I've noticed a trend with intelligent people that when they can't accept a standard religion (read: Abrahamic), they tend to go for "spiritual" beliefs or systems instead. Typically, this will involve accepting something like Yoga or Buddhism, or on the fringes, Wicca or anything else. I find this trend somewhat frustrating, because it almost seems as if people can't do without some sort of religion.
In this post, I want to explore not only the possible reasons for choosing a 'spiritual' belief system, but what could be wrong with doing so.
1. Reasons for being 'spiritual'
As I'm not the sort of person who subscribes to these beliefs, a lot of what I say below will be surmises or guesses. I suspect the following reasons tend to prevail:
a) That people cannot believe that there's "just nothing", or "that it is all for no purpose whatsoever", or that their lives actually are meaningless in some strict sense. (I don't mean Ayer's "I'm expecting a good lunch" sense, I mean "no final purpose or end-goal" sense). This reason requires teleological thinking; that all things have a final goal or purpose, that humans seem to be created beings, or divine artefacts, or things with some sort of design, so, the idea goes, there must be a purpose.
b) That people are impressed by their own inner experiences and phenomenology. The apparent inexplicability of consciousness. People who have had 'spiritual' experiences.
c) That people still believe we have 'souls' even if they conceive of God as something more abstract
d) That people are still impressed by living things, or the structure and order of life
e) People who believe that structures found at lower levels in the universe - such as minds, must be mimicked at higher levels - e.g. a cosmic mind, pantheos, or Force, or Gaia (earth) spirit.
f) People who observe apparent supernatural phenomena and think that there cannot be a natural explanation - e.g. apparent ghost sightings, apparent miracle cures, apparent violations of the laws of physics such as levitation or spoon bending - telekinesis, ESP, clairvoyance etc. People who believe in fortune-telling and astrology for whatever other reasons, e.g. that it makes sense to them or they have experienced it as working.
g) A fudging of a desire to look after nature and the earth and the environment with the idea of a Gaia or Mother Nature kind of inherent spirituality.
h) A fudging of a desire to be politically correct and reject one's own cultural background. This case covers people who go for Native American or other culturally different faiths or belief systems. "Anything as long as it's not Western."
i) A desire to reject traditional religions of the West, in particular, and adopt something that is "more natural" or "more in tune with nature" or "our true religion" etc. In this category are the Wiccans, the neopagans, etc.
j) Humans just really are spiritual beings and just really do need religion in their lives.
If anyone can give me any other reasons, please do so in the comments section below.
2. Problems with the above reasons
a) Purpose: in science we do not talk of things' purposes except as a functionalist shorthand. So, in biology, we say that a heart's purpose is to pump blood, but we don't mean that "someone" "designed" the heart "so as" to pump blood. Rather, we use the functional expression: the heart's function is blood-pumping. How does it achieve this function? Through mechanisms. How did it come to exist? Through evolution. How does evolution work? Through causal mechanisms. There is no talk, ultimately, in science, of "purposes" or "final goals". It is unscientific to ask "what is our purpose on earth?" if you are expecting an answer other than "to be a predator and keep the cow and chicken populations under control" or "to be food for velociraptors and mosquitoes". Outside of the food chain, we have no purpose in science.
b) The mystery of the mind. Many people are quite satisfied, with no little degree of schadenfreude, that science seems to have thus far been less than successful in explaining away consciousness. Many philosophers of mind and many neuropsychologists are, however, satisfied. The question is not one of whether science can explain away consciousness, but rather when. Since we are physical, and since there is no evidence for spirits (at least not under controlled laboratory testing conditions), we must assume that materialism is true, and that ultimately, all magical things have to be explained by reference to non-magical non-living non-conscious material parts. If we insist that the magical or spiritual is irreducible, we can never explain it. This is no different, epistemically speaking, to saying "we don't know and can never know". It's giving up. Scientists don't give up; they think there's a good theory that covers everything. The devil is in the details. Saying that consciousness or mind is irreducible is just giving up.
c) The soul. Some people conceive of the soul as being a separate thing to the mind. If the soul and mind are different, then I want to know what differentiates your soul from mine. Because we differ in our bodies and our minds. And if the soul is not the mind, what function does it play? The key points, I think, are that the soul survives death, and that it is responsible for who we are, or what we choose. Thus, apart from the 'suriving death' thing (for which we have no evidence), I cannot see how the soul is not the mind. If the soul is the mind, and the mind is physically explained or explainable, (see (b) above), then the soul is material. The same applies to big souls like God, Gaia, the Force, etc. There is no good reason to insist that the soul is made of magical soul-stuff. Or that it's not 'made', but that it is 'in time' or any other such arbitrary specification. There's nothing to be gained from these escape routes except to escape from a thoroughgoing materialism. So the question is not one of whether we have souls, whether they can be explained, but rather, why is it that 'spiritual' people so desperately want to escape from materialism - the view that everything is physical and can be explained, or will ultimately be explained, by reference to physicalist theories? I can only assume that spiritualists find their internal states or consciousness (drug-induced or otherwise), so amazing, that they find it easier to believe that it is irreducibly magical, rather than reducible to something non-magical. But remember: just because we don't have a thorough explanation for something now, doesn't mean we never will. Consider the technology analogy: a savage would find a pocket-watch magical (Napoleon Bonaparte). That's because a savage would have no explanation for how it worked. Not because it is in fact magical.
d) Elan vital, the life force. This is the same idea as the soul, and has the same problems: there is no reason to posit it, as it's not an explanation. It leaves life forever unexplained. Elan vital has, however, been discarded by scientists for over 100 years now, since we now have a full explanation as to how living things function and operate. No magical forces were found, or necessary. It was all just a matter of mitochondria, and below that, DNA, RNA, combustion, osmosis, organic chemistry, particle physics.
e) As above, so below: if we have minds, and we're complex, other complex things must instantiate minds. This argument is called 'functionalism' - that anything suitably complex would instantiate a mind, since the brain is complex. Hence, the universe or the earth might be conscious (indeed, so might the internet be), since these things are all composed of interconnected complex parts - whether the connection be via computer electronic buses or gravitation waves, is irrelevant. The universe, then, is pervaded by a "force" and the earth has a "Gaia" or soul. My response to this is that it seems possible, however, each of these systems would have to have the same kind of logical structure (and I mean logical in the computer sense). Mere connections are not good enough. A jersey is made of connected strands of wool, yet we don't think of a jersey (sweater, to my American readers), as conscious. It seems unlikely. So the connections or synapses would have to be of an information-sharing, and, to beg a question, apparently functional sort. It would have to be that not only is information shared between components, but that something is donewith the transmitted information going from planet to planet, or rock to tree, or whatever. Obviously, this raises the question of artificial intelligence. I am a skeptic for a technical reason. I will say briefly why. We're not Turing machines. Computers are. We're analog, they're digital. See Fred Dretske's work for more on this latter distinction. Unless we create a non-Turing phenomenologically or state-wise analog computer, it cannot be conscious. The same applies to the universe and the earth. They have to have the same kind of structure as our brains, in order to have their own minds.
f) There are miracles and things that happen that science cannot explain. My response: nothing of the sort has happened under controlled scientific laboratory testing situations. The million-dollar James Randi Foundation Prizehas never been claimed. If you think you have clairvoyance, ESP, or telekinesis abilties, go ahead - show Mr Randi and become a millionaire.
g) Loving nature. Being in awe of nature, and wishing to respect it, does not entail that nature has special feelings that need to be protected, and that it therefore has a soul. The beauty and elegance of natural things is something hardwired in us to notice, for evolutionary reasons. It is not magical.
h) Rejecting the West. Regardless of whether the West has perpetrated many sociopolitical atrocities over time, has no bearing on the truth or falsity of its cultural edicts. You can't refute Christianity by referring to the Inquisition or the Conquistadors. You can't abandon it for those reasons. That doesn't make logical sense. It is an ad hominem to say that a belief is false because it's held, or been practiced, by bad people. The correct way to reject Western religion is to show logically that it is incoherent; that it doesn't make logical sense. There are plenty of strong arguments for this provided by various atheistic writers.
i) Wishing to be closer to your roots - naturally or culturally - is an OK thing, depending on your psychology and needs. It depends on what you're getting out of it. Is it just because it 'gels' with you, or is it because you hate something else? It can be construed as a weird form of racism in the case of cultural tendencies. Just remember that Hitler loved Wagner's Germanic operas, and wanted to create a true Germanic church with pagan elements. If you're rejecting Christianity for pagan religions, you might have Nazi leanings. Just check that that's not what you're really about. You might, on the other hand, be a nationalist of some other kind. So, for example, some people want "the right to self determination". The Scots, for example. How is nationalism not a form of Apartheid? How is it not saying that other nations are somehow not as good, or are inferior, and therefore, that you do not want to associate with them, or their cultural produce? Rejecting Christianity over cultural reasons is a form of nationalist, racist-like jingoism. Christianity should be rejected on logical coherence grounds. As for being closer to nature, see the section above in (g).
j) If religion is an inherent human need, then I'm not human. I rather think religion or mysticism is a kind of escapism, a desire to not look nature squarely-on and admit that it's a machine - and one that's indifferent to you.
From the above reasoning, I must conclude that 'spiritual' people fall into a number of categories, each more questionable than the other. There's the 'want to feel better about myself' category that don't want to be associated with the West or with violating other cultures or nature. This category are confusing political evils with a kind of moral responsibility for those past evils. They'd do better to merely argue that the sins of the father are irrelevant to the child, and that moral responsibility doesn't pass down in the genes. Or just do something to uplift all the people or some of the people that the West has wronged, or live in harmony with them or nature. You don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because Christians in the past did evil things, doesn't mean that Christianity is false for that reason.
Then there's the 'want to understand consciousness/nature/the soul' category that actually don't want to understand it, but want to keep it mysterious. This category of person should rather take a step back and ask what they really want: to celebrate ignorance and the incomprehensibility of life/nature/the mind, or, whether they really are the "truth-seekers" that they often style themselves. I suspect that if they were actually honest with themselves, they'd admit that they like being ignorant and wallowing in the mysteries of their inner worlds (phenomenology). But repeatedly saying "Wow man, that's like so deep and so cool" is not ever going to enlighten you, or give you an explanatory framework.
Lastly, there's a lack of self-understanding or willingness to square up to the idea that consciousness and intentionality have to have non-conscious unintentional explanations if we are to ever explain them without being circular. ("How is the mind conscious?" "Well, it has particles that transmit the force of consciousness, which are themselves miniature conscious soul droplets").
Of course, what I have said thus far probably sounds unfounded and arrogant. Here's the argument. In order to have an effect in this world, e.g. to be able to manifest to human beings, or be experienced by human beings, spiritual phenomena would have to be able to touch, control, manipulate, or otherwise influence the physical world. If they were really spiritual, that is, not physical, they would not be able to do this. Since, by definition, something is within the ambit of science, and is material or physical, if it can influence or have an effect in the physical world. So, we know that force fields such as magnetism and gravity exist, since we see their physical effects. We do not consider them to be examples or types of spiritual things. So if putative spiritual things exist - and I'm not saying they don't - then they must be able to influence the physical world, and, as such, be part of it. So, for example, if ghosts exist, and we can occasionally see them, it must mean that ghosts (spirits) are part of this world. In order to see a ghost, it has to emit light. To emit light, it has to have electrons changing quantum states. Thus, if a ghost exists, it is electromagnetic. In other words, ghosts would have to be part of the physical world, bound by the laws of science. The same applies to big ghosts or big Spirits that create worlds, or watch humans, etc. If they can do this stuff, they're part of the world. Something outside of our spacetime dimension cannot influence our spacetime dimension unless it intrudes on it, or becomes part of it, or is part of it. Therefore, if spirits, gods or other mystical phenomena exist, they are physical. If our souls exist, they are physical, for, they have to cause our bodies to move, and our bodies are physical.
A spritualist might respond and say, 'Well, yes, we've never said that spirits aren't in this world'. That's not my point. My point is that if spirits can affect this world, they're part of it, and fall under the ambit of stuff that science can and will explain. They are physical, by definition. If you want to say "ghosts exist" then you must give me a hypothesis of how. Perhaps they are residual electrical fields from dead persons. That's fine: but it's a scientific hypothesis. You've dropped all claims to a truly non-physicalist ontology. As soon as you give an explanation of spirituality that refers to the entities described by science (fields, particles, waves, spacetime, quantum fluctuations), you've admitted that the spiritual is physical: in other words, it's not spiritual.
"Spirit" comes from Latin - it means "breath". Hence phrases such as to "breathe life back into" something. The Hawaiians call white people "Ha-ole" - meaning spiritless (literally: no-breath). Ancient people did not have explanations for how living things worked. A living being was impressive to them. They invented spirits for everything - even tree (dryads) and water (anansi/kelpie) spirits. The other reason for this phenomenon - viz., seeing intentional spirits everywhere - is that we have a brain algorithm, as Dennett argues, that lets us recognise intentional actions, or beings that have intentions towards us. Our brains are also pre-wired to recognise faces, which is why we see shapes in clouds, and Mary Mother of Jesus on toast. The point is that because our brain algorithms are over-sensitive and misfire often, they give a lot of false positives. This means that we see intention and malicious plans to attack us in all sorts of unlikely places. Think about how when we trip over the coffee table, we turn around, swear at it, and kick it. That's a typical example. If asked whether we believe that the coffee table has a spirit, and tripped us intentionally, the answer will always be, of course, "No." But ancient people did see intentionality in many natural forces, such as natural disasters, and sought an intentional explanation: the wrath of the gods. Now that we no longer, in the scientific paradigm, see intentions in anything at all, we are left with one last refuge of the ghosts. The last remaining spirit-bearer is us - humankind. And very soon now, science will show that we too lack spirits, and are just machines - albeit complex and unpredictable ones.