Saturday, March 06, 2010


The following is a response to a discussion I'm part of on the World Pantheism website:

I think we confuse emotions and spiritual feelings because they are both the same thing. One enters a cathedral, constructed in the medieval period to put the peasants in awe, and one has a "feeling" as one enters that space. Another person enters a rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula and entering that space a similar "feeling" of awe is created. Both situations pluck the same emotional instrument in the human nervous system which evolution has constructed to help an individual make decisions (a physical emotional process ultimately) by which to thrive and procreate. The physical world plays our emotional nervous systems like a guitarist plucks a guitar. 

I challenge people to try and describe a "spiritual" experience without eventually having to refer to the emotions or using  emotional terminology. A spiritual experience is an emotional response experienced by the physical body as it responds to the physicality of the natural world. Emotion is not experiencing anything beyond the physicality of the natural world, but when I understand myself as a feeling species responding to its environment with exactly the same sort of emotional apparatus as a tadpole in its environment or a bee in its, or beaver in its, then I'm really in awe of what the human animal has evolved into. I'm no different than a slug, just a little more complicated bit of machinery. The added fact that I can cogitate upon my reductionist architecture is the real ace in the hole.  

Beowulf is a poem where I got an image of how the monkish religious people projected their fears into the primal forests where monsters and all sorts of dangers lurked. I could see the good religious folk linking their fears onto old pagan tales that they found when they entered the Germanic territories. Another idea that taught me about how fears got religion is a comment in a history book about travel in the Dark Ages when only a handful of people would dare to travel even to the next town because of the dangers in the forest. I got this picture of these tiny isolated communities, surrounded by nearly trackless wilderness with people frozen by fear into immobility. Pedlars were the courageous explorers of that era. Extend that back to hunter gatherers who were constantly moving about in efforts to find game and "collectibles". These folk had no idea about human anatomy and the nervous system. They just had feelings about unknown versus known situations. The known was safer than the unknown, but the known might be a depleted berry patch or a fire-burned emptiness, so they had to experience that feeling of facing the unknown and go to an unknown place with fear and trepidation—that fear of the unknown they must go into was god to them, was awe to them, was a religious (i.e. spiritual) experience to them, but all they were experiencing was their emotional apparatus being triggered by their imaginative (images based on what their eyes had experienced heretofore) contemplation of the unknown. I thrill just describing the physicality of the world in which I find myself placed by an unbroken chain of successful adaptations that go back to my first single-celled ancestors. 

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