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“The Spiritual Brain: a Neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul”
Posted: 16 January 2008 08:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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I strive to avoid use of words like “soul” and “spiritual” because the common meanings have supernatural connotations. It’s like Einstein’s use of the word “god”—when one uses these words, they are open to misinterpretation by people putting their own definitions on them. I don’t think any two people have the same definition of “god” let alone “soul.” I don’t know how many arguments I’ve had with theists that want to tell me Einstein believed in their version of god, because he used that word to mean natural law. Ah, the argument from authority, how it chafes!  LOL

I have a unique perspective on some of this stuff: in my misspent youth, along with seeking god, the supernatural, the spirit and all that numinous stuff, I also experimented with illegal substances (and hopefully talking about this isn’t a violation of the rules here; it is relevant to my point, is all). When I was a kid, I voluntarily went to church to see what all the fuss was about and experienced the “still small voice” during a particularly emotional church service. I was all of eight. Under the influence of the mob mentality, I started crying in joy and allowed myself to be “saved.”

Within six months, I realized the god thing was nonsense and quit. But I still sought answers, so I turned to the occult, then drug experimentation.

Under the influence of LSD, methamphetamine, and ecstasy, I experienced exactly the same feeling as I had during the “still small voice” episode. It is obvious to me that it is all brain chemistry driving these things. An ecstasy rush feels just like religious ecstasy, except for the fact that it is actually stronger and longer-lasting than the religious epiphany.

During my meth days, I experienced an NDE as well as sleep paralysis several times. The NDE wasn’t even brought about by physical trauma of any kind; I just did too much speed, went to lie down, and then it seemed I left my body and was floating by the ceiling, then I was sailing off into the darkness, horrified because I didn’t have a mouth to scream with. it took me a while (and getting clean) to figure out what had really happened and that it wasn’t anything supernatural or having to do with a soul or spirit. it was very real, and left a strong impression on me. I have a journal from those days that reads like a manual of psychosis, even describes the NDE and the episodes of sleep paralysis.

Since pilots experience similar things during high stress training and high velocity maneuvers in jets, and going by my own experiences, I am certain that the phenomenon described in the book mentioned in the OP can all be explained mundanely, by changes in brain chemistry and physiology.

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People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police.—H.L. Mencken
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Posted: 16 January 2008 09:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I can’t find it online, but David Koepsell has a great piece in the most recent Secular Humanist Bulletin about the use of words like “spirit” and “soul” by atheists which captures what I was trying to say above. I think the risk of misunderstanding is less than the risk of voluntarily impoverishing our capacity to fully express the full range of human experiences. I can certainly see why others would feel differently, but I think the rigid cleansing of language for ideological reasons is futile and misguided.

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Posted: 16 January 2008 07:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Oh, come on, Brennen.  I agree completely with A_P.  Words are merely a concatenation of vocalizations that we happen to assign meanings to.  If you feel an emotional attachment to soul and spirit, do you also obsess about the many, many other words in the English language that have become obsolete? 

To the extent that we cannot agree on a meaning for a word, we cannot communicate when using that word.  Therefore, it’s far more rational to either reach an agreed upon definition or to avoid using that word in favor of words the definitions of which we can agree on.

You may like the poetic import of such words, and that’s fine, but the actual meaning is a different matter.  I can enjoy talking about phazor pistols with another Startrek aficionado, but we both realize we are discussing fairytales.  I doubt seriously that you could have that same agreement when discussing the soul or spirituality with a fundamentalist.

Occam

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Posted: 16 January 2008 08:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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Occam, We’ve had this debate before, and we disagree. You should read Koepsell’s essay, if you haven’t, since he makes the point better than I can.

Words have less precision and more layers and nuance to their meaning than you accept. There is a difference between connotation and denotation which you ignore. We need scientific terminology instead of using everyday words as labels for concepts in science because the everyday words are too imprecise. In this very forum, you have different people disagreeing on what words like soul or spirit can be used to mean, and yet you still presume to say that we should all be able to agree on exactly, precisely what they mean or we are failing to communicate. BS. If I say to someone who is participating grudgingly and with no enthusiasm in a group activity “Why can’t you get into the spirit of the exercise,” you know exactly what I mean, and you don’t think there’s any implication of supernaturalism. And if I say Ray Charle’s music has real soul, you don’t think I’m talking about a non-material individual entity that will live for all eternity with god. You talk about assigning meaning and agreeing on meaning for words like it was negotiating a contract. But meaning evolves and develops as people use a word, and as generations succeed one another words come to have very different flavors as literal meanings. It’s true that arbitrarily deciding to redefine a word (as the “Satanists” do) is stupid and destined to fail most of the time. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about exploiting the full range and flavor of words.

Are you also in favor of policing the language for ideological errors? I mean, how far do we go? Eliminate all references to anything that once had supernatural meaning if you are an atheist? Eliminate all gender-specific language outside of biology if you are a feminist? I think this road leads to awkward, unclear language, not greater precision and clarity. And it’s doomed anyway, since you can’t control the language by deliberately choosing to nail words down to what you think they should mean and not expecting this to vary at all between people or across time.

I wonder if maybe you just don’t see words the same way as I do. You have a passionate devotion to brevity, which I also think is excessive. Brief can be clearer, but it can also be incomplete or misleading. And you seem to think of words as mere symbols, like those in mathematics. You don’t feel the life and flux and subtlety in them that I do, or you don’t think it’s important. I’d be happy to just let this go as a difference in taste except you keep saying you’re right and I’m wrong, which I think is a conclusion not justified by your intuitions about language.

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Posted: 16 January 2008 09:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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Wow, guys! LOL

All I’m saying is that I personally don’t like to use the words “soul” or “spirit” because I find them to be very loaded words that also are extremely fluid, having different meanings for every person, just like the word “god” does. I’m not saying they need to be stricken from the language, but I don’t use them except by accident from years of habit.

Since I don’t feel I have a soul, not believing in any such thing, that particular word in that sense is unnecessary to me. As for spirit, people tell me once in a while I’m a spiritual person. But that’s just an empty term to me. What on earth does being spiritual mean? I don’t meditate, I don’t pray, I don’t go to church, I don’t go in for any newage stuff anymore, so I am baffled by how the word spiritual can be applied to me. So I don’t use it either.

But I’m fascinated by the debate, please carry on!  LOL

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Posted: 16 January 2008 09:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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AP,

Well, I certainly don’t claim you need to use any such words. Occam and I are just hashing out an old argument about how language works. I don’t believe in Freudian psychology, but I still call people “egotistical” when it applies. Likewise I use “heartache” though the emotion is really in the brain, I use “humorous” and “vitriolic” though they originated in an outdated and now defunct set of ideas about emotion. I just think that words have layers of meaning, that these change with context and time, and that avoiding words that have the “taint” of bad ideas in their origins isn’t necessary in most cases, only the most extreme. Heck, we can even call people “nazis” regardless of their politics, and that means something very different from what it would have a few decades ago. Almost any word can undergo such change, and I see spirit and soul as in the process of doing so already. Occam disagree, and that’s fair enough. Of course, he’s just a laconic old fud anyway wink

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Posted: 17 January 2008 10:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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A_P, I understand your clear statement of your views.  I love Brennen dearly, even if he’s a garrulous young punk.  The problem is that, as different generations, I think in terms of the semantic concepts of Korzybski and Hayakawa which require more precision and accuracy, while Brennen grew up in the touchy-feely era so tends to think of words in the rather fuzzy logic view of the existentialists and postmodernists.  LOL

Occam

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Posted: 17 January 2008 12:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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OK, that explains it—seeing as how I was born right on the cusp of the Baby Boomers and Gen X.

Or maybe I’m just an old fud in a middle aged fud’s body.  LOL

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People say we need religion when what they really mean is we need police.—H.L. Mencken
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