Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Religious Experience" and the World of Nature

Does God leave any sign in this world that he is out there? Does he leave a footprint, a track, a trace? Hinman's recent book, The Trace of God, reviews a number of studies on religious experience. I'd like to concentrate here on just one trend: that one of the most common triggers of religious experience is an experience of the natural world.

My first point is this: If we consider that God is the cause behind the natural world in any sense -- use what language you like, whether you think of God as "Creator" or "Ground of Being" -- then we would expect to find the trace of God in the natural world because God is the cause behind the natural world. I think this is a common experience. "Religious experience" has a whole range of different levels of intensity, from the ecstatic religious experience or peak experience on the one end, down to a quiet sense of the holy. This sense is often experienced in a place that is wilderness. The poet Coleridge made this connection, between what is "savage" (wild) and what is holy: 
A savage place! as holy and enchanted ...
(Coleridge, Xanadu)
The Psalmist of the Bible drew a connection between the natural world and a sense of the holy, which in his tradition is associated with the glory of God:
The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19)
And in this, both Coleridge and the Psalmist speak to what is a fairly common human experience: the sense of the holy in the natural world. The point here is simple: If God is the cause of the natural world, then we would expect to find the "trace of God" there. This is not an argument from "experience of the holy" to an act of Creation. It is more a comment directed to religious people that, on the view that God caused the world, we should expect to find traces of him there, and feel a closeness to him there, more than in a man-made setting. Consider how often religious retreats choose natural settings, and how often monasteries and holy places of various different religions are in the wilderness or at least surrounded by nature. These are testimony to how effective it is to heighten the religious sense by regaining our connection to the natural world.

My other point is this: It is not spiritually healthy to be too far removed from the natural world. As the world becomes more urban and more citified, has that been a contributing cause to the increase in atheism? The atheists I'm sure would object that any modern increase in atheism is due to "progress". Perhaps; but perhaps it is also -- at least in part -- due to decreasing religious experience in everyday life, as people are removed from natural settings in which they experience the holy.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Are "Religious Experiences" hijacked by our existing understanding?

How does a religious experience fit into our existing understanding, our conceptual framework? Or does it? Does the assumption that it should fit cause us to force a fit?

Many (not all) people who have a religious experience are strengthened in their existing beliefs. They see the experience as a validation of what they knew or understood before then, or a validation of the religion in which they had the experience and understood the experience. While there are a number of known exceptions to that general rule, still the general rule raises the question: Did we understand the religious experience on its own terms, or does that "validation" phenomenon mean that our existing understanding reinterpreted whatever we may have experienced, and made that experience fit within that understanding?

I'd like to consider two trends that Hinman documents in his book, The Trace of God, that have some relation to the question.

First, Hinman (among others) has documented that religious experience or mystical experience is notoriously difficult to describe in words. One of the commonly-observed characteristics is that mystical experience is "ineffable" -- beyond expressing in human language. But if the religious framework interpreted the religious experience to fit itself, why would we find anything that we couldn't describe in the language provided by that framework? Doesn't our struggle with the vocabulary suggest that there is something more going on, something that our existing concepts and vocabulary have difficulty grasping? It seems that, if the framework had been able to fit the whole of the religious experience into itself, we should have no problem describing that experience in the terms provided by that framework. But in peoples' religious experiences, we find that there are consistent problems with finding the words to describe it. That suggests that the framework was not able to reinterpret or assimilate the religious experience completely. The ineffability itself suggests something beyond the framework's vocabulary.

Next, religious experiences and mystical experiences often cause a transformation. That is to say, it can change peoples' lives, and often does change peoples' lives. But if religious experience is wholly a function of someone's prior religious understanding which they had all along, then where does the transformation come from? If everything was already there in that person's religious understanding -- if the religious experience added nothing new -- then how did it cause a change? And there is still another facet to the question, "Where did the change come from?" If someone puts forward an alternate explanation that the religious experience didn't cause the change, that the experience was the product of the religious system -- then that may mean that the power to transform lives is already present in the religious system itself. On that view, we would then have to consider whether a "religious experience" is the religious system's breakthrough moment with a person, in which it crosses the threshold needed to change someone's life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Emotion: Is it real or mere interpretation?

When we discuss religious experience and emotion, again the question arises whether our own emotions are realities, or merely perceptions of reality, perceptions that exist only in our thoughts and re-interpretations. When it comes to religious experience, this question matters for the perception of joy or ecstasy that often accompanies religious experience; it also matters in everyday questions such as whether love is real, or nothing more than a socially-acceptable reconstruction of a mating instinct.

In Hinman's recent book The Trace of God, he quotes someone who advocates the view that our emotions are a matter of perception, reconstruction or reinterpretation:
Are we ready to posit physiological differences, or even different states or events, to correspond to the subtle differentiation between the various forms of despair described by Kierkegaard in the The Sickness Unto Death, or even to correspond to the difference between pride and joy, or annoyance and indignation, and between the various modifications of each? Is it plausible, as Hume suggests, to think we identify these emotions by direct inspection of the qualitative difference in feeling which marks one off from the other? Psychologists have not been able to discover particular physiological states that are correlated with each of the emotions. An emotion cannot be identified at that level. (Hinman, pp 213-214, citing pp 90-91 of Proudfoot's work Religious Experience.)
Before exploring what I consider to be a more accurate explanation of emotions, I'd like to point out one thing in passing. If our emotions are a matter of reconstruction or reinterpretation, there is a pressing question: a reinterpretation of what? For love, some would say it is a socially-acceptable reconstruction of a mating instinct. But even if we assume that is true (or true in some cases), the fact remains: the mating instinct itself was already there. The person was experiencing something real, and that real experience called for the explanation. We may think that some person misinterpreted what they felt; but we would be wrong to suppose they felt nothing.

Proudfoot's argument hinges on whether we can physically or objectively detect the subtle differences between very similar states. He suggests several sets of emotions: different forms of despair; pride and joy; annoyance and indignation. If he had asked us to differentiate between joy and indignation, that would have been too easy, so he challenges the reader to distinguish one emotion from another that is very similar. But take one step back: How did he group those similar emotions together? Are those groups, then, the more basic emotions? Is there a "despair" group of emotions with all of the subtle shades that may be mentioned, a "glad" group of emotions encompassing pride and joy, an "anger" group of emotions including both annoyance and indignation? In creating those groups, has Proudfoot identified a more basic level of emotions that we can easily distinguish? From the brief excerpt I've read, it seems that he would deny the existence of this basic level of emotion that we can easily distinguish. If we were to argue, "you cannot distinguish the subtleties objectively, so we can conclude that nothing about it is objective" -- I think we would be wrong.

For the purely physical aspects of emotions, I'd make a comparison to our sense of taste when we eat. Consider the role of the tongue (not the nose) in our perceptions of flavor. It has long been claimed that the tongue only senses four different flavors. This is hugely different from our perception of taste, which adds in the smell without our being consciously aware of the addition. Where our tongue can only detect "sour", our sense of taste can tell the difference between lemon and lime and vinegar. Where our tongue only understands "bitter", we can still taste the difference between coffee and unsweetened chocolate. And how many people remember the experiment from elementary school, where someone was blindfolded and had their nose stopped, and couldn't taste the difference between an apple and an onion? But when the nose is added in, it's very easy to tell the rest of the differences. I expect that, like our tongue can only distinguish the most basic of flavors, in the same way our emotions have some broad and simple groups that we can distinguish in a basic and primary way, while the subtle differences have another mechanism which includes our reflection on the situation.

To ignore the clear perception of basic emotions, Proudfoot adopts the connoisseur's subtlety. He glosses over the broad, simple, undifferentiated basic groups of emotions. He brushes aside the large, primary groups -- comparable to the most basic tastes like sweet and sour -- and concentrates only on the "subtle differentiation between the various forms of despair", or between "pride and joy, or annoyance and indignation". Pride and joy may share the same physical reaction; the two may be given different names because of their different causes rather than their different effects. Likewise annoyance and indignation may share their physical core, and we give them different names from our evaluations of their causes. For example, it may be that indignation is a type of annoyance -- the specific type of annoyance caused by the evaluation that something is morally objectionable. So indignation is not necessarily a different emotion as such. In this case, the more basic emotion -- annoyance -- has one basis, while the interpretation "this is indignation" is added when we evaluate the cause. I'd expect that the subtleties (like annoyance or indignation) may sometimes be a matter of interpretation: that subtlety depends on how we understand the cause. But the general fact remains that we were reacting with some form of annoyance. The Proudfoot quote seems to want to deny that there are real distinctions between different emotions by limiting the discussion to only the most minor of variations. But again, if we take a step back and see the larger differences -- such as joy versus rage -- we can see that the "subtle differences" miss the larger point. Back to our "taste" comparison, it would be like denying the tongue's role in taste, once the nose's role was also understood. After we understood just how important the nose's role is to our sense of taste, would we think the tongue's role is relatively worthless? But the nose cannot smell salt or sugar ... It would be a mistake to throw out either level of analysis, or to pit one against the other as if it must be the whole picture.

I'd expect that, if we classified emotions by their most basic components, we would find a handful of primary emotional states. "Pride" and "joy" would probably belong to the same family. (To experience "pride", do we start with the basic "joy" emotion, with traces of "satisfaction", resulting from an "accomplishment"?) After we identified the primary groups, we would find other differences -- probably other kinds of differences -- to make those fine distinctions. For those secondary, subtle distinctions, it would take the analysis of the whole emotional realm to trace the causes of the other differences.

In responding to Proudfoot, to some extent Hinman proposes a difference between the emotion of religious experience and other emotions. I would hold for the validity of emotions in general without making a special category for religious experience. What is called for is not the dismissal of emotion or experience, but a better evaluative understanding of them. I would hold for the reality and validity of experiences -- such as touching a hot stove -- that may cause emotions, even if our understanding of emotions is still not entirely precise. If we say, "you cannot distinguish the subtleties apart from your interpretation, therefore nothing remains but your interpretation", that doesn't actually seem to be the case. We risk using our cleverness to handicap our own understanding.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Do our ideas taint our experiences?

When we ask, "Are religious experiences real?", part of the discussion revolves around whether we really remember the thing itself, or whether our later thoughts about what happened alter our memories and shape the experience.

This was discussed in Hinman's book The Trace of God, as he interacts with Proudfoot's understanding of religious experience: 
"He is arguing that the experience is reformed in our minds ex post facto as we re-describe what happened." (p 193)
In general, I think that phenomenon happens -- that experiences are reformed to some extent as we re-describe. I remember hearing of an experiment on the reliability of witnesses where witnesses were shown a video of a car accident They were more likely to report that the car accident involved broken glass if the question was phrased to use the word "smashing" or something to that effect, rather than in more neutral terms like "collision" or "accident". So even the questions we're asked about something have the potential to shape our recollections. That may be especially true when the recollections were brief or confusing. However, I think there are limits to how much our memories can be shaped: I don't expect that any question could lead the witnesses to "recall" that there was no collision. So what are the effects and limits of re-interpretations?

The more "pre-cognitive" our original experience is -- the more it was an experience without any expectation or interpretation in the moment that it happened -- the more open it is to re-interpretation in terms of our background expectations of the world. That does not mean the original experience is worthless or unreal; it means we have an especially tricky task in getting beyond our own frameworks. (On the topic of trusting our perceptions, I think this is less of an indictment of those unfiltered experiences, and more of an indictment of how much filtering we generally perform on routine events that we expected.) When we examine our recollections, it's because we're seeking understanding, we're seeking meaning, we're trying to put it into perspective when we describe it. And that exercise consists of fitting it into our conceptual framework; it carries a risk of misinterpretation. (That's how different religions -- and atheists -- can come up with some conflicting interpretations for their sense of the holy or transcendent.) That kind of reinterpretation doesn't happen only to religious experience, it happens to all experience.

In the way that a religious experience can redefine our understanding of the world, social constructs can redefine our understanding of a religious experience. None of that touches the fact that the religious experience was experienced before we sought the understanding. The experience was the original cause for seeking that understanding. So the act of seeking understanding doesn't invalidate the reality of the experience itself. The experience was, as Hinman's book terms it, "pre-theoretical", even if later retellings pick up the signs of reflection. (It's the same reason that historians tend to put more weight on the Gospel of Mark than the Gospel of John. Whether or not you agree with the Gospel of John's interpretation of things, there is no doubt that there has been a lot of reflection and interpretation in it, and the only way to double-check the validity of the later view is to go back to earlier sources.)

How do frameworks shape our understanding of the world? Consider a toddler who touches a hot stove: the toddler's immediate reaction shows an experience and some emotions, without understanding or concepts. But when we help the toddler understand, not all the "concepts" that we teach to the toddler are going to cloud his judgment. We teach concepts that lead to a fuller understanding of the world: concepts of excessive heat, injury, pain, healing, the uses of stoves. We teach enough of the concepts -- which are built on shared experiences -- to allow the toddler to navigate the kitchen without injury in the future. We give the toddler a framework for understanding the nature of injury and healing that may help him cope with the next tragedy in life, such as a skinned knee.

So not all conceptual frameworks poison or distort our understanding. There is such a thing as a good understanding, in which our experiences take their rightful places in a coherent and reality-driven understanding of the world. The better the conceptual framework, the more successfully people navigate the world.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Book Review: The Trace of God by Joseph Hinman

My thanks to Joseph Hinman and to GrandViaduct publishers for sending me a review copy of The Trace of God. This book is probably unlike anything you have ever read. It reviews the scientific literature -- mostly from the social sciences -- on religious experience and mystical experience, and tackles some of the big questions for those of us who have had religious experiences: Do other people have them? How common are they? Are they just a random trick of brain chemistry, or is there something real behind them? Was I seeing only what I expected to see? More than that, he tackles these questions by reviewing the scientific literature: psychological studies, cross-cultural studies, and studies on the extent to which the same effects can be produced by other methods. He reviews the counter-explanations, and makes a case for the prima facie explanation: that what is perceived may, in fact, be a genuine experience of the "trace of God".

Readers with any kind of orthodoxy -- whether religious or naturalistic -- will find that the book, the argument, the author himself does not fit neatly into expected categories. Hinman does not aim to "prove" God's existence, but to demonstrate that belief in God is a rational interpretation of what we know about religious experience and mystical experience. Throughout the book, he builds his case that the numbers of people having comparable experiences across cultures and across the centuries -- and the long-term positive effects that many people have after these experiences -- provide a rational warrant for believing that there is something objectively real in these experiences. He closes with an explanation of how he sees that thought fitting into a view of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

The book is heavily documented with scientific studies and psychological research, and is a lengthy read at nearly 400 pages of content. But like some of my favorite longer books, when I came to the last page, I found myself wishing for more. Whether or not you are fully convinced by his arguments, the book will make you think.

My summer series this year (already pre-written) will interact with a number of Hinman's basic arguments and lines of thought, because there are some things that Hinman does particularly well: getting people to think, and getting people to talk.