Saturday, July 28, 2012

What is "Spiritual"?

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Well...  I have been avoiding writing, for some reason, of late...  a bit of writers (hell, everything-ers) block!  Time to kick my brain back into gear and get moving, methinks!

I was on a bit of a roll, about consciousness, and internal, vs. external worlds.  It still seems to me that our internal worlds are bigger, and arguably more influential (?!) than the external, physical world.  My friend Monica, when we were having a conversation about this, made the point that the number of atoms in the physical universe is thought to be finite - yet the world of ideas and imagination is infinite.

In a previous discussion, it was pointed out that some of the things we think of as "transcending" biology, such as art, literature, religion, can be explained in biological terms as "display behaviour".  I'm sure there is very often a strong element of this - but I find it hard to believe it's really that simple.  And to be honest, I think that when any of these things are strongly motivated by something so basic, it shows.  The things that really make "our spirits soar" tend to be those that take us beyond all that in some way.

So, for me, the idea that the immeasurable and intangible worlds of culture, ideals, imagination, intellectual connection, and the spiritual (however you define that) embody something much bigger and more influential than physics and biology (although it negates neither) is something I just can't shake.

But this also begs the question - what is "spiritual"?  Is it the uniquely wonderful, yet very human capacity to create a world of imagination and ideals that is every bit as strong as - perhaps stronger than - the physical universe, and to bend reality, in some senses, according to this internal construct?  Is it a product, a kind of "epiphenomena" arising out of our complex neural networks, which is biologically based, yet in some sense manages to transcend its own biological basis?

Or is it really a connection between a part of us that is eternal, pre-existent, and outside of the physical, with a consciousness outside of and greater than our own biology?

Truthfully - there are things I have seen and experienced that make me lean towards the latter.  I believe there is a God.  However if my "neural net" and the epiphenomena that arise from this, are all I truly have - I still think that is enough.  If the ideals of "love", "tolerance", and working together with others for a more positive future are neural "epiphenomena" - it makes them no less worth living for.


  1. What you're really talking about here is emergent properties and marveling at their complexity. The problem arises when you attribute cause by nebulous words like 'spiritual' and 'epiphenomena' rather than have to do the hard work to connect cause with effect.

    For example, consider the remarkable murmuration of starlings (video here.

    What appears to us as a beautiful dance is really caused by individual birds following three basic internal rules:

    Separation - avoid crowding neighbors (short range repulsion),

    Alignment - steer towards average heading of neighbors, and

    Cohesion - steer towards average position of neighbors (long range attraction).

    The same kind of simple algorithm can be duplicated in visually stunning computer programs, the same kind used to create flowing screen savers.

    What we see when we watch this kind of simple flocking behaviour is what appears to be a highly complex, highly organized dance (hence the music) as if it were one thing: a flock with discrete edges moving in tandem as if it were controlled by one exterior thing like a hive mind or an unseen conductor. In the same way, many of our emergent properties of behaviour also seem to be highly complex, highly organized expressions of something greater than the operation of individual parts, brought about by one unseen thing, some unseen conductor. It is very tempting, then, to pretend we can link explanations we create about this attributed unseen force to the complex effects we see. But are these explanations true? Is 'spirituality' anything more than our attributed explanation to emergent properties? If we start introducing other nebulous terms like 'soul' to fill in what we're missing between cause and effect, then all we are really doing is attributing more and more imaginings. And we are highly susceptible to these imaginings because they are attractive to our intuition to assign agency, to locate the single mover, the unseen conductor, to then personify this invisible person with our own understandable expectations and behaviours and motivations and meanings and purposes and so on. What is too easy to forget is that our attributions may be completely wrong, which is why it is necessary to understand reality not by respecting our attributions (that may be imaginary) but by respecting hard evidence of causal effect over and above our willingness to attribute.

  2. I've been itching to respond to this post but both my laptop and desktop broke down this week. And I only respond via my smartphone for short comments.

    "So, for me, the idea that the immeasurable and intangible worlds of culture, ideals, imagination, intellectual connection, and the spiritual (however you define that) embody something much bigger and more influential than physics and biology (although it negates neither) is something I just can't shake."

    I too can not shake That those immeasurable inner worlds and the interconnectedness which ties the physical and the spiritual. I use the world spiritual not in any religious sense but to attempt to define That. I also use the term to attempt to describe the beauty and struggle of our humanity. These guys do a better job of explaining how I use the term on a series of post I wrote a couple years ago.


  3. About this topic philosophers will continue to debate. At so many points in human history thinkers have thought they had it all mostly figured out. In the end I think most of us believe what our emotions lead us to believe is true or likely true. Anyone who confidently tells me how it really is is someone I am suspicious of.

  4. It's always good to be a bit suspicious, Doug. I'm fairly suspicious of the guy I see in the mirror every morning. I have reason to believe he is up to no good.

  5. Wow!! All of a sudden there's discussion happening!!! :D

    For some reason, the blog isn't letting me reply in a thread, properly - so just adding my responses here...

    Tildeb - that video of starlings is just. breathtaking!! We have flocks of white cockatoos around here that sometimes wheel about and catch the sun, in a way that makes my heart stop when I see it - but I've never seen anything quite like those starlings!! Truly beautiful!!

    I get what you are saying about simple rules governing something that appears complex; I think a lot of chaos theory (which fascinates me as far as my limited understanding of it goes) points to the same kind of thing. So many natural processes are governed by very simple mathematics (swarm behaviour in ants and bees is another wonderful example that springs to mind).

    I really doubt that this kind of process explains everything, though. The analogy with human society would fit better, if the starlings became aware of the rules and questioned them; experimenting, breaking them, dropping out of the community, forming new communities with different "rules" etc. etc. The key thing, though, is awareness - and I guess that's why we'll be debating "consciousness" for as long as we have it! The fact that we are even having this conversation is, to me, a puzzle. What kind of biological process is aware of and questions its own existence??? This is the mystery of consciousness. Whether it rises purely out of biology or not - it is a conundrum that cannot be easily dismissed.

  6. Sam,
    So glad you jumped into the discussion! I've been slow to respond, because I wanted to take in all of the stuff in your link... seems to me that the same theme of "the human spirit" or whatever you want to call it, is woven through those vids - thank you for sharing! The first one, in particular really moved me!

    & Doug - yes, I think there will be room for debate, for as long as there are debaters!!

  7. What kind of biological process is aware of and questions its own existence? Us. Humans. People.

    That's one of the wonderful things about being a human, but it does not make biology, any less relevant, and doesn't break any laws of physics. I haven't seen an Ape, as yet question their own existence, I haven't heard a Dolphin chat about Kierkegaard. I have seen, a horribly depressed Gorilla in the Sydney Zoo, behind bars, i saw the misery in his big brown eyes. I've known miserably depressed dogs, because no one lets them walk, they are tied up all day, and they aren't allowed to play. I've observed Cockatoo parrots, go psychotic because they've been locked up all their life, pull out their feathers in a scream of agonizing anxiety. And once, while I stared in the eyes of Dolphin at sea world, he was at first happy and sparkly, then i imagined i saw a hint of something wrong. And CATS, sometimes have more Neurosis than a New York Jewish film maker who married his adopted daughter.

    Consciousness is not easily dismissed at all, it is wonderful. Buddhists, consider that all living things have forms of consciousness, and some people go further suggesting that even minerals, possess a consciousness of sorts. Not as organised, or in the same form of ours, but still there.

    I tend to agree. Not for some reason wishing to be immortal, but in terms of energy. What really blew my mind once, was a Sci-Fi story, that talked of Solar consciousness. If you were as big and powerful as a Sun, could you communicate directly to tiny lesser beings on a planet much tinier than you?

    I don't think consciousness is limited to humans with a speech center in their brain. I know, other beings, like crows, and parrots talk to each other, and other animals learn. Dogs, having evolved with us, communicate back and forth to us, everyday of their adult lives. There is even evidence, that worms learn.


Feel free to leave comments - I love discussion, & diverse opinions! So comment, add your own thoughts, disagree - you are welcome.

Its okay to comment anonymously if you are shy, but I'd much rather know who you are, & always appreciate it when people "own" their own opinions. Look forward to chatting with you :)