General Question

Fyrius's avatar

Does the word "spiritual" really mean anything?

Asked by Fyrius (14555points) May 8th, 2009

The word “spiritual” is thrown around these days as if it’s about something that is uncontroversially known to exists. But I’m quite certain that implication is mistaken. I for one am not convinced.

The dictionary would define it as “of or pertaining to the spirit or the soul.” But that raises the questions, what is the spirit, what is the soul? Does either even exist? Has either been shown by any objective means to exist? Or is it up there with ghosts, demons, gods, chakras, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy?
The other definitions equally hinge upon unverified phenomena.

I believe the existence of spirits and souls should be confirmed before we continue considering “spirituality” a serious domain of human development.

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28 Answers

DragonFace's avatar

I have the same problem. Im a kind of person that has to see it to believe it. I grew up in church and all that but since I was a kid I have been this way.

dynamicduo's avatar

It’s up there with ghosts, in my opinion. I don’t consider it to be something that is uncontroversially known to exist.

One doctor did try a neat experiment to see if any weight was lost when someone died, presumably due to a soul leaving, but his results and method were extremely sketchy… still, it’s interesting to note that someone tried something.

Harp's avatar

I have serious issues with the word and its etymology as well, but do I think it is grounded in a real distinction. Our brains are capable of different modes of consciousness; this isn’t “New Age” mumbo jumbo, but a product of how the different areas of the brain contribute to our representation of reality.

While we now tend to prioritize the rational, discriminatory, analytical functions of the brain, there is nevertheless a parallel function of the brain that perceives reality in holistic terms, emphasizing connections and intuition rather than differences and deduction. I think that what we call “spiritual” is the version of reality perceived by this intuitive and non-discriminating function.

As long as we’ve had this Homo Sapiens brain, those two modes have been available to us, but we’ve argued back and forth over history about which represents the “true” reality. My own feeling is that neither has exclusive claim to that distinction. Both modes work in concert to produce our fully-dimensioned human reality, and neither should be discounted.

fireside's avatar

Well put, Harp.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Spiritual and soul are words to cover abstract concepts that are pretty much taken on faith. Same with ghosts. There are no scientific evidence for either souls or ghosts, but like many words in our history, these words exist as concepts for some and as reality for others.

I use the word soul occasionally, but I am not comfortable with it, unless I am referring to a certain type of ethnic music or food. Soul Train anyone?

Spiritual to me is an emotional state; and since emotions originate in the brain, which is still a vast and undiscovered country located in three pounds of meat, it exists, just not in a way that can be measured, at least not yet or as far as I know.

Being an atheist and a skeptic makes it hard to define spiritual, but it exists, at least in a form that relates to an emotional state. Sort of like trying to prove to you I have an invisible dragon living in my garage.

I’ve studied the history and scientific research of ghosts for many years and have come to the conclusion that barring any new extraordinary evidence, they simply do not exist. Of course, I am not likely to convince anyone else of that, but then, sometimes, letting people have the things that they believe in because it makes them feel good is a given.

You have to learn to pick your battles.

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes, everything that is beyond ‘objective’ reality and science. Spirituality deals with the ultimate why questions like ‘Why am I me?’ or ‘Why isn’t there just nothingness?’ or ‘What is the meaning of our lives?’

Fyrius's avatar

Incoming huge post. Sorry guys. I’ll try some layout tricks to make it easier to process.

@Harp: That makes sense.

But I still feel a need to address my conviction that the rational, analytical side is inherently much better at finding the truth. The perception the other side gives us is much more flawed, since it is shaped entirely and exclusively by just what would have helped us survive in the wild. Emotional intuition would never think of atoms or a heliocentric system, of tectonic plate movement or sound as waves of pressure, simply because such things are too small or too large or too slow or too fast for our intuition to grasp.

I suppose the irrational parts of the mind particularly serve artists well, whereas the analytical parts are the philosopher’s and scientist’s best friend.

Although that remark compells me to cross-reference the achievements of art with those of science. Without intuition and emotion, we wouldn’t have Beethoven’s Fifth or the Venus of Milo, Impressionism or the Lord of the Rings, but without analytical rationality, we wouldn’t even have made it past running after bisons with clubs. We probably wouldn’t even have figured out how to make a bow.

You know what? This needs a better word. “Spiritual” is forever going to have connotations of superstition and, as you put it, New Age mumbo jumbo. (Although the concept of the soul is rather Old Age too.)


“the brain, which is still a vast and undiscovered country located in three pounds of meat”
This is now my favourite description of the brain ever.
Although it must be said that experimental neuropsychologists are doing a great job at charting the brain.

“Being an (...) my garage.”
So… you need to be gullible in order to define the word “spiritual”?

I have no trouble believing in an emotional state of mind. Heck, we probably all cried when Bambi’s mother died, even though it was just an animated deer anthropomorphised like only Walt Disney Studios could.
For a more recent example, I still had the same reaction when I recently saw the season finale of the second season of Torchwood. (Why did Owen and Tosh have to kick the bucket? ;_;)
I can be a sentimental person. Just not a superstitious one.

Does that influence your point?

“but then, sometimes, letting people have the things that they believe in because it makes them feel good is a given.”
A given? I don’t follow that sentence. It took an unexpected turn just at the final word and managed to elude me.
Probably unsurprisingly, I still don’t really condone letting people believe things that are demonstrably not true, however nice it makes them feel. I think of it as a bit of a moral obligation to encourage such people to man up and face the facts.


@mattbrowne: I beg to differ. Those questions are matters of philosophy that are quite within the scope of objective reality.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Fyrius – I think there is no objective reality. All we perceive as reality is created by our brains. Spirituality also involves parts which are beyond our sensory systems.

fireside's avatar

To me, the distinction between Mind, Body and Spirit is exactly the same as the distinction between Logic, Emotion and Intuition.

I don’t think Intuition is the same thing as Emotion. Too much emotion can actually interfere with your ability to hear your intuition, the same thing can happen from too much rationalizing.

When a good football player is on the field, they aren’t using the rational part of their mind to. They’ve drilled in the moves so that they don’t have to think about how to move their body and are free just react to what comes at them. The emotion only comes out after the play has been made.

Instinct and Intuition are studied by psychologists and business leaders not just artists.

“The only real valuable thing is intuition.” Einstein worked in theoretical physics; he had to trust his intuition to move forward on anything. Entrepreneurs do the same thing every day.

Fyrius's avatar

@mattbrowne: You mentioned that before. Do you also believe there exists no outside world, and that the coherence in the stimuli you receive could be due to something else? In other words, are you a solipsist?

I’d like to point out that if there is no objective reality, you can’t really know anything about the world. If you can’t really know anything about the world, you also can’t know whether there exists a world out there or not. In that way, when you state with such conviction that there exists no objective reality, you’re pretty much shooting yourself in the foot. You would have a better point if you added a “maybe”.

Beyond that, admittedly the existence of an outside world is a less than certain assumption, but I believe it’s sensible enough to take our chances. It certainly makes more sense at least to me to assume the highly coherent stimuli we receive come from an actual outside world that behaves in consistent ways than to assume it’s all in my head.
And if we assume this one thing, we can work out to very intricate lengths how this world works, and we can use this knowledge to improve it drastically.


@fireside: So, “spirit” is a synonym for “intuition”, then?
As for your distinction, I think you should know that logic, emotion and intuition all happen exclusively in the mind, and the mind is a function of the brain. Even “gut feelings” actually happen in the brain; intestines cannot process information. If we add to that the obvious fact that the brain is a body part, everything boils down to Body.
Maybe that knowledge is a product of getting hung up on rationalism, but it’s also factually true.

As for instinct and intuition outside the arts: point taken.
Although psychologists are a bad example, because they study all aspects of the mind – from a rational point of view.

Garebo's avatar

Sounds like you may be confirming your latent or die-hard, no pun intended, atheistic beliefs.
I personally can’t understand how anyone could believe they don’t have an astral body from there own life observations and experiences.

fireside's avatar

@Fyrius – just out of curiosity, did I say that gut feelings originated from the intestines?
Also, did I indicate that I thought the brain existed outside of the body?

Why would psychologists be a bad example? Jung had the concept of the Persona, Shadow and Animus which is quite similar to the Mind, Body, Spirit analogy. He also believed in a collective unconscious.

Freud drew distinctions between the Id, Ego and Super Ego.

But I understand if you have a need to simplify things and just call everything the brain, it is much easier to describe that way. It just may not be as useful in approaching the concepts we are discussing.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

@Fyrius my point of letting people believe whatever makes em happy comes from the wisdom and knowledge that arguing or debating with people who believe what they believe because it makes em feel good is fruitless. If someone believes in say, God, because the belief in God makes them feel good, and it gives their life meaning, then what sort of bastard would I be to convince them otherwise? So I prove to them that I am right, and that their belief in god is wrong, and what exactly have I gained? The fact that I am right? What the fuck is that to them? If I succeed in convincing them that the one thing that gives their life meaning is false, then what exactly have I done? There are more important things in life than being right, you know. Calling it ‘manning up’ is simply retarded and pointless to everyone else outside of your world view. Your desire to force people to man up to the assumed truth that you perceive is cold, heartless and arrogant. Nothing I despise worse than an arrogant atheist. They are as fucking annoying as an arrogant believer.

Your self-righteous moral obligations aside, what you think is right or wrong doesn’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. I still stand by my opinion that letting people believe in things I call false that do no harm to me and gives their life meaning is perfectly acceptable. Some day I hope that you achieve the maturity to understand why that is.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Fyrius – No, solipsism is going too far. The external world does exist and we can come up with a good approximation. Science and technology has extended the human sensory system. A couple of hundred years ago the universe was restricted to what the human eye could see. Using a telescope Galilei could see a little more. Hey, Jovian moons out there, awesome. Today we know the universe is a lot more. Not only are there billions of galaxies, there’s a microwave universe, a radio universe, an infrared and X-ray and gamma ray universe. For bats there also might be an ultrasound universe (at least on Earth). What else? Hmm… neutrinos flying around. Elusive dark matter. What else? You want more? My point is, we’ll never get a complete list. We’ll never get a full picture of the whole ‘reality’.

Harp's avatar

The rational/analytical function of the brain occupies the spotlight in our era because we’ve discovered its enormous utility in shaping our environment to suit us. That Science, which is the formalization of this way of looking at the world, is a legitimate way of representing reality seems clear because it leads to such concrete, consistent and useful results. It offers great promise for making our lives better, so we’re in love with it, and that’s cool.

The mode of consciousness that I see as the source of human “spirituality” is quite different. For one thing, it has essentially no utility. Because it’s blind to the distinctions that make analysis possible, it sees infinite oneness where the intellect sees infinite many-ness. That oneness appears so whole, perfect and all-encompassing that change doesn’t actually have any meaning in this context. The oneness is always just as it is. While this perspective is profoundly satisfying, it can’t by itself be useful in our world of distinctions and things. Yet, it’s a fundamental aspect of who we are, even if we’re not overtly aware of its functioning.

Considering these two modes separately is really just a theoretical exercise because our reality is the product of their working together, each tempering the other. We may be skewed to favor one perspective over the other, but everyone draws on both of these sources. An imbalance to either extreme will give rise to a set of problems. (For a fascinating look at one particular case that dramatically illustrates how these modes work, see this talk by a neuro-anatomist on her experience with a massive stroke).

Lastly, it’s important to recognize that each mode of perception is entirely satisfied with its own perspective. The world as seen through the lens of discrimination and analysis makes sense in its own terms, so that the rigorous scientist is completely satisfied that this view expresses the fundamental nature of reality. At the same time, the world of oneness is equally compelling in its own terms and also constitutes an unassailable reality.

I’m totally on-board with the idea of finding a new name for what we now call “spirituality” that’s less freighted with notions of ethereal entities and mysterious forces.

Fyrius's avatar

@Garebo: Actually, my atheistic beliefs are neither latent nor die-hard. I’m an overt naturalist sceptic science fanboy who, as I mentioned earlier, would change his mind overnight if any good reason to would present itself.


@fireside: No, admittedly I was reacting to beliefs other people hold, rather than yours, with the “gut feelings” point.
And while you didn’t say the brain is outside the body, you did at least strongly imply the mind is outside the body, which means outside the brain. Which is not true.
Or at least almost certainly so, taking into account possible assertions about the not yet pinpointed parts of the mind being non-material.

As for the psychologists: all right, so they might subscribe to non-materialist concepts too. But I would expect they do this as a simplification, as a model of the mind.
I’m worried that when you equate “Mind, Body and Spirit” to psychological terms like “Id, Ego and Superego”, you’re making a false analogy that confounds the matter more than it clears it up. In reality, no part of the mind is more or less tied to the body or the mind than the others. All are part of the mind.

As for calling everything the brain: this is not a simplification to make things easier, this is a biological fact. It is all in the brain.


@evelyns_pet_zebra: You know, where I come from, when you lose your temper like this, it’s considered a defeat.
Admittedly they think so for the wrong reasons, assuming everyone is a troll by default, but I endorse their general idea – calm the fuck down.

I did say “things that are demonstrably not true”, not “things that are not true in my personal ever so humble opinion” – and if that were what I really meant, you can trust that I would have put it that way. And by “demonstrably not true”, if that needs clarification too, I mean “proven to be patently false by all standards.” Most your rant falls apart in the face of this simple fact.
And there is quite more to gain from encouraging people to reconsider nonsensical beliefs than “being right”. This egocentric kind of “gain” does not factor into my motives. I want to make people face the facts because I consider reason an important virtue that pays for itself, and I consider delusion a dangerous flaw.
I wouldn’t have used the words “moral obligation” either if I had meant “personal compulsion”.

There are more important things in life than being right, you know.
Lol. I plead guilty there. I do get a bit obsessed with this sort of thing, that’s true.
Then again, at least in my own ever so humble perception, feeling comfortable is not one of these things that are more important than the truth. Feeling comfortable is a luxury that takes precedence over only the most mundanely insignificant of things.

“Your self-righteous moral obligations aside, what you think is right or wrong doesn’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.”
I must be reading this wrong. What I think is right and wrong doesn’t matter? You think it’s justified to disregard morality, then?
Unless you’re really talking about “the overall scheme of things”, taking the kind of scope that encompasses all that is known to exist, but on that sort of scale the existence of this whole solar system is just a footnote. Heck, not even that – it’s a relative clause in a footnote in an appendix in a second edition, if we’re lucky.

“Some day I hope that you achieve the maturity to understand why that is.”
You know, for someone who gets so angry about perceived arrogance, you’re rather adept at practising it yourself. Who are you to call me immature, right after holding it against me that I’m allegedly not open to other people’s points of view?
I consider this inappropriate condescension a personal insult. Not exactly a sign of maturity, either, or of good manners for that matter.


@mattbrowne: Glad we can agree on the external world – it makes this discussion a lot easier.
But I think A) you’re being more pessimistic about our ability to know the real world than I believe we deserve, and B) this does not argue against the existence of objective reality, only against how complete our view of it is.

Technically, by the way, the Jovian moons are still invisible to us, by the way – we only know they must be there due to the gravitational force they exert on Jupiter, making it woblle in a way that would be hard to explain otherwise.


@Harp: While I generally support monism as a world view – if only for offering a point of view rather than an assertion – I do think changes still happen in a universe that is one whole. It might be hard to describe without using terms like “parts of the whole”, but when, say, a star dies and turns into a passive lump of iron, however you’re going to look at it, the status quo in the grand whole is different from the way it was a few million years ago. I do think change still has meaning.

I’m not sure if I’m convinced about the way you say these modes of thought work together, but I’ll watch the lecture.

Fyrius's avatar

Encyclopaedia of the Universe, second edition, appendix 21: The Milky Way Galaxy, footnote 16: “Of course, this spiral arm of the galaxy also contains systems with such primitive, self-contained life as that found in the Gliese 581 or the Sol system. We will not discuss these here.”

Who would have thought. We’re actually mentioned.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

I don’t know where you are reading anger when I was expressing disgust at your militant attitude, but hey, text is never the best way to express an opinion. If you read anger in my swear words, then you really do have a lot to learn. Swearing is an art form, and not limited to expressing anger. Call it defeat, I’ve heard the same arrogant bullshit from the militant fundies. Doesn’t mean a fucking thing.

And your militant atheist jerkness is a real turn off to people who have lived a full life and could teach you something if you would only climb down off your holier-than-thou pedestal and ask them, instead of assuming you know it all. But don’t ask me, I don’t have the patience to try and teach you anything. Besides, you know it all anyway, what could a man twice your age teach you that you haven’t learned in college?

Have a wonderful life and write a book when you get the universe defined according to your particular views, I’m sure I’d love to read it.

Garebo's avatar

Try meditation, maybe that will sway you.

Fyrius's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra: I do read anger into your swear words, your use of bold letters and your blatant personal accusations. If you believe this is an unreasonable conclusion, or if you even literally don’t know what could have given me the idea, then I think it’s you who has to learn a thing or two about writing style.
You may call swearing an art form, and perhaps you are on to something there, but if it is, it’s an art form that can express only a very limited range of sentiments. Unless you can convince me that cussing like that can be used to express affection or cheer.
And “I fucking love you” or “I’m so fucking happy” doesn’t count – there it’s just an intensifier that doesn’t express anything by itself.

Secondly, I’m not being a militant atheist (where did I even mention religion anyway?) but a militant rationalist. I’m not opposed to religion in itself, I’m opposed to the mind-set that usually leads to it. I’m opposed to wishful thinking and ignoring reason and facts in favour of ideas that are by all standards not worthy of anyone’s belief.
Think of people who believe that the earth is flat, that horoscopes really work, that the earth is only 6000 years old, that homeopathy is a legitimate form of medicine, that faeries exist or that DNA doesn’t, if you still think I’m just pressing my own arbitrary beliefs on others. For the record, there exist devastating arguments against each of these. I won’t elaborate here.
My stance is that these people need to get out of their comfort zone and open their minds. I don’t even care what they will end up believing, as long as they arrive at their conclusions through proper logic and reason.

Thirdly, I beg to differ about my perceived holier-than-thouness and pedestal dwelling. It’s in fact a key part of my life philosophy to hear what people have to say for themselves – and what others have to say about it – before judging whether their ideas make sense of not. I ask people about their beliefs all the time. I do not ever assume I know it all.
It’s quite hurtful that you would accuse me of such things, based only on the fact that I think some people really are wrong about things.

I’m quite aware of how much and what I have left to learn, and I’m working on it. But it’s not very kind of you to nag me about it. Frankly, it pisses me off.
It’s particularly mind-boggling that you continue to accuse me of feeling holier-than-thou and at the same time continue to belittle me for my age. You’re being an egalitarian elitist, fighting against perceived undue contempt with undue contempt.

fireside's avatar

It’s okay Fyrius, not everybody has the same capacities for conceptualization and complex thought. You’re still young, but I’m sure you’ll find something that puts your natural talents to good use.

It’s not like everyone at Apple has the vision of Jobs. Some people are needed to review the technical specs and try to find flaws in the system that others have designed. Or there are people who spin other people’s words just so they can make a counterpoint. That job often doesn’t require critical reading skills, just the ability to react to certain keywords with pre-engineered responses that are intended to redirect the conversation.

Harp's avatar

@Fyrius “I do think changes still happen in a universe that is one whole”

So do I, but perception of change belongs to the realm of discrimination. To perceive change, one must see time as linear (distinguish between “before” and “after”, “now” and “then”), and one must compare and differentiate. This differentiation includes defining objects out of our sensory experience. To use your example, it’s the faculty of discrimination that picks out and names “stars” and “iron” from the chaos of experience, then determines that one becomes the other in linear fashion. These are the terms of reality according to this discriminating faculty.

To the…let’s just call it “unity consciousness” for want of a better term… time is not linear, it’s an unmoving point. There is only This, no “before”, no “after”. Unity consciousness is also blind to difference. Rather than compartmentalizing and naming portions of experience into discrete things, it simply experiences without definition. It doesn’t even distinguish between the experiencer and that which is experienced. This is why I said that change has no meaning in the worldview of unity consciousness.

If the unity consciousness seems hopelessly obtuse from this description, the discriminating consciousness is equally obtuse in its own way. Unity consciousness is the wellspring of compassion and empathy, of wonder, of connectedness, and of all the social constructs that grow out of these. The discriminating consciousness alone is as blind to these as unity consciousness is to differentiation. Maybe this is what Pascal meant when he said “The heart has its reasons of which Reason knows nothing”. Either alone is an incomplete representation of reality.

Fyrius's avatar

You’re starting to sound like my Tai Chi teacher. Lol.
Though he uses this kind of imagery solely as a thought experiment to get the form to work properly.

I suppose you’re right when you say change requires linear time and comparison of before and after. If you mean to say that perception of time is lost on the state of mind you’re talking about, then I see where you’re coming from.

But I should say that for something that is supposed to be a fundamental part of also my mind, I think I experience this state of mind remarkably little. But maybe next time I’m having some strong emotional feeling, I should just pay attention to whether the experience is like what you’re talking about.
That is what you’re saying, isn’t it?

“Unity consciousness is the wellspring of compassion and empathy, of wonder, of connectedness, and of all the social constructs that grow out of these.”
If by “wellspring” you mean “source”, then I must disagree somewhat. This unity consciousness you describe seems to be a state of mind I rarely attain, yet still I much more often experience compassion, empathy, wonder and connectedness.

“The discriminating consciousness alone is as blind to these as unity consciousness is to differentiation.”
Well, I don’t know about that, either. These emotions still manifest themselves as feelings, which can easily be perceived as separate sensations. It’s just that people have a tendency to switch off the analytical machinery when emotions take over.

Fyrius's avatar

I finally watched your vid, @Harp. A very touching story.

I must say however that I find her description of right-hemispheric perception to be kind of, well, unscientific. Or at least her language use in describing it borders on New Age jargon.
It would help if she would stop talking about “energy” the way she does. Energy is a well-defined concept of physics, a finding of rational left-hemispheric science, and hardly the kind of terminology one should use to explain such a sensation. I think it impedes and confounds understanding more than it helps it.

But I guess it’s true that I for one use my analytic thought patterns pretty much all the time, and get kind of hung up on them. I suppose I could try some time to get my inner monologue to shut up for a while and switch the left-hemispheric machinery to sleep mode, and see what happens next.
Still a typically analytic experimental approach, but yeah. :P

Harp's avatar

Just to clarify, I’m not actually talking about emotion vs. intellect here. We may respond emotionally to the experiences that arise from either discriminating consciousness or unity consciousness, but the emotions are, as you say, themselves objects of perception, not a means by which we perceive.

I agree with what you say about the unscientific tone that Bolte-Taylor uses in her presentation, but here’s the dilemma that she, and anyone else who tries to describe unity consciousness, faces:

Discriminating consciousness is easy to think and talk about because thought and language are the currency of discriminating consciousness. It sees reality in terms of things and ideas, all of which can be conceptualized, communicated and mentally manipulated. But unity consciousness doesn’t conceptualize, doesn’t see things, doesn’t parse experience. How can you talk about this? One is forced to be creative in how to get the point across, using metaphor, poetry, art, gesture or (probably best of all) silence.

You say you have only rarely experienced unity consciousness, but I have to again emphasize that virtually never does either of these modes of consciousness operate in isolation. Your experiences of compassion and empathy are as sure a sign of the operation of unity consciousness as fear or aversion or jealousy are of the operation of discriminating consciousness. They cooperate, though one or the other may take the lead.

wundayatta's avatar

Description or Definition

I believe that “spirit” and “soul” are words that name a kind of metaphorical construct. Soul is a metaphor of the essence of a human being: that which makes that person that person. We can imagine it disappearing from a body when that body dies. So it’s this essence of an individual that is there when alive, but gone when dead. As I say, a metaphor, although, as with many metaphors, people start thinking of them as things with an objective reality.

Spirit—well I have difficulty separating it from soul, but I’ll try. Again, don’t forget I am speaking metaphorically. I do not believe these things have any objective reality. They are things that people experience, and then get confused with things that have physical reality. Even spirit, which is a religious idea, can have corporeality, as in “moved by the spirit.”

I think of spirit as that which pushes the soul. Or maybe the soul pushes it. It’s a kind of energy that connects souls together, or a little more concretely, it is this sense of connection that individuals can have with their environment. That oneness that Harp spoke of. It’s a feeling—a sense of magical connection or awareness of the consciousness of other people, and even of other things (gaia hypothesis). Many people feel these things, and I believe “spirit” is the word used to describe that feeling.

Two Ways of Thinking Theory

I’m a musician and a dancer as well as a social scientist who is the son of a physicist. I think the scientific method is the most useful way of trying to understand our universe. I propose a theory that could possibly be tested via fMRI or through other means. Some scientists believe they may have found a “God” gene. Others have tried to see what happens in people’s minds when they meditate, and have found significant differences from minds in other states. Still other folks are trying to look at a whole host of thought types. I read about a study of what makes us capable of delaying gratification today. Others have looked at lying behavior. If there’s one topic that’s being looked at, there are thousands. My point is that there are methods that can be used to track things down inside brains when we think various kinds of thoughts.

I propose that there are two poles on a spectrum which describes the types of symbols used to construct our thoughts. I have been thinking of this as a binary thing, but I’m wondering why I should restrict myself, since usually there are gradations of various things we measure. On the one pole, we have linguistic thinking. On the other, non-linguistic.

Linguistic thinking is the scientific kind of thinking. It has rationality and linearity, and these are facilitated by the ability to manipulate symbols; in particular, words. In order to communicate, we need symbols. Symbols obviously are an agreed-upon set of mental things that stand for objects and actions and types of thoughts (abstract things) in the “real” world. There are a variety of ways of using symbols: we can talk with words and write with words, but we can also develop other kinds of vocabularies: physical (dance), visual symbols (ideograms and paintings), tactile (brail), and, I suppose, one could even develop a smell vocabulary, although that is probably not used because it is very cumbersome and slow, and our noses just aren’t that good.

We spend most of our lives learning to manipulate symbols ever more effectively. Math is a particular symbolic “language” that is very good for working with certain kinds of ideas—things that can be measured very precisely. It’s even good for imprecisely measured things, if you know statistics. Of course, there is a divide between those who study precisely measured things (chemists, physicists, etc) and those who measure things that can only be measured imprecisely, or must be inferred (social scientists). There are other disciplines that are somewhere in between (biology, for example). The “hard” sciences think they are more pure than the “soft” (or social) sciences, and therefore they are the “real” scientists. Still, if the hard scientists think they don’t need statistics, I point them to quantum mechanics, and ask how precise they are really being?

Anyway, we have a lot of languages we use to communicate, and, I might add, to think with. Thinking in language makes it easier for us to think, remember and then retrieve some kinds of thoughts. It’s just hard to do this without symbols. You don’t know what anything means if you can’t develop a symbol for it.

I propose that there is also another kind of thinking going on in our minds—I think of it as non-linguistic thinking. It tends to happen in ways that are not obvious to us, and probably happens a lot when we are not really aware—dreaming, daydreaming, meditative, totally involved in some activity. During these times, most of us experience our thoughts “stopping.” By that, we mean we are no longer aware of thinking happening.

Yet, I think there is another kind of thinking we do. I don’t know if it’s in a side of the brain, or if it’s distributed around the brain, but somehow our brains do some of our thinking without symbols, and thus, we aren’t aware of that thinking. However, we do experience it, and because it is mysterious, we use mystical names to name it; words like “spirit.”

This kind of thinking is, I believe, responsible for our “aha” moments. Moments of inspiration. We worry about solving a problem, and finally give up on it, maybe do something else, or sleep, and then when we come back to thought, we have a solution! It seems like it comes magically, as if from God. Well, I believe there is thought behind it, but we aren’t aware of that thought.

When I dance, we speak of “getting our of our minds and into our bodies.” In this, people experience their thoughts stopping (similar to meditation?), and they just are. They relate to each other with their bodies, and develop an unconscious body language. It works. The weird thing is that at the end of this, people often can’t remember what they did. I think this is because they are using their non-linguistic minds, and without words, or symbols, we have a hell of a time forming memories, although you can train your non-linguistic mind to communicate with your linguistic mind, and thus retain memories.

So, when we come out of dreams, it can be hard to remember the dreams. They just happen. Again, I believe that without symbols, it’s hard to remember.

So, these states of awareness, as discussed above, can also feel connected—to other people, to our environment. The non-linguistic mind has a more holistic way of thinking. It sees the whole picture at once, not just parts of it. It is not a linear way of thinking. It “groks,” to use a science fiction work from my youth. I believe that this mind not only sees holistically in this moment, but also through time. It is the part of us that predicts the future. Some folks misuse this, and pretend the seeing of the future is accurate. We model life, and project the consequences of current actions forward, and we can do this linearly, but we can also do it holistically, with the non-linguistic mind.

Anyway, because of the mysteriousness of non-linguistic thinking, I believe people developed the idea of God, and Soul and Spirit to accommodate these experiences or feelings that are too hard to explain using words. Maybe they can’t be explained in words. Thus, it can seem as if they don’t exist. I think they do exist, but they aren’t woo-woo or anything. They are just difficult to describe, and so, when we experience them, it’s as if nothing is there.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Fyrius – Are you confusing extrasolar planets with the Jovian moons? Of course we can spot the moons directly using telescopes. Jupiter’s wobble isn’t necessary to find out the moons are there.

Fyrius's avatar

@mattbrowne: Yes, I am. My mistake.

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