Thanks to Shanna for passing along a link to an interesting blog, and even taking the time to ferret out several posts of interest from the archives! I’d say this pretty much guarantees her the coveted “Minion of the Month” award for January! But we’ll have time for award ceremonies later. Cracking knuckles, getting down to bidness. This was one from last summer:
A letter to my fellow skeptics
What if, Dr Dawkins (or any fellow skeptic), you had an experience of a particular kind that you can’t really explain?
You catch a fleeting glimpse of, well, you can’t really say. Words fail you, but you try anyway: “I’ve witnessed, uh, something… some distinct experience in which I’ve seen the perfection and limitless beauty of the world. I believe, no… I know that I was seeing with utter clarity, and that it was not the way I normally see the world. I saw clearly that I was one with the universe, that unconditional love is its basis, and that I am an eternal being and not a hapless, mortal creature.” Already you sound nuts, even to yourself.
You search for the terms to explain the quality of it, and cringe when the only word you can summon is “divine.” Every stab you take at conveying your experience only amounts to a disappointing, evasive-sounding cliché:
•There is something more to us
•Everything is in its right place, we just can’t see that
•There is a higher intelligence behind all this
Whatever it is, you have a very strong sense that its cultivation is immeasurably valuable, not just as a means of achieving peace and ease in your life, but for others to do the same. It is, clearly, exactly what humanity needs in order to overcome — no, transcend — its current palette of troubles. For this reason you feel it is important for others to have this experience too.
Well, I could quibble with some of the specifics, but in general, sure, I have that experience quite frequently, especially via music, and to a lesser extent, writing or art in general. What I don’t understand is why this kind of experience of harmonious… je ne sais quoi is so commonly held out as incommensurate with atheism and scientific materialism. Stephen Asma is currently involved in a back-and-forth exchange that demonstrates how neither of those things require that one jettison an appreciation of the role of emotions and mystery in human experience, for example. And someone like Steven Pinker, as hardboiled as they come, says this in The Blank Slate:

But greedy reductionism is far from the majority view, and it is easy to show why it is wrong. As the philosopher Hilary Putnam has pointed out, even the simple fact that a square peg won’t fit into a round hole can’t be explained in terms of molecules and atoms but only at a higher level of analysis involving rigidity (regardless of what makes the peg rigid) and geometry. And if anyone really thought that sociology or literature or history could be replaced by biology, why stop there? Biology could in turn be ground up into chemistry, and chemistry into physics, leaving one struggling to explain the causes of World War I in terms of electrons and quarks. Even if World War I consisted of nothing but a very, very large number of quarks in a very, very complicated pattern of motion, no insight is gained by describing it that way.

There’s a bit of a “God of the gaps” mindset here that bothers me — just because science has to currently admit not knowing something, or just because we don’t have the vocabulary to express ourselves coherently enough for science to even begin addressing the nature of our experiences, it doesn’t imply a supernatural origin or character to them. For the most part, the reason we can’t explain these experiences is because there’s no way to get an outside perspective from which to analyze them. The nature of language and conceptual thought is such that we can only really talk about things by contrasting them with different things. To what can you compare those moments of bliss that accompany this, uh, god’s-eye view? It’s sort of like not being able to see a tiny star when looking directly at it; you have to look just to the side of it to catch a glimpse of its dim light. Hence poetry and music, which often trace a circle around the experience without ever trying to pin it down. But lacking the ability to put something immediately into words, or to reduce it to its component parts like a piece of machinery spread out on the table, does not necessarily entail that we shrug our shoulders and start talking about God instead. None of these experiences, however awe-inspiring and ineffable, do anything to offset the fact that our personalities do not survive our body’s death, or that there is nothing like monotheism’s personal God overseeing the whole shebang. Did you get that? Let me say it again, because it’s important: None of these experiences, however awe-inspiring and ineffable, do anything to offset the fact that our personalities do not survive our body’s death, or that there is nothing like monotheism’s personal, loving God overseeing the whole shebang.
Even someone like Nietzsche, who famously said that mystical explanations, far from being deep as commonly thought, were “not even shallow”, was familiar with this sort of ecstatic communion with the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the which than which there is no whicher. The difference is, he was well aware that this is an understanding that transcends our limited, partial notions of love, peace, purpose, morality and all that good stuff. The harmony that pervades life itself includes all the notes we would call dissonant. The brief glimpses we have of “a cosmic place for everything and everything in its cosmic place” includes all the things we would call discordant. If you’re seeing only “positive” manifestations of this insight, I daresay you’re projecting a bit. All the mindless destruction and suffering that has permeated life as we know it since time immemorial has been just as necessary to the whole, which is why Nietzsche initially called his idea of the eternal recurrence “the most abysmal thought”. If you want to merge in rapturous union with the sum total of all that is, was, and ever will be, you have to accept all of it. No picking and choosing, no highlighting the parts you approve of and ignoring the rest.
We can’t exist on that level of understanding, any more than we can have a permanent drug high, a neverending orgasm, or an up without a down. Our day-to-day existence requires that we settle for imperfection and partiality. We can only visit there occasionally, and whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.