Scientism, Atheism, And The Admissibility Of Spiritual Experience

  • I would add to this part of the exchange that it is my understanding that Epicurus was indeed specifically fighting against the idea that the stars and planets are themselves gods. Might be in Timeaeus but I am not sure.

  • In regard to the planets / stars actually being gods, somewhere along the lines I got the impression from a commentator somewhere that this probably factored in to Epicurus' position on the size of the sun - that he was likely reluctant to embrace the idea (without further proof) that the sun was immense in size because of a concern that that would play into those who suggested the sun was a god. That's likely to be just more speculation, but I do think that arguing against the stars/planets as gods was probably a theme of the texts, and that's probably also something that factored into his commentary on life on other worlds, etc, as that also de-mystifies the nature of the stars/planets and would help people realize that they are actually something graspable as potentially familiar, like the moon.

  • Hi folks,


    I've been reading some of the divinity posts and it got me to thinking. The below is PURELY personal and isn't a dogmatic stance on my part.


    End of the day, I personally am far more interested in the ethical (read: way of living) aspects of EP, especially how it applies to everyday human pressures.


    While I just returned to the forum, I've been coming to the realization for the last year that EP is far superior to stoicism and any other philosophy of life in the practicality and psychological acumen.


    I'm a person who likes ideas and beliefs and practices to be as simple as possible and as complex as necessary. Even when i was in grad school studying philosophy for a PHD (I never finished) I was drawn to the simpler more existentially focused philosophers and philosophies.


    So with that said, for me at least and with respect to the divinity issue specifically, I have no need to go beyond the "Don't fear the gods" assertion. Probably because I've not feared the gods for 20 years, but much beyond that is just speculation.


    That said, I enjoy the focus on what Epicurus said about the subject as I of course find that interesting.


    Those are my 2 cents.

  • In re-reading this thread, I began to wonder if the experiences referred to as peak, religious, spiritual, etc. are one way that people can geta taste of the gods' existence.

    I am *firmly* in the Sedley "idealist" camp when it comes to Epicurus's gods. I am (mostly) convinced by his arguments, so i do not believe there are actual beings living in the intermundia. But I come back to 2 points:

    1. "There are gods" but "they are not as the hoi polloi believe them to be"

    2. BUT people *do* have religious, blissful experiences.

    How to reconcile these? Maybe those experiences allow some to actualize the existence of those idealized gods in a physical manifestation and literally, for a short time, to feel as if they live as gods. While experiencing the pleasures of blessedness (makarios) one also experiences a sensation of timelessness which feels like incorruptibility. I fully realize this could be going well beyond the opposit pale, but i wanted to at least throw it out there. It's *one* way to reinterpret those real experiences in an Epicurean context.

  • Don , the times I have had those experiences, they have not been what I would call cognitive but more ineffable. In my experience it requires a significant degree of backing away from the peak before any sort of explanatory stuff gets piled on, and the words as _explanations_ are superfluous and baseless... but as evocative communication, words have some use.

    It's when people come away from the peak that they incorporate their beliefs into what happened. So people who are fully grounded in a physical universe vs supernaturalism are not going to add religious interpretations. The experiences retain their full poetic quality. It's a bit ironic to me that the scientists are the ones who seem best able to sustain the poetic approach towards these feelings, rather than being concrete, lol.


    It baffles me why imagination is seen as somehow insulting or inferior, vs having a literal image from a literal being... I find the human imagination to be astonishing and marvelous! A godlike feature, indeed.

    I could certainly see the point in using hyperbolic language to communicate the intensity and ineffability of what people feel... a problem these days is that too many take that language literally, as explanation instead of as a description of feeling. They take it as pseudoscience instead of as poetry.


    But DeWitt said Epicurus was opposed to poetry. So Idk what that means when it comes to his statements about gods.

  • Elayne , I honestly can't tell whether you're open to what I posted or not. :/ Sorry.

    Just to clarify:

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    It baffles me why imagination is seen as somehow insulting or inferior, vs having a literal image from a literal being.

    That's what I was trying to convey, possibly clumsily. In my contextual reinterpretation here of "religious experiences", there are no literal beings. The "idealist" approach honors Epicurus's "there are gods" in the sense of imaginative archetypal concepts of blessedness and incorruptibility. The "images" are generated by humans "toward" the gods.

    Those peak experiences - and as you say even you have experienced them - need to be accounted for and placed in a context once one "comes down" from them. "What was that all about?" My offering here is to say those experiences are what it would feel like to be a "god" - the ineffable sensation of pleasure during such an experience is what it would "feel" like to be a god. You're not God or a god, but that's a genuine experience of what it might feel like to embody the blessedness and incorruptibility of what Epicurus wrote. It's a physical manifestation of an archetypal concept using an Epicurean "theological" vocabulary.

    I might even go so far as to suggest that that experience itself is the prolepses Epicurus talked about since those experiences seem so widespread.

  • Don Oh, sorry, I was unclear-- I do agree with you, at least partially! I was siding with you against a purely literalist interpretation.


    I think your idea about the answer to "what it was about" is definitely interesting, and although I don't interpret the experiences that way, the idea of other Epicureans doing so doesn't create any objections for me.


    For me, I prefer to add as little as possible, interpretation-wise-- I find that leaving it un-analyzed retains the pleasure of the memory more intensely.


    I mean this in a different way from looking at the evolutionary and neurological basis-- there are mechanisms, but that is different from what you are talking about. Discussing mechanisms doesn't dent the experience for me.


    Ok, I've just realized why I don't do what you describe-- that would be an instrumental process. Using the experience to accomplish another goal. Which for me automatically downgrades the pleasure of the primary experience.

    Writing a poem about it doesn't have the same effect, because in that case I'm just trying to evoke the memory of those feelings.


    Thank you for triggering that insight-- I haven't really put words to that before.

    This is one of those things where I think it depends on the individual, so people can experiment with whether they want to use such experiences instrumentally or leave them as they are-- whichever brings them the most pleasure.


    That could be said about a literalist interpretation too, except in this philosophy, if such an interpretation clashes with findings on material reality, it seems to me it would be booted... I'm just not sure how to support doing so without more of Epicurus' writings. I don't think he would cling to saying the things about elementary particles that are now clearly wrong-- but is there anything in the text to back me up on that? Something to suggest "if I find an error in what I've said here, I will change my mind." If so, the same line could be applied to literal images from outer space.


    I see no clear bright line, if we take _any_ non-sense/feeling evidence as factual-- anything a person or group of people experiences as strongly and definitely communicated straight to their brains from outer space or wherever would have to be regarded on the same basis as repeated measurements of a physical item. Nobody here is saying that, but what establishes a limit? Are we going to say we are limited to whatever Epicurus said? Are we limited by logic (egads)? Are we limited by baseline commonality of experience, and if so, why would that line be drawn to exclude atheists who don't attach supernatural meaning but also to exclude those who say it is fundamentally supernatural-- such a position would still be a minority position.

    I also think the literalist interpretation is material in name only, because it doesn't admit the possibility of sensory falsifiability. There's always a material god of the gaps to retreat to, if a person decides in advance or against sense evidence that the gods are literally a source of images in the brain, based on inner certainty. It is like slapping a word "material " on a supernatural paradigm. I don't think Epicurus would be pleased-- but I can't prove it. I hope I am missing some way of doing so.

  • Don I'm curious why you would say "even you have experienced" peak experiences-- why the "even"? Aren't these just part of being human? I guess there are some people who don't have them but I thought most of us did.


    I don't think any religious orientation at all is required for these human experiences... I don't think a person's mind needs to be "prepared" by having any sort of beliefs. There may well be a type of preparation involved, but I think it would be of a different sort and maybe would involve openness to new experience. Willingness to be surprised... willingness to experience intense sensations. Perhaps practice at being fully present and savoring?


    As I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps the intensity may be somewhat lessened or moderated, made more manageable, by putting them in a narrative or other framework, including a literalist one. I am able to enjoy them sans overlay, but maybe that's too wild and frightening for many people. I think that is why meditators are encouraged to have a framework and a teacher, because some will be derailed by the uninterpreted experience. There have been cases of psychosis.


    So perhaps I should be careful saying the framing isn't necessary, just because I haven't needed it. I guess my frame is that I have confidence in the flexible functioning of my brain and have no fear that peak experiences will disrupt anything-- rather, they enhance pleasure of ordinary life. I hope that a science education would reduce fear for others. It would be interesting to know if psychotic reactions were more common in those who had less confidence in science.

  • Quote

    I'm curious why you would say "even you have experienced" peak experiences-- why the "even"? Aren't these just part of being human? I guess there are some people who don't have them but I thought most of us did.

    Elayne , I certainly didn't mean any insult or anything derogatory. I sincerely apologize if that was conveyed! That was not my intention!

    That "even" was put in for emphasis to show that this is a widespread - possibly universal - phenomenon. One doesn't need to be religious or spiritual.

    I now realize I should have used different verbage to get that idea across.

  • My offering here is to say those experiences are what it would feel like to be a "god" - the ineffable sensation of pleasure during such an experience is what it would "feel" like to be a god. You're not God or a god, but that's a genuine experience of what it might feel like to embody the blessedness and incorruptibility of what Epicurus wrote.

    It’s not my personal experience of “the Other” but it sounds like a valuable and pleasing technique. In fact, a form of “Deity Yoga”!:


    From Wikipedia: “Deity yoga engages creative visualization as a skillful means of personal transformation through which the practitioner (sadhaka) visualizes a chosen deity (yidam) ...in order to transform their experience of the appearance aspect of reality.... Self-generation is the practice in which one imagines oneself as the deity. This is held to be more advanced and accompanied by a degree of spiritual risk.”


    Interesting! It doesn’t say why it’s risky. ;)

  • I think the risk is to start to believe you actually are a god. That would certainly be using your imagination!

    Just to be clear: I am NOT advocating Epicurean Deity Yoga! I am not going down that kind of syncretic rabbit hole! :P Just trying to contextualize that peak experience in an Epicurean framework.

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    It's not my personal experience of “the Other”...

    Susan would you be comfortable elaborating on this? I'm wondering if that could be helpful in defining what exactly we're discussing.

  • Quote

    It's not my personal experience of “the Other”...

    Susan would you be comfortable elaborating on this? I'm wondering if that could be helpful in defining what exactly we're discussing.

    It gets a bit more complicated if you are talking about Eastern philosophies where you can realize your self (atman/ jiva) as being one with God/Brahman/Perusha etc., but in most cases, an experience of the divine is of something not identical to oneself. It is of a separate consciousness, being, or intelligence.

  • Quote

    It's not my personal experience of “the Other”...

    Susan would you be comfortable elaborating on this? I'm wondering if that could be helpful in defining what exactly we're discussing.

    It gets a bit more complicated if you are talking about Eastern philosophies where you can realize your self (atman/ jiva) as being one with God/Brahman/Perusha etc., but in most cases, an experience of the divine is of something not identical to oneself. It is of a separate consciousness, being, or intelligence.

    I've always found Eastern philosophies intriguing, especially their contrast to traditional Western religions. And what you said in some ways strikes at the idealist vs realist debate within Epicureanism. Two essential elements, however, are (1) There is no supernatural creator of the cosmos (The cosmos began and is sustained by the interplay of atoms and void), and (2) The gods have no interest in "governing" the cosmos nor in having interaction with humans. If a realist position is favored, humans can have a prolepsis of the gods, the divine, but it's not a two way street. If idealist, we can use the gods as exemplars of the potential of the Epicurean path. That's a very boiled down summary but those 2 elements, in my understanding, are essential to any form of Epicureanism.

  • (1) There is no supernatural creator of the cosmos (The cosmos began and is sustained by the interplay of atoms and void), and (2) The gods have no interest in "governing" the cosmos nor in having interaction with humans.

    Since I seem to be doing my best to extend and prolong minute details, here is another such comment:


    I fully agree with item one and think it is very clear with no real room for ambiguity or confusion. Everything in Epicurean philosophy points to that conclusion and the philosophy would be nothing without that conclusion.


    As to item two, I agree but would state these caveats:


    First, I think we always have to be careful with the term "the gods" because (1) the Epicurean definition is very contrary to modern prevailing understanding of the attributes of such beings, and (2) we don't have as much information as we would like to be sure what they did mean. Did they consider Zeus and Venus and Mars to be the actual beings who are supposedly in the intermundia, or not? I think there's a good chance that they considered Zeus and Venus and Mars to be figments of human imagination rather than actual examples of the gods they thought lived in the intermundia, while at the same time holding that their versions of gods do in fact exist in the intermundia, just like they specifically held life to exist in other parts of the universe besides earth.


    Second, yes it would have to be true that the gods in the intermundia have no interest in governing the cosmos or having interaction with humans, and yes it remains true that there are no supernatural creators over the universe of any kind. I don't think however that rules out by any means that there may be other phenomena/beings that are currently undiscovered that we may come into contact with who are not supernatural, and not "gods" by our Epicurean definition, but who are essentially space aliens or other phenomena such as we would appear to life on other planets. So I personally leave open the possibility that there are lots of other undiscovered phenomena, but in order to consider them as reasonably possible the suggestion would need to be "verifiable" in some ordinary way over time and between numbers of people and perhaps other criteria to eliminate fraud.

  • Oh, I have no qualms about Epicurean aliens! I think this is one philosophy that wouldn't even blink if life on another planet was found. "Duh," said the Epicurean. :) "That's cool, but we expected that all along." Plus any alien could understand, I'd bet, pleasure and pain so we'd just have to get past the language barrier to explain it.

    The gods, on the other hand, are supposed to "live" in the intermundia/metakosmia between worlds. There *may* be beings who could maintain their atomic integrity and live lives of total pleasure, but *personally* I think it more likely that the gods are mental archetypes of the completed Epicurean life.

    Lucretius does a good job of conveying that we can talk about Ceres, Bacchus, et al as long as we know we're personifying metaphorically grain and wine etc. Which, in my opinion, bolsters an idealist conception of "the gods" writ large in Epicureanism.