Our Varied Experiences of the Same Universe

aweI’d like to share a comment made by Persto on a much commented post from Nate’s Finding Truth blog that struck a chord with me:

“I just want you to know that it is possible to think and to experience the universe, and ourselves as a part of it, in both religious and naturalistic ways. For those who sometimes experience life religiously, it can be entirely rational to form beliefs reflecting that mode of experience. At the same time it is equally rational for those who do not participate in the field of religious experience not to hold such beliefs, and to assume that these experiences are simply projections of our human desires and ideals. In other words, we are facing an issue of fact which is at present veiled in ambiguity, so that both belief and disbelief at present carry with them the risk of profound error. The believer risks the possibility of being self-deceived and the non-believer risks shutting out the most valuable of all realities. Given this choice, William James would urge, and surely with reason and evidence, that we have the right to choose for ourselves. People are therefore justified in holding beliefs that are grounded either wholly in their own religious experience or in the experience of the historical tradition to which they belong, this being in turn confirmed by their own much slighter range and intensity of religious experience. It seems that we stand, as finite and ignorant beings, in a universe that both invites religious belief and yet holds over us the possibility that this invitation may be a deception.”

This comment didn’t only strike a chord with me because of it’s eloquence (Persto’s writing style is always impressively eloquent – I could never pull off using the phrase “veiled in ambiguity” like he does so smoothly! 😉  ).  It struck me because it describes so well how I view these important deep questions of life that I ponder and write about on my blog.

When I was a believer I indeed pondered whether or not I was self-deceived, and now as an implicit atheist / agnostic I still ponder that same question – I indeed sense the risk of “shutting out the most valuable of all realities”.  Confirmation bias as well as a whole host of other cognitive biases are sticky things no matter what worldviews I’ve held in my lifetime.  I’ve had them as a young Jewish boy, as a Christian, and still have them as an implicit atheist.

The only thing I can do is stay true to what I consciously conclude at the moment I am in – based on my experiences, reason and analysis of whatever evidence I can gather.  Some (perhaps most) of my beliefs and stances may not be strongly conclusive for me, but I do my best to look at the whole picture and form my conclusions from all of that.

I cannot disprove the veridicality of religious experiences of my friends and others that I know, because I have not walked in their shoes and have not had their experiences, nor do I have the genetic makeup that they have.  I hope others can view my own conclusions through the same kind of respectful lens.  While I try my best given my own experiences to determine what is real, and focus on objective methods for determining what truly is real, there is always the knowledge for me that these and all other methods never lead to complete certainty.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t have and won’t express strong opinions regarding my own conclusions, but they all stand along a continuum of relative certainty levels, with me keenly and sometimes sadly being aware of the possibility that I could be wrong.

I don’t believe as some religious people say that if you have doubts then you may as well stay on the side of a particular belief system.  I feel much more true to myself as a possibilian rather than forcing myself into any particular religious belief.  In this state I can still stand in awe and wonder of the universe and it’s vastness as well as the complicated mystery of our consciousness which stands right before our very eyes yet seems so elusive to describe.

In future posts I hope to describe a little more of my current stance regarding religion.

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28 thoughts on “Our Varied Experiences of the Same Universe

  1. There is reality, then there is the imagination. Reality is revealed by science, imagination may fuel science. One has to be extremely careful. The human mind is capable of extraordinary imagination. The supernatural and gods cannot be examined by science. Therefore they are not part of reality. The supernatural however appealing it may be, still is a product of the human mind. When someone says the following:
    ” People are therefore justified in holding beliefs that are grounded either wholly in their own religious experience or in the experience of the historical tradition to which they belong, this being in turn confirmed by their own much slighter range and intensity of religious experience.”
    It may be just another way of proselytizing, or it may be someone attempting to persuade others to accommodate. I am wary of anyone promoting that which cannot be tested, cannot be known.

  2. Persto is actually non-religious himself. But he was raised with religion (as many of us are), and I think what he was saying in the above quote is that even when we shed religious belief, we should remember that being religious does not make one stupid or ignorant. Not to say you were implying otherwise, drenn — just trying to share a little more info about him.

    By the way, Howie, I was lucky enough to grab dinner with Persto a few months ago when I was in his town visiting some friends. He’s just as awesome in person as he seems online! 🙂

  3. Hi Drenn: I completely agree that the human mind is capable of extraordinary imagination! And this is in fact a hunch that I have of a partial explanation for the experiences that others interpret as “supernatural”, but for me I guess I just see that as less of a sure conclusion. Chalk it up to me just not having enough confidence in my own ability to get things right, but that’s just how I am. It also has to do with as I described in the post that I have not had these kind of experiences so I don’t even have a good understanding of how real they might feel. Reminds me a little of the dramatization of this kind of thing in the movie Contact: people were justified in questioning Jodie Foster’s odd experience in the “machine” because they didn’t have it, but for her it was incredibly real (of course that’s just a movie. 🙂 ) and because of that she felt justified in believing that the experience was veridical.

    As far as the supernatural and gods being able to be examined by science, I actually have a little bit of a different perspective on that. Because it may be possible that supernatural things or gods actually may have an impact on the natural then those things can be examined by science. Also, just because something cannot be examined by science doesn’t mean that it is not part of reality. Scientists have hypotheses about multi-verses which are very intriguing and mathematically interesting, but at this point it is my understanding that we don’t have any empirical evidence for these multi-verses outside of our own universe, and I’ve heard it claimed that we may never find a way to gather empirical evidence for them. That does not mean however that they do not exist in reality. I have the same perspective regarding the possibility of the supernatural. It might exist in reality even though we may not have figured out how to prove that.

    And I definitely agree with Nate – Persto was definitely not proselytizing given that he is not religious.

    As far as “accommodationalism” I’ve seen you blog about that a lot, and I’ve seen other bloggers talk about it as well, and I’m not exactly clear on the definition. If being an accommodationalist entails believing that we should not publicly disagree with certain views because they are “religious” then I am definitely not an accommodationalist, because I believe that no ideas should get a break from being part of the open and free debate that has caused humans to progress in their ability to understand reality. However if being an accommodationalist entails treating others you disagree with respectfully then I wear the accomodationalist hat with pride! 🙂

  4. Hey Nate: That’s great that you met up with Persto. He seems like a cool guy. Does he talk in conversation in the same eloquent way that he writes? 😉

  5. Nice post and thanks, Howie, for the kind words. I suspect I am undeserving of them. And I am not that cool!

    Nate,
    You’re awesome too!
    Regards

  6. “This doesn’t mean that I don’t have and won’t express strong opinions regarding my own conclusions, but they all stand along a continuum of relative certainty levels, with me keenly and sometimes sadly being aware of the possibility that I could be wrong.”

    Howie, if belief vs. unbelief were a thin line in the sand, I would simply take one small step over the line and, while standing and facing you on the other side, say the exact same thing quoted here, as well as the sentiment you express. The paradox of a strong faith is the equally strong doubts that plague me from time to time.

    Great post.

  7. I gotta say, after reading Don’t comment — this is what I love about you guys! Understandably, we all have different perspectives on these things, but it’s awesome that we’re all able to treat one another with respect and understanding despite our differing views. In fact, we’re often able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes! It’s a great thing, and I feel lucky to have run across you guys. We could use more Don’s, Howie’s, Persto’s UnkleE’s, and Kent’s in the world! 🙂

  8. I totally agree Nate! And obviously we could use more Nate’s as well! And especially blogs like yours.

  9. In re-reading this post, your statement here really caught my eye:

    I feel much more true to myself as a possibilian rather than forcing myself into any particular religious belief. In this state I can still stand in awe and wonder of the universe and it’s vastness as well as the complicated mystery of our consciousness which stands right before our very eyes yet seems so elusive to describe.

    That’s a very beautiful way of stating it, and it’s exactly how I feel as well. When my faith in Christianity first began to crumble, I was terrified of what it meant. My entire worldview had been shattered, and the universe seemed to be a cold and massive place. But very quickly, I began to feel exactly the opposite. Shedding the doctrines I used to believe in (many of which were rather pessimistic) meant that anything was possible! It was an awesome feeling. And it’s only grown over time.

    I’ve always l loved looking at the night sky, but now I do so with a fervor and sense of joy and wonderment that I just didn’t have before. The picture you included represents it nicely. 🙂

  10. Thanks Nate! After I realized that I couldn’t call myself Christian I went through several months of being terrified as well. I remember waking up once in the middle of the night because I heard a noise outside my apartment worried that maybe God or some spirit was coming to mess with me… pretty crazy stuff! It was a very dark period for me. This is gonna sound really weird to you but it was something that Mormon missionaries said to me that knocked me out of that period of darkness. There’s a story there, but it’s been such a long time that I’ve forgotten some of the details.

    That statement of mine that you quoted is the extent of how I would say I am a “spiritual” person. I don’t believe I have some spirit within me that lives on after death, but for me my spirituality is what is expressed in what I wrote in that quote. And also the strong values I have for humans and all conscious beings really (although roaches don’t really rank very high on my list to be honest 😉 ). Interactions between human beings really holds some “spiritual” value in some sense for me, and again I am probably using the word spiritual quite a bit too liberally for some people.

  11. You’re welcome RL. Admittedly I have a hard time finding the right balance in this approach, but I thought this post at least got out the main gist of the way I like to think about these kinds of things.

  12. This is a fantastic post – I feel privileged to read it and all the comments! Pretty much see things the way you speak of. I see the risk of both views, including my own. I find people who know they can be wrong and will admit it a beautiful thing. Our view doesn’t automatically make anyone stupid or ignorant – love that.

  13. Hey Dance! Of course you may reblog – all of my posts are reblogable and I would be honored.

    Thanks for all the kind words. I agree entirely with what you said. As I think I may have mentioned it’s not a perspective that everyone can hold because we all have our strong opinions and there are certainly some lines we won’t cross, but it is definitely a perspective I try my best to hold. While I’ve never been a relativist as far as believing there is more than one actual “truth” about reality, I at least can see quite clearly that we all experience whatever it is in different ways – we’ve all got different genetic makeups and loads of different experiences and education. Seeing that makes this kind of respectful view easier to have.

  14. Awesome, will do!
    I think you have a lot of grace for those who don’t hold the same view we do about the possibility of being wrong. That’s great! I try my best to hold to this perspective too.
    I love the respect – I love the respect we can have for people with different views to our own, no matter what those views are and no matter how different.

  15. Pingback: This post is worth the read | Bible Interactions

  16. Pingback: But If You Can’t Disprove It Then Aren’t You Agnostic? | Truth Is Elusive

  17. Reblogged this on russell & pascal and commented:
    As Russell and I meet soon to plan our way forward with the blog, I wanted to pause and ask you to read something from someone I believe will become a friend to both of us. Friendship takes time. So far, time with Howie has been well spent.
    Pascal – – 1:16

  18. I recently found Russell and Pascal’s Blog and their reposting lead me here. Great post and very interesting conversation. I hope to be able to continue to read everyone’s post and comments.

  19. Thanks Victoria! Glad you liked it. I wrote it as an attempt of finding some kind of balance regarding what it means to “know”.

  20. Pingback: Our Varied Experiences of the Same Universe | Christians Anonymous

  21. Interesting post and comments here! I’d say I’m in a similar boat, as you know. And what Nate said about open possibilities struck me since I said something very similar in your other post. Ideas do matter, and simply lifting the burden of an poorly-chosen or narrow belief can make a huge difference in the way we deal with the world, the way we feel about it. (I say “simply lifting” but I realize it’s not simple. It might not even be a matter of choice. Who knows.)

    Plus, the thrust of this post seems to point to a premise that our biases can cut both ways, and it’s pretty clear how religion could be a reflection of such biases. But I’d like to add that I think there’s evidence for a negative-mindset bias. Some people gravitate to what I’ll call “the power of positive thinking,” while others find that sort of thinking repulsive. Some are in the middle. I don’t take either tendency or bias in itself in a derogatory way (although, full disclosure, I have the negative in a big way, so much so that I could draw out a “negative thinking” family tree.) A brief justification for the power of negative thinking: Sometimes when we imagine the worst possible outcome, we find ourselves preparing for it, and doing so allows us to be pleasantly surprised when we turn out to be wrong. If we’re not abusing this mode, we can end up happier than if we went around expecting reality to suit our views, and finding ourselves constantly disappointed. But this kind of thinking can go too far, leading us to think that reality does reflect our views. We can distort reality just as much as the most fervent religious person. We can deny the evidence and reduce experience to whatever negative thing we think drives the world (money, power, fame, egoism, a-moral or immoral motives, nothingness, meaninglessness, despair, etc.) We end up with this: truth=bad. This is obviously ridiculous, but I think a great number of people hold this as a fundamental belief deep down in the psyche, though they might not admit it.

  22. That’s funny you mention negative thinking, Tina, because I tend to have a bit of that myself. I’ve even described it to others in the same way – “pleasantly surprised when I turn out to be wrong”. Murphy’s law is something I bring up at work all the time even though I know it’s not quite correct. Probably not the best attitude though – I tend to think I’d be happier with a more positive attitude.

    And your description of going too far with this reminds me of some extreme religious reasoning – a common theme seems to be “all people and truth in the world = bad; only God = good”, which seems like an unhealthy view as well. When I look at the world with a calm and cool head it all seems to be a mixture of both good and bad. Whether there is more of one or the other doesn’t seem at all clear to me, but this yin-yang kind of view makes sense to me.

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