also donate £1000 to a charity that will use this money to save a child. The act (lose £1000) and the consequence (save a child) is the same in both cases. This is a pure consequentialist conclusion, and Singer lives up to it by donating significant amounts of his own money to charity.

While it raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of consequentialist judgement, the question it raised for me was, if the conclusion holds for donating money, surely it also holds for “donating” time. If I am happy to lose 30 minutes saving the drowning child, shouldn’t I also spend 30 minutes on some good cause (say vaccine advocacy) that will also save a childs life?

It seems to me that this is a harder conclusion to ignore than the monetary conclusion. While donating money seems significant, it is usually others who do the hard work on the ground, using their time to put my money to work. It is at a distance from me and the remoteness can lead me to say that I shouldn’t donate the money. But with time it seems different. It is me putting in the work, I am the one who is making the difference. The consequentialist gain seems more personal and therefore harder to ignore.

The obvious question is now: instead of talking about a theoretical ethical problem, why aren’t I out there fixing an actual  problem? Why spend the majority of my spare time reading and thinking about philosophy when it doesn’t appear to have the equivalent impact on real-world problems that using the same time volunteering for charity, say, would have?

For the sake of full disclosure, I will admit that while this problem has been really bothering me, I didn’t set down all philosophy and concentrate on this one problem until I had made my mind up one way or the other; I enjoy philosophy and this is obviously why I spend my time on it. So I have in a way been seeking an ethical justification for an enjoyable pastime. That doesn’t mean that I don’t firmly believe in the conclusions I’ve drawn, just that it hasn’t been an entirely open-minded thought process.

As a starting point for answering this problem, I think that if philosophy was just comprised of the stereotyped “academic” style of philosophy in which only obscure questions with absolutely no application to real life were considered, then the objection would hold. I am not at the forefront of modern philosophy, creating new knowledge for the sake of knowledge – I am learning for the sake of learning and my time could be spent doing much more to help others. If what I do (not what philosophers in general do) makes no difference whatsoever, then yes, I should spend my time differently, at least by cutting down on the amount of philosophising I do and replacing it with some other form of activity.

But… philosophy isn’t like this. It is a common misconception that philosophy is a waste of time and inapplicable to real life – just this weekend a friend was disparaging philosophy with exactly this accusation. But this is fundamentally misguided. Imagine someone saying:

I think philosophy is a waste of time and has no bearing on real life. But, I do think we should consider how best to act towards others, what basis we have for our beliefs and what it is in our lives that gives us meaning.

That seems to me to be as incoherent as saying:

I don’t think feminism is useful. But we should be on the lookout for sexism in society and do our best to overcome it.

What is being dismissed is something fundamentally different from the natural meaning of the term. Feminism just is being on the lookout for sexism and trying to overcome it. Philosophy just is thinking about the good life, about ethics, about lifes problems. Our imaginary speaker may mean a particular subset of the discipline being dismissed (academic philosophy and radical feminism perhaps), but they certainly do not mean the discipline as a whole.

So the question becomes: is it the case that we should believe the statement:

I do think we should consider how best to act towards others, what basis we have for our beliefs and what it is in our lives that gives us meaning?

I believe the answer to this is yes, and on the basis that our beliefs affect our actions, that we should all acknowledge that philosophy can and does have an impact on our lives.

What effects does thinking about philosophy have? It can make us think about whether our beliefs are true, and hence whether our actions are based on true beliefs about the states of affairs in the world that our relevant. It can make us think about how we live our lives and the impact that our life choices make upon ourselves and others. It can help us mind the meaning in our life and face the difficulties that get thrown at us along the way to the end of life. It can show us what matters and what doesn’t. It can give us the ability to see things from the point of view of the other and hopefully make more informed ethical choices. Surely these are all good things?

Importantly, philosophy provides a framework around which to discuss these things with others. This is philosophy at its most important, an argument amongst peers about philosophical issues through which we can come to have our cherished beliefs challenged and come to a new understanding that we are not capable of alone, and one that furthers all those causes listed in the previous paragraph.

My conclusion at this point is that philosophy can and does have a positive impact both for myself and others (as well as being fun). But now we run headlong into the wall that I always find myself up against when dealing with consequentialism. How do I measure different “goods”? Is the good of spending my time doing charitable work worth more than the good of my spending the same time arguing about ethics with friends? From a consequentialist perspective, how would I measure these two goods in a way that lets me compare them? I don’t think there’s a good answer, and the consequentialist argument finds itself at a standstill.

The differences between the time and money arguments now become important. One is that in the money argument we faced comparable acts and outcomes: lose £1000, save a child. In the time argument this is not the case. Spend time differently, get a different positive outcome. This is an important difference and one that I have not been able to get beyond.

At the end of the day, perhaps we need to be more pragmatic. There are people who are much better able to spend their time directly helping others. Everyone is different, with varying talents and interests. I love philosophy and seem to be good at arguing about it. Hopefully now and in the future I will have a positive impact on the lives of others, even if it is very indirect. If I have persuaded one person that humanism is a better philosophical outlook than Christianity then I count my intellectual life a success, even if it has taken years for an initial seed to grow large enough to displace the religious ethic. That thought keeps me reading and arguing, and hopefully will for a long time to come.

Religious Experience and Existential Angst

February 23, 2013

I’ve been thinking about existentialism and it’s relationship with religious experience. While it may not be immediately obvious, I think there is a connection between the basis for existentialism and religious experiences that can tell us something about the epistemic status of those experiences.

Existentialism starts from the position of existential angst. This is the dread or despair that comes with a realisation that life is ultimately meaningless. This can take a variety of forms:

  1. Personal – One day I am going to die and that renders my goals and values meaningless.
  2. Impersonal – The world is essentially unknowable and impersonal and my relationship with the world therefore has no meaning.
  3. Temporal – The universe is billions of years old and will continue for billions of years after humans are gone, are star has exploded, our world evaporated. Human values are therefore a transitory blip on the cosmic clock and can have no ultimate meaning.
  4. Spatial – The universe is so big compared to the fraction of the surface of a small ball of rock that we live on, and so inhospitable to all forms of life that we are familiar with, that human values become so small and insignificant that they can have no ultimate meaning.

Of course, you are welcome to combine these cheerful thoughts in any way that you see fit.

How does this relate to religious experience? One obvious property of religion is that it tells us that life does have meaning, and in particular that human values are part of that meaning. It seeks to reject one or more of the bases for existential angst.

One of the things that has stuck in my mind since first learning about the philosophical tradition surrounding religious experience is how they sounds so familiar to me. Religious experience, according to William James, is characterised by four properties:

  1. Transient – not a permanent mode of experience, and the subject returns to some state of “normality”.
  2. Ineffable – impossible to describe in words.
  3. Noetic – the experience gives us knowledge of something otherwise inaccessible to humans.
  4. Passive – it isn’t possible for the subject to control the experience.

I think there is another overarching principle that unites these four properties into a “religious” experience: the experience is mystical in nature. It collapses the distinction between the subject that the “other” is some sense. The subject feels that they have become “one” with the universe. For the religious believer, or someone brought up in a cultural context in which this mystical aspect interpreted within a particular theological framework, these experiences are labelled as experiences of a god or gods, or some other underlying metaphysical framework.

Minus this theological baggage, I have had many experiences that fulfil this definition. When I’m sailing I occasionally find myself in a state that I can only describe as a “religious” experience (believers will contend that it isn’t religious as I don’t attribute the experience to a god, but other than that label I haven’t heard a definition that doesn’t feel like a natural fit to my experiences). These are, by definition, impossible to fully describe, but thinking about existentialism has helped me start to put words to what I experience.

The religious experience erases existential angst, even if only temporarily. I find myself alone at sea, at night, staring at the moonlit sea. All that matters is being me, here and now. Spatial and temporal existential angst can have no meaning in such a setting. There is no universe, apart from the sea around me. There is no past, no future, there is only the present moment. I know everything that it is important to know, my meaning is being here having this experience. Existence becomes intensely personal….

Then after a moment that feels much longer I lose the feeling and return to “normality”. And realise that I will never be able to describe accurately what I felt, just do my best to put myself in situations where I can recreate the feeling.

The point of this is that I know just how powerful religious experience is, and I attribute that power to the fact that existential angst disappears. I think we all have to acknowledge the power of the different forms of dread that cause this angst, and at one point or another I’m sure everyone has paused to consider the meaningless of the human condition. Religious experience gives us reason to dismiss these deep concerns when we are forced to temporarily believe that we have meaning and enduring value.If we have a background of theological tradition to bring to the experience it can provide the framework to fix a long-term belief that this meaning and value exists externally to the “normality” we routinely experience. While I know that my experience was transitory and not an accurate reflect of a “higher” reality, the religious believer comes to see it as access to a truth.

Does this work? Surely the very nature of religious experience precludes it from allowing us to discern any meaning for humanity at large? A religious experience tells me that I have a meaning, but the collapse of spatial, temporal and personal causes for existential angst to me here now and the fact that this overrides the impersonal cause for existential angst tells me something else: this meaning is completely unrelated to others and the human project at large. Once the experience is over I have no obvious way of extending the temporary feeling of meaning in my life to the lifes of others without ungrounded presuppositions of a theological nature.

To summarise an overly long post – religious experience negates the causes of existential angst temporarily and for an individual only. I see no reason to extend this negation to others or humanity at large given that they have no way of knowing or experiencing what I have experienced.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.