Emotion, Spirituality, and Words

Posted in culture on April 11th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

In 2003 I started looking at the science of emotion in order to determine if it would be useful for robots. When I had to do an English paper that year (middler year writing at Northeastern University) I decided it would be something about emotions, but I wasn’t sure at first what the specific theme would be. One question I had was, why do people often associate emotion with spirituality (or do they)?

Is it simply that some people never bothered to consider how emotion works, so it just gets classified with other mysterious phenomena like spirits? Or is it because religion has laid claims to human emotion?

I figured it wouldn’t hurt to talk to a religious leader to get the theological point of view. I was aware of the Unitarian Universalists which have a mixture of various faiths and “spiritual” members that aren’t hardcore religious. I had a meeting with the minister of the Unitarian Universalist church of Harvard Square in Cambridge MA, who at that time was Dr. Thomas J.S. Mikelson. I didn’t record the meeting unfortunately (I couldn’t afford recording devices back then). I was pleased to find that he seemed to be familiar with some of the emotion books I was reading back then by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio.

If I remember correctly, Mikelson told me that the word “spiritual” is actually relatively new. Or perhaps the modern usage and popularity of it are new. I’m not sure about its popularity, however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [1], “spiritual” has been used in most of its current senses since at least the 1300s. The exception is the sense of “spiritual home”:

(with no religious connotation), a place or milieu, other than one’s home, which seems especially congenial or in harmony with one’s nature, or to which one feels a sense of belonging or indebtedness.

OED’s earliest quote of “spiritual home” is from 1932. As an aside, it’s too bad that the usage of “spiritual” to mean “Of transcendent beauty or charm” is obsolete (according to OED):

1481 Myrrour of Worlde (Caxton) ii. iv. 69 Ther ben yet plente of other places so delectable, so swete, and so spyrytuel that yf a man were therin, he shold saye, that it were a very paradys.

The word “emotion” cropped up in 1579. First we see these now-obsolete usages:

  1. “A moving out, migration, transference from one place to another.” (1600s)
  2. “A moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense).” (1600s-1800s)
  3. “A political or social agitation; a tumult, popular disturbance.” (1500s-1700s)

Then we get to a modern usage starting in the 1600s:

Any agitation or disturbance of mind, feeling, passion; any vehement or excited mental state.

Here are some quotes:

1660 Bp. J. Taylor Dvctor Dvbitantivm (R.), The emotions of humanity..the meltings of a worthy disposition.

1762 Ld. Kames Elem. Crit. ii. §2. (1833) 37 The joy of gratification is properly called an emotion.

Then we get to an even more modern usage from psychology:

A mental ‘feeling’ or ‘affection’ (e.g. of pleasure or pain, desire or aversion, surprise, hope or fear, etc.), as distinguished from cognitive or volitional states of consciousness. Also abstr. ‘feeling’ as distinguished from the other classes of mental phenomena.

The quotes for that start in the 1800s:

1808 Med. Jrnl. XIX. 422 Sea-sickness..is greatly under the dominion of emotion.

1841–4 R. W. Emerson Friendship in Wks. (1906) I. 81 In poetry..the emotions of benevolence and complacency..are likened to the material effects of fire.

1842 C. Kingsley Lett. (1878) I. 61 The intellect is stilled, and the Emotions alone perform their..involuntary functions.

1871 J. Tyndall Fragm. Sci. (ed. 6) II. xi. 231 He..almost denounces me..for referring Religion to the region of Emotion.

1875 B. Jowett tr. Plato Dialogues (ed. 2) I. 249 The..emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances.

It’s interesting to see how the concept of emotion seemed to come from movement and disturbance, changed into personal mental disturbances, and then became distinguished from conscious cognition.

I’m leaning towards the premise that most people don’t care how emotions work or why there’s a concept of spirituality and use them as umbrella terms to cover a wide range of stuff without much regard for details or theories.

But was there ever a thread in history that that really tried to associate human emotions (even if that word wasn’t used) with intangible spirits or gods?

I suppose the other frail connection that might exist in people’s minds between emotion and spirituality is due to the never-ending attempt to preserve something special or divine about humanity. Some will always grasp for some lifeboat that is supposedly unique to humans and not available (at least not as much) to other animals or machines, such as “emotion” or “feeling” or “intelligence” or “winning at Jeopardy”…

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, 1989; online version March 2011.

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Dennett’s Future of Religion Part 2: Transformation

Posted in philosophy, transhumanism on November 14th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

As I first mentioned here, a month ago I took a walk to Cabot Auditorium at Tufts University to see a presentation by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who is also one of the “four horsemen” of New Atheism.

Dennett discussed three of his potential futures for religion, mostly the third possibility:

  1. Religion will sweep the planet.
  2. Religion is in its death throes.
  3. Religion transforms into creedless moral teams (ceremony and tradition, but no doctrine).

Dennett made compelling arguments for #3, and some possible projects atheist groups could do to help that path.  For instance, some preachers are pretending to be religious, but they don’t believe the doctrine.  I would assume that many politicians also pretend to be religious to attract (or at least not scare away) voters.

In March 2010, Dennett and Linda LaScola released a report of five interviews of Protestant pastors who are not believers.  Here’s a few excerpts:

Our sample is small and self-selected, and it is not surprising that all of our pastors think that they are the tip of an iceberg, but they are also utterly unable to confirm this belief.  They might be deluding themselves, but in any case their isolation from others whom they suspect are in the same boat is a feature they all share, in spite of striking differences in their stories and attitudes.  While we couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, the very variety of their stories, as well as the patterns discernible in them, suggest fascinating avenues for further research on this all but invisible phenomenon.

This constant spin doctoring takes its toll, apparently, but it also subverts a mission that the liberal pastors claim for themselves: staying in the church in order to liberalize it, in order to make it a saner, wiser, more tolerant institution. “My goal is to become obsolete,” says Wes. And according to Rick,

“One of my strategies to stay in the church, is to change the church.  I mean, I
want the church to hear this stuff!  I want the church to deal with me.  I want the church to know that there’s a progressive way of thinking out there.  I want the church to know that there are people who are thinking really radical stuff about theology.”

Bit by bit, day by day, they would like to lift their parishioners closer to their own way of seeing the world, but by not speaking their minds, their sincere minds, they squander most of the opportunities to lead their congregations to new ways of thinking. In fact, there is a sort of Hippocratic Oath that all five seem to follow: In the first place, do no damage to any parishioner’s beliefs.  Sometimes this is obviously the right thing to do, what anyone would do:

“But he’s still dying of cancer; [his faith is] not changing the situation.  It’s changing his acceptance of things; it’s allowing him to cope with it.  And I’m certainly not going to pull that rug out from under him.” (Darryl)

And sometimes concern for others is arguably the dominant motive:

“I say I never try to take away from somebody something they believe unless I
can put something better in its place, as opposed to just attacking.” (Rick)  But other times this policy seems more self-protective than altruistic:   “So it’s like you want to build their faith, not tear down their faith.  So you do your work carefully.” (Adam)

Do they ever volunteer their radical ideas to parishioners?  One tactic they have discovered is the book club or study group, where self-selected parishioners get to read one of the controversial books…Those who participate are alerted to the nature of the materials in advance and are then gently encouraged to discuss the ideas, in an unusually tolerant atmosphere, a sort of holiday from the constraints of dogma. Here the pastors can demonstrate their open-mindedness and willingness to take these shocking ideas seriously, and let the authors be the mouthpieces for what is in their hearts. Again, they need to have plausible deniability: they aren’t preaching these ideas, just acquainting their parishioners—those who are interested—with them. Not surprisingly, they draw a sharp distinction between what they can say from the pulpit, and what
they can say in these less official circumstances.

Some of these atheist clergy are planning to leave their church jobs.  But if some exploit their insider positions to successful transform their churches–albeit not easy tasks–it could contribute to possible future #3.

There is the possibility for atheist or secular groups to compete with churches, which accelerates #3, e.g. to maintain numbers the churches have to offer what the competitors offer.  But will religion die out completely that way, or will it still be resident, just in weaker forms?  Can competition happen in the schools for children, so that more people put their children in secular schools instead of being brainwashed from day one?

On an atheist forum, I asked (in reference to Dennett’s three potential futures): Which do you think is most likely, and why?  What could we do to help steer to that path?

One commenter said:

To achieve Dennet’s #3 scenario will be difficult though…I foresee that #1 is going to be a big wave which will try to obliterate atheism through the deployment of the massive resources religions have at their disposal…this is atheism’s Achilles heel. We are not organised or able to muster the resources they can.

Atheism cannot compete with churches in a head-on confrontational approach. It needs clever strategies almost a guerilla-type of approach which is able to think like the enemy (SunTzu).

My reply to that is that it’s not necessarily a matter of a clandestine operation knocking down the supports and then watching the churches and temples crumble (metaphorically). There is also the positive and most likely completely public and transparent projects and teams that atheists can do. There are a few secular organizations that give aid and stuff like that. But there could be millions started up to do all kinds of educations, good will, etc. projects.

So atheist groups might compete with religion on the education and good will front. And non-religious groups could compete with religious organizations as far as moral teams and tribes/families. This sociocultural tribe aspect is the tricky one.  I suspect with just the idea of trying to be proactive for good projects, non-religious people can utilize the Internet to get things going.  For example, Meetup.com has 7.2 million members and 79,000 local groups (according to their about page)[http://www.meetup.com/about/].  Meetups are organized on the web but extend out into the real world.

Of course, as Science 2.0 writer Rycharde Manne commented in my previous blog post about the future of religion:

To attempt to create an ersatz religion by aping the propagandist elements of established religions looks like a million steps backwards.

I agree.  So any attempts to compete with religion have to avoid ending up being religious-like shells themselves with unethical practices and centralized authorities dictating doctrine.

Some atheists who responded to my questions think that humans in general are still holding on to tradition and superstition, but they are starting to become non-believers and are just going through the motions of various traditions.  One commenter said:

Number three seems to be a stride towards or perhaps even a symptom of religion being in its death throes, not its own separate category, which is where I think all modern evidence is heading. New Age spirituality advanced by books like The Secret or Deepak Chopra’s “quantum theory” woo-woo proves that people are looking for a way to make sense of the crap that’s been fed to them for so many years, and are not capable of shedding superstitions just yet, but realize there’s something wrong. The idea of being alone with each other is very sobering and scary for a lot of people, but with the information explosion of the internet it is just so much harder to buy the lie.


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Daniel Dennett’s Super-Snopes and the Future of Religion

Posted in philosophy on October 12th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

“We’re all alone, no chaperone”
—Cole Porter

Despite his resemblance to Santa Claus, Daniel Dennett wants to disillusion the believers.  If we’re all adults, why can’t we reveal the truth that God(s), like Santa, are childish fantasies?

Earlier tonight I attended Dennett’s talk “What should replace religion?” at Tufts University, which was kindly hosted by the Tufts’ Freethought Society as part of their Freethought Week.

Atheist groups will have to compete with religion in the realm of social activities such as church services.  People won’t leave churches if they don’t have something else to give them the excitement, the music, the ecstasy, the group affiliation, the team building, the moral community, etc. that churches provide.  Many churches already contain atheists who go for all the other stuff besides the doctrine.  In fact, some of the preachers themselves do not believe the doctrine.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett @ Tufts, 11 Oct 2010

I won’t go over the entire talk, but I’d like to talk about the truth segment.  Dennett pointed out the various citizen science (although he didn’t use the term citizen science) projects going on, in which random people voluntarily collect or analyze data, such as for bird watching and galaxy classification and report that to central repositories.  But certain other data collection activities have gone down—the mundane types of things such as goings-on in a town.  Town newspapers are dying, and nobody is there to take notes in local affairs (such as education, politics, etc.).  And this lost data might be important, because it is oversight.

The Internet has democratized evidence gathering while also promoting the abuse of misinformation.  So, Dennett proposes, some organizations could start projects as preservers of truth—or perhaps a church replacement could convert lovers of God into lovers of truth.  But it wouldn’t be unconditional love of truth.  The privacy of your own thoughts, for instance, may contain truthful information, but it doesn’t necessarily have to become public.  A scientific (in a broad sense of the word) organization that loves truth would compete with religion’s typically “imperfect” handling of truth.

A serious project of truth preservation could become a sort of Super Snopes.  Snopes is the famous website which debunks and/or proves true various urban legends and the like.  When you get one of those emails such as certain bananas will eat your flesh, check it out on Snopes first before continuing the hoax chain.  Dennett doesn’t define Super Snopes in detail, just that this is a kind of project that would be like Snopes or Wikipedia on an even more massive scale.  And there could be similar or overlapping projects that operate on local scales—perhaps reinstating the town/neighborhood oversight that is now missing.

Of course, something this vague has a chance of happening in the future.  But how it happens could be, as usual, an imperfect evolution from what we have now.  Hopefully secular groups, as Dennett makes the call for, will try to architect and create these projects as soon as possible.

I speculate that the projects that end up working in the future as far as truth preservation will make use of software agents (autonomous programs).  For instance, if people are not interested in taking notes on every little issue in your town/city, especially the mundane ones, then a computer can do that.

Of course, one person’s boring task is another’s hobby.  Some people enjoy collecting the data that they contribute to a central database.  But some will be able to use software agents to act as their minions—the citizen truth gatherer becomes a node, in which they are a small local central repository, which then sends data to the next biggest node, and so on.

The truth needs to be available to people whenever they want.  So the other major part of the technical aspect will be the interfaces and filters that allow humans to digest information, and to choose what streams to digest.  Of course, various web technologies have been increasing this capability (of filtering and choosing streams) for the entire life of the Internet.

Here is my question: could a (or perhaps several) Super Snopes ever evolve beyond truth preservation into actual civilization preservation, for instance like Asimov’s fictional Foundations?

(Cross-posted with Science 2.0.)

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