Varieties of Religious Experience

Somehow, I thought I already did this, but I can’t find it anywhere.

I agree with the title of this YouTube, that Greene has a surprising take on religion. It’s not that out of the ordinary, but it was surprising to me that Greene has this take. So, when he referenced a book from a hundred years ago, I looked for it. It’s available for free. “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James.

As I’ve often reported on this forum, the results of my research were disappointing. First of all, no surprise, his Nobel winning colleague mentioned early in the interview is wrong; Greene doesn’t need to go on a journey and learn some new way of knowing. The book is a little more subtle, it is a rational look at religion. I didn’t know there was something like that from way back then. But I didn’t get out of the first lecture in it to see the guy was dismissing a lot. I skipped to the final lecture, the one Greene says sums it all up wonderfully. It doesn’t.

After reading, in the “Conclusion” chapter, “The sciences of nature know nothing of spiritual presences, and on the whole hold no practical commerce whatever with the idealistic conceptions towards which general philosophy inclines”, I saw no reason to go back and read anything that led him to that conclusion. He goes on to say science only deals with the symbols of reality, but when we deal with the personal then it’s more complete. I guess I can forgive him for not having access to the more complete sciences of the brain, DNA, psychology, and so much we now know about the history of human thought. I can’t forgive Brian Greene the same.

William James makes what I consider a very simple mistake. I think religions will slowly realize they are doing this and quit, and then claim it was their idea. It’s the idea of an ultimate reality, an ultimate meaning to existence. Once you accept that as the goal, the thing to strive for, you can take on any number of unsubstantiated paths, as James does when he says in a footnote that “Man can learn to transcend these limitations of finite thought…”

In my younger days I would agree - science is it and all else is hogwash. The mistake some folks on “our side” make is thinking if we don’t say Science is All, then we’re implying science is somehow bad/less, etc. Saying Science is not all doesn’t imply religion therefore is good. And it doesn’t imply mysticism.

I look at it more like this - strip all the baggage of organized religion and we’re left with ancients trying to come to terms with what they see around them, the big questions, which included morality. Unfortunately what they came up with got bastardized into what we have today. That’s a whole history of course. But we need to put the whole thing in perspective. As we progress, what counts as supernatural diminishes. And someday, when religion has gone the way of astrology, there may be things we now consider “supernatural” to be just something that was there all along but we didn’t have tools to understand it. (I’m thinking about Arthur C Clarke’s Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear to be magic…).

And so I do think there are ways, not yet understood, that each of us can transcend our own limited thoughts. (I’m actually writing a book on the subject.) BUT, and this is a big but ( :slight_smile: ) - problems obviously arise when someone steps in and claims that therefore we all should follow him/her because of his/her transcendence.

This is a much better expression of scientism. he also covers “political correctness” and it’s various forms. FF to 15 minutes if you’re short on time.

He’s talking about the value of seeking truth for its own stake. Bart tries to get to the emotional drive. He does find joy in artistic expressions, but he’s skeptical of whatever insights he might think he has. He separates experience from science, and validates both. Claiming that only one of them is correct, is “ism”.

Clarification edit: claiming that only direct experience OR science is the correct approach is making the one you choose an “ism”

Episode 712

The OP is about an old book, with a pro religion agenda. On my vacation, i stayed at a friend’s and skimmed a book by Wendell Berry. It started out with the same thesis, that science is limited to things that can be demonstrated, or whatever. I’m tired of trying to articulate their failed narrative.

Science is based on wonder and mystery. Religions say we can’t fully know their gods but says it’s a flaw of science that it doesn’t have all the answers. Woo woo environmentalists say it too. Wasted words

Okay, one more. Octavia Butler, in one those “god is” analogies. But if you’re going to say it’s ever changing nature, why not just drop the god part altogether?

This is a much better way to explain the difference between science and whatever else it is that one might think is somehow better. Science, simply, requires an explanation.

Mystery, speculation, wonder, all those things still exist, they just aren’t science. They lead us to learn, they draw us to explore. If you want to make up an explanation and call that an answer, fine, but why would you?

I know all this kind of seems obvious, but I think I’m putting together some of this in ways that don’t usually get together put. I hear “that’s pseudoscience” or “science is the best method” in isolation, but even secular thinkers have a way of limiting the place of science in thought.

Look at it from the other end of the spectrum. A friend of mine recently had a sudden onset of the flu. She wrote, in too much detail, about it on her facebook page. She talked about what she was purging and how that was letting there be room for the light to come in. She’s into astrology, so it was about the full moon. Those happen rather often, as you know.

Dave Warnock (“Dying Out Loud”) said it about his religious days, that everything that happens, you have to filter it through that lens. So if someone who is sinning gets sick, it’s because of the sin, but if your pastor gets sick, then God is testing them or something. Those are what pass for explanations for most of human history and still with a lot of the world, including national leaders.

Science doesn’t let you do that, so when it comes to something like feeling connected to nature, people need to make up a reason for it that isn’t really an explanation. They say there must be something. They leave science behind because they don’t like that the methods allow you to speculate on that, but don’t allow you to claim with certainty that there is something.

I can’t stop. Here’s a perfect example of someone who is stuck on this.

And TAE isn’t doing much better. Instead of demanding evidence, just agree with the guy, that we don’t know, then ask him what he thinks we should do.

CC led me to this snippet.

(413) Gregory Ganssle - How Belief Systems Affect Believers - YouTube

I don’t like the use of terms like “deeper level”, but I see what he’s getting at. We don’t know as much about where our thoughts come from as we would like to think we do. They bubble up from somewhere you might call an “emotional level” or some might call a “chemical reaction”. But those terms don’t work so well either since people then confuse them with saying “we are just chemical reactions” or we’re “emotional beings”. Ganssle mentions that logic matters, but it’s a hard discussion to have, to include “voice in our head” type of thinking when discussing the source of our entire worldview, which can be difficult to translate into language.

When a religious person can’t explain why they believe, they say, “God works in mysterious ways”. When scientists are trying to explain consciousness, they say, “it’s created on a deeper level”. Depending on which scientist that might be hormonal or something quantum. If you aren’t a believer or an expert in one of those fields, either one of those could be meaningless and not applicable to your daily life.

It doesn’t help when people like Deepak Chopra tell us they know how to use the quantum to change our thinking, or whatever it is he says.

This is pretty long, probably some typos, but it feels more complete than the above.

As I reviewed this thread, I realized I still haven’t hit on my original inspiration. It’s somewhere between “science is limited” and “science is all there is and the best way to get answers”. Neither of those is correct. The first one is less correct, in my mind, but what does that mean?

The people who know the physics best will tell you they don’t know answers to fundamental questions, like, is the universe finite, or has it just always been? You could conclude from that; science is limited, but if you don’t also conclude that the sum of human knowledge is limited, I think you set yourself on a troubled path.

We do know that long before telescopes started giving us data to maybe answer questions like the one above, there were humans claiming one or the other of those answers. Look into how different cultures have different versions of what “time” is and you’ll see speculation on the origin of the universe is nothing new. Those speculations are often mixed with gods and supernatural explanations to fill in the gaps of the knowledge, so it’s hard to engage with them, to pull out something that fits with the full set of knowledge that I have, plus that which I know others have that goes far beyond my own. I navigate my day based on that broad set of knowledge, not by picking one mythology from a thousand years ago and trying to map everything I see onto it.

That choice, between choosing a worldview that provides comfort, provides answer, or choosing to live with the questions that have mystified us for so long, may seem straight forward and obvious, but, we know entire civilizations have been built, and still continue to, mix their philosophy with those comfort giving, answer giving views. However, is it a choice at all? If you choose to follow the path of gathering data and drawing conclusions where that data takes you, and of challenging your own views because you know new data may appear, should you cut yourself off from, the poetry and art, all the wondering and storytelling? I think if you do, it is with as much peril as the “troubled path” I mentioned above.

The sounds created by the plucked string can be explained by a formula. The body’s reaction to those sounds can be categorized and partially understood through the study of nerves and neurons. That doesn’t make the sound any less sweet or melancholy or indescribable. As Louis Armstrong said to the question of “what is the blues”, “if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” He was talking about a way of knowing that was beyond his, and maybe anyone’s, ability to express, but could be expressed by his horn, if you took the time to listen.

As Deresiewicz and Campolo get to, it’s about the practice. If you study music, or meditate, or just read a book, your mind will “rearrange its thoughts” (that’s not a scientific statement), something will occur that is beyond our current ability to explain. For that to happen, you can’t simply read the same book that someone else read and had some insight. You “have to do the practice” as Thich Nhat Hahn said. It won’t make you special, it won’t result in the same outcome for everyone, but it will increase the chance of something happening.

The ”limit” then, that I argue against Wendell Berry and William James, is not found in methods that set boundaries for how to determine truth, they are found in statements about one method being able to accomplish that and others can’t. The methods of science include constant questioning. The absolute rule of science is that nothing is absolute. Science is willing to explore the claims of any or all religious tradition, and in fact has explored many of them. Religions have not done that until very recently, and they are doing it to attempt to survive.

On the question of meaning, this hour covers that pretty well. Greene talks about these ideas in a lot of different ways, but this is my favorite. He touches on Descartes, then tells what’s wrong with Cogito, Ergo Sum, mentions C elegans, and the connectome project. And of course physics. You could skip to the last few minutes if you are familiar with all of that.

(427) The Big Picture: From the Big Bang to the Meaning of Life - with Sean Carroll - YouTube

And this is a new YouTube page, covering philosophers. Maybe a different topic, but I’ll park it here for now.

(434) Kant: A Complete Guide to Reason - YouTube

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I went back to the Varieties book, I was looking for his definition of a term he used “over-belief”. It led me to his lecture on Philosophy, which redeemed him a bit. He starts out talking about the emotional roots of religion, how they are critical to it continuing as it has. The wording from 1902 can get a bit difficult to follow. It seems he’s saying, without the feelings, any speculation about gods would be “over-belief”. This seems kind of obvious, but then he starts delving into philosophy, specifically all the philosophical “proofs of gods”. It drags on for a bit, but I’ll give the author some credit for doing thorough research.

He talks of Kant and the imperialist that followed, and how thoughts on anything are practical only when they give us something to define a concept, or further our sense of where we are in the world. He doesn’t say that idle thought has no value, rather that we tend to throw away much of what passes through our heads. All that is the setup for his take down.

After lengthy quotes by theologians and some mild critiques, he summarizes with rhetorical questions about the type of apologetics and descriptions of God that are supposed to pass for a philosophy of religion;

What is their deduction of metaphysical attributes but a shuffling and matching of pedantic dictionary-adjectives, aloof from morals, aloof from human needs, something that might be worked out from the mere word “God” by one of those logical machines of wood and brass which recent ingenuity has contrived as well as by a man of flesh and blood. They have the trail of the serpent over them. One feels that in the theologians’ hands, they are only a set of titles obtained by a mechanical manipulation of synonyms; verbality has stepped into the place of vision, professionalism into that of life. Instead of bread we have a stone; instead of a fish, a serpent. Did such a conglomeration of abstract terms give really the gist of our knowledge of the deity, schools of theology might indeed continue to flourish, but religion, vital religion, would have taken its flight from this world. What keeps religion going is something else than abstract definitions and systems of concatenated adjectives, and something different from faculties of theology and their professors. All these things are after-effects, secondary accretions upon those phenomena of vital conversation with the unseen divine, of which I have shown you so many instances, renewing themselves in sæcula sæculorum in the lives of humble private men.

So much for the metaphysical attributes of God! From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of the scholarly mind.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by William James - Free Ebook (


I’ve listened to this whole thing. It gets painful at times, but this is a key 11 minutes. Sam has a great sense of traditions and humanity, so he cuts through Peterson like a hot knife. Jordan believes since he has followers, he’s discovered something. Really, he’s just repackaged what all the searchers, including the evolutionary biologists, already know. Most of them do it for personal gain, or fill a gap because they don’t know better. Harris takes the less popular, but intellectually honest path.

Another one popped on BigThink. I’ve heard some other stuff of Marcelo that I really liked, but here, he does another verse on the theme “science is limited”. I saw it on facebook, so I’ll just cut and paste my facebook comment to here.

Sorry to be technical, but that’s where Marcelo makes an error. He mixes agnosticism and atheism. He’s right to say science can’t disprove gods, but he uses different phrasing, frames it as a “belief in nonbelief”. But that’s not what atheism claims to do. Approaching each god claim scientifically, I conclude there is a very low probability of any one of them existing. That’s a way to rephrase “I don’t believe”.

What he says after that, about agnosticism is great. And I like a lot of things Marcelo says. Our limit of knowledge doesn’t limit our ability to be in awe of the universe, to let us feel the wonder and mystery. It’s those feelings that lead to exploration, to questioning. When we reach a high probability of certainty, leaving room for new data that might come tomorrow, it can appear “science” has settled the argument and no longer allows that question to be asked. It doesn’t do that. What it doesn’t allow is bad science. And it’s also bad science to say you are 100% certain. The awe and wonder and openness to new knowledge must always be there, or it’s not science.

I have been looking for this video. I saw this a long time ago and witnessed a clear demonstration of ritual behavior in presence of an unseen power that threatened our closest cousins the chimpanzee.

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Nice to find someone who helps me articulate this. Roy Speckhardt wrote a book in 2009, “Creating Change Through Humanism”. I got it when I donated to the AHA, but it’s been sitting on a shelf. It starts out with some of the usual discussion about belief, including a mention of an article by Peter Morales, “Science and the Search for Meaning”. It defends the democratic, shared knowledge of science against the private, personal revelations of truth. But, Morales also “carves out” some other part to the world, beyond the reach of science. Speckhardt argues that we use the same tools, even when approaching questions of meaning.

Speckhardt also mentions Steven Weinberg’s comments on the subject, who says there can’t be a science-consistent morality. The problem could be one of perception, the way we view science in an ivory tower. It’s more than that, “it’s a process of asking tough questions and looking for possible answers through the lens of reality”. If there is no god, then it’s up to us to connect moral maxims and greater health and happiness for the planet.

I’ve been meaning to get back to this post and clear it up a bit. The pronouns and quotes get a little confusing.

The first paragraph is okay, telling of another article that fits the theme of this thread. In that article, Morales defends science and then “carves out” something “beyond” science.

Then I get to Weinberg’s comments on morality. Weinberg is the one who says perception could be the problem, then Speckhardt comes back with the quote on the “lens of reality”.

IMO, that natural law was there from the very beginning.
Natural selection for survival or extinction. At first, this was purely a passive selection of beneficial traits that offered survival advantages.
As we became more intelligent it became a matter of active choices for survival advantages. We have acquired god-like powers of conscious choice.

And we are not doing well as far as “living within our means” is concerned.

Israel is a strange nation their history is the history of god in 3 religions Abraham being the father of all three.Stange because many want to wipe them out completely.Hitler tried and the nation of Israel was restored by his actions.After restoration they were attacked by 6 nations 5 armies from every direction and no only did they win they got back a massive amount of land and humiliated the attacking armies forcing surrender.In 7 days.Pretty strange history.No other people have a history resembling Israel.