Friday, January 06, 2012

PZ Myers goes somewhere he shouldn't...

I'm a Buddhist kind of guy that deprecates the usage of the word "spiritual" because it means more things to more people - as well as less things to more people-  than I wish to convey with my practice.   Here, Professor Myers goes over the line wth someone who himself goes over the line, as far as "spiritual" things and "Buddhist" things are concerned:

Take some woo-inclined individual, put their brain to work on some incompletely understood process, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’ll come back to you utterly convinced that mundane physical events are ultimately confirming evidence for whatever metaphysical nonsense is poisonously wafting about in their heads. And now we have a wonderful example of this kind of sloppy stupid bullshit right here on freethoughtblogs.
I have no idea why Daniel Fincke is indulging this Eric Steinhart character, but he’s had a number of guest posts lately that are raving mad rationalizations for ‘spirituality’, whatever the hell that is. Here’s an example.
Spiritual exercises typically involve mental preparation for performance through visualization or emotional preparation for performance through arousal regulation. Visualization involves working with mental imagery while arousal regulation involves conscious control of physiological and emotional arousal (it involves neocortical control of the limbic system and autonomic nervous system).
Now I haven't read Fincke, and frankly I've no problem with calling certain practices "preparation for performance," since that's sometimes largely what a practice is.  Sometimes - oftentimes - the practice is the performance itself.   But I actually agree with Myers that this is a bunch of pseudo-scientific gobbldey-gook.

Just practice!  You don't have to justify to me or anyone else why you're doing it.  But Myers goes on:

Notice the scientific justification of “neocortical control of the limbic system and autonomic nervous system” — sure, that’s the core of your brain that is involved in arousal, and we know that from scientific experiments and observations. But look what he does: he calls these spiritual exercises.
They are not. They are physiological exercises. They do not manipulate “spirit”, they change the physical state of the brain. But these glib pseudoscientific quacks just love to borrow the language of science and slap the label of “spiritual” or “Wiccan” or “transcendental meditation” or “Buddhist” onto them. It’s intellectual theft, plain and simple: it’s woo-meisters doing their damnedest to appropriate natural phenomena to their cause. It’s the same thing as when Pat Robertson ascribes a natural disaster to the wrath of a divine being — he’s pointing to reality and claiming it for the kingdom of irrational supernaturalism.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Spiritual, physiological, blah, blah, blah. Just practice!

I really don't mind if you call them "spiritual," "physiological," or "performative" exercises. (Heh, folks like Myers could do well to read more po-mo stuff - they'd get more words.)

Point is, if you don't mindfully practice, you won't mindfully perform anything whatever it is and whatever you call it, and your chance at attaining any skill is worse than a shooting craps.

I realize that not all Buddhists - maybe most! - don't have the viewpoint I have here,  but Myers should understand that not all Buddhists are woo-meisters.

Updated shortly after I wrote the above:
OK, now I've read Fincke, and I understand a bit why Myers is peeved: it looks like a justification for applying "spiritual" things to "atheist" things.  Once upon a time I thought "spiritual" wasn't a bad word, and my embrace of Buddhism was an attempt to reconcile the "spiritual" aspirations I thought I had with the reality I encountered.   Eventually - via practice - I realized that the aspiration itself was an issue - which meant the "spiritual" could be dropped as well.  But having said that, I still take issue with Myers.  There ought to be no problem with an atheist doing meditation; ask Stephen Batchelor, or me.  I don't call it "spiritual;" I don't know what Batchelor calls it.  But the meditation is good practice for the practice of actually being there in your day to day life, whatever adjectives you might append.  Myers would do well to attention.


Mike B said...

I can understand your reservations about using the term "spiritual". I feel the same way, yet the word -- used in its broadest sense -- does seem to capture something for which no other word suffices.

There is precedent for using the word "spiritual" without literally referring to any sort of "spirit" world. Note, for example, Pierre Hadot's use of the term, such as in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault.

PZ Myers has a bad habit of confusing narrow-mindedness and prejudice for skepticism, though with the preponderance of woo, I can understand why "skeptics" who have not engaged with such notions as secular "spirituality" may react reflexively.

I used to think that way. I notice most people who consider themselves atheist view religion as a purely epistemological matter. I became attracted to buddhism when I came to appreciate how much religion is about practice, even though we tend to get hung up on the beliefs. I think when we toss aside religion because of the irrationality of the metaphysical beliefs without seriously engaging with the value of religious practice, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think it is possible to disentangle the positive aspects of a "spiritual" practice from the metaphysical baggage, though few seem to manage it.

And if you don't call that a "spiritual practice", then what do you call it?

Mumon said...

Mike B:

I can understand the use of "spiritual" in certain senses, and as I said, I ultimately don't care what its called as long as it's not conflated with a whole bunch of other stuff that can't be called "spiritual" in (how I define it to be ) a good sense. And it's that last part after the "as long as" that is the cause of my reservations, as you know.

I try to avoid the metaphysical, whether it's supernatural or emphatically "naturalist." Wittgenstein's point and all that...