My World View – Spirituality And Transcendence

Define the word?

The term spirituality lacks a definitive definition,[1][2] although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration.[3]

The use of the term “spirituality” has changed throughout the ages.[4] In modern times, spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions,[5] and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development.[6] The notion of “spiritual experience” plays an important role in modern spirituality, but has a relatively recent origin.[7]

Clearly we humans have some difficulty defining spirituality. Those of you who have read many of my other world view posts will know that I’m a mechanical atheist, materialist, nihilist, monist and have a grand interest in how we think, what that implies, and what consciousness is.

I’ve seen a few posts lately of people talking about what spirituality means both for theists and atheists etc. None of these definitions match my understanding so I wanted to put it out here. I don’t expect that you’ll understand it nor appreciate it.

Some background, Jill Bolte-Taylor wrote a book called My Stroke Of Insight where she describes having a major brain stroke. She is a neuroscientist so understood a lot of what was going on. You can also find her TED talk. It’s inspiring.

She describes the two hemispheres of the brain acting out different functions, one experiencing data input and one putting all that data in a time ordered construct or understanding. She lost the time order to the data and describes what that feels like. I urge you to watch her TED talk.

Yeah, that IS a real human brain… much like your own, or used to be.

What she is describing, in my inestimable opinion, is what we glimpse when we see a sight that falls outside our time ordered construction of a model of the world around us. The data is overwhelmingly present in our senses but it is something we cannot place neatly into a time order or structured model of the world as we know it. This feeling is often described as awe, transcendence, and other such words. The feeling is what is going on in your head with all the inputs and outputs for the simulation of the world that you run there is that the data does not match your brains ability to construct a model – it is experience without constraints of construct and attributes for manipulation in the simulation, Such things as a beautiful sunset are without description and defy us when we try. This is because even though the data is ‘in your face’ there is only the opportunity to experience it without being able to construct a model of it in your head – that is you cannot find the attributes necessary to construct a copy of this data as a model in the simulation that runs in your brain (consciousness). You simply do not have the modelling data to do so so this ‘experience’ of data gives us a transcendent feeling, that the experience is beyond simple understanding and outside our ability to explain or describe.

We all have brains that run a simulation of the world around us (consciousness) and despite world views we will all find experiences which simply don’t slip into place in that simulation. We will ALL experience awe or transcendence or spirituality feelings.

We know that with meditation and practice we can affect how the simulation functions. We even have tricks to cause a dissonance between the simulator and reality (often this is no more than a recreational activity) but there are meditative techniques (meditation and religious activities as well) which cause this loss of sync between experienced data and simulator ability.

Spirituality is the result of a ‘glitch’ in the simulator in your head. There are no external ‘forces’ involved unless you attribute ‘force’ to the experience of sensory data such as the ‘force’ of a wondrous sunset. It’s a good glitch most of the time, but we can cause a similar glitch to happen as well when we ‘feel’ like there is a ghost in the room, and that is not so pleasant.

Do robots dream? Yes we do… and we experience and love and wonder…

  1. Cracking last line, MAL!

    You hit on it, and it’s an important point: we can deliberately swamp our brains and induce this spiritual effect. It’s immersion technology, and its as old as drums. Ritualistic use of music, rhythmic drumming more specifically, circular chanting, and repetitive dancing were discovered devises – tools of trance – used to override an individual’s sensory apparatus and transport them from the ordinary into the extra-ordinary. From a physiological perspective patterned, cyclical, and monotonous rhythm swamps the perennial lobe where concepts of ‘self’ reside; literally inducing a loss of self or depersonalisation in the individual. As the ceremony proceeds and the notion of ego melts the participant in the ritual becomes part of something larger, something collective, and most importantly, something non-terrestrial. Neurologically, a tear is made in their conscious self’s and they are elevated to an entirely supernatural platform. From the molecular perspective it’s a biochemical recipe of mostly adrenalin, ACTH, serotonin, and dopamine which come together to create the physiological and perceptual effect of ecstasy.

    • I hadn’t thought of the mechanism as swamping, but that kind of seems right if we are to explain the difference between ‘spirituality’ and an acid trip. That certainly goes further in explaining ‘prayer meetings’ and things like an episode I had at 8 years old where I became hysterical on a mix of fear and lack of sleep and pain.

      The underlying mechanism and the effect it has on brain operation is much the same. Awesome.

      • “Swamping” when we do it deliberately. An override effect, sort of.

        • My understanding has centered on the deliberate (and accidental) focus of the simulator. One can focus and allow no or little sensory input as mystics do or one can focus on selected inputs while trying to suppress the temporal classification of the sense data … and … I can ‘understand’ how music can swamp the temporal classification process by ‘syncing’ it to an external beat.

          Whether it is a biochemical swamping or disruption is not necessarily important to the higher level discussion… an agreement that we interfere with the temporal and structured classification of incoming sensory data leads us to transcendent feeling. Also it is important to note this is neither good nor bad in and of itself.

          • Agreed, and agreed.

  2. Terrific post and wonderful comment, John. This is spirituality in the language of biology: a materialistic internal process interpreted inaccurately by our brains to be reflective of the external world. And this is how we fool ourselves all the time if we don’t turn to reality to arbitrate and adjudicate the truth value of these interpretations.

    • I still need to find how John’s comments fit better in my simulator understanding, but I have a feeling it all fits together nicely in the end.

  3. I literally cannot find the words to reply to this. I’m in love with it. I felt that I was the only one who saw the world this way (perhaps, narcissistic-ly or from living under a rock with religious people?). I agree with every word.

    Food for thought though, because I did not see it addressed directly: define “ordinary” and what it means/entails to “venerate” it. I did look a the definitions, and they do not ring of enough truth to satisfy the question. It’s a philosophical question, is it not?

    I haven’t delved into the rabbit hole of “what is spirituality” recently, for I too am a materialistic Atheist… so this makes my head spin. Well, at least the “what is normal” discussion. When I get to the “venerate” part…. well, I don’t quite understand why one would venerate something not normal…. Evil’s are, technically by definition of the words, “not of the norm.” Are they to be venerated as well?


    Made me truly think. I love it. Thank you for writing this.

    • The words that you got caught on are from the Wikipedia definition of spirituality but I have a take:
      Ordinary are those things/events for which our brains’ simulation has ready made rules, properties etc. They are the things which do not require extra thinking about in general terms. We each have our own set of ‘normal’ in life and many varied sets overlap on some subset of each. The definition is broken in that it includes a reaction to an event as well as a description of the event. Venerate is an action.

      Veneration is the act or action of holding an object/event with high regard and in terms of the simulation this means it’s properties are not questioned generally and the values it represents are heavier than those of similar objects/events. A human skull is just a bone that is no longer in use as intended. If that skull happens to be labelled “John the Baptist’s skull” it is venerated and held sacred. It is special above pretty much every other human skull bone save for the one encasing the brain which is doing the venerating. Venerate is generally to take an ‘ordinary’ object or event and elevate it’s value in the simulation to one of extraordinary or above ordinary.

      You might think of it like this: Think of a piece of toast and describe all the properties of that piece of toast. Now take another piece of toast which was prepared in the same toaster at the same time and describe its properties but add the fact that the burned bits look like the face of a deity on one side. For that piece of toast we’ve added a new property or properties which make it not ordinary and give rise to veneration.

      If you have a group of people they will subjectively venerate one particular color over others because they subjectively assign extra properties to that color and not other colors. In any group it would be unusual to find a majority who venerate the same color…. unless the group has gathered together in a sports arena, then it is understood as ordinary because you have subjectively assigned a property to the group that you did not until you knew they were sports fans of the same team.

      Every object/action/event has properties assigned to it in the simulation running in your head. This is why everything is subjective even if it seems or is universal… or something close to that.

      I’m glad you liked the post, and thank you for commenting.

      • Huh….

        With that extrapolation on those two words… it seems apparent that spiritual people operate on two assumptions:

        1.) There are things that cannot be explained through rational/scientific means: the non-normal.
        2.) These things SHOULD be venerated.

        I suppose you already said that in your article….? In many more words? I dunno, thinking out loud. Good thoughts… good thoughts. Thanks for that comment. 🙂

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