Religion, Mystery, and Warm, Soft Fuzzies

Re­ac­tion to: Yud­kowsky and Frank on Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience, Yud­kowksy and Frank On Reli­gious Ex­pe­rience Pt 2, A Parable On Ob­so­lete Ideologies

Frank’s point got rather lost in all this. It seems to be quite sim­ple: there’s a warm fuzzi­ness to life that sci­ence just doesn’t seem to get, and some re­li­gious art­work touches on and stim­u­lates this warm fuzzi­ness, and hence is of value.1 More­over, un­der­stand­ing this point seems rather im­por­tant to be­ing able to spread an ide­ol­ogy.

The main prob­lem is view­ing this warm fuzzi­ness as a “mys­tery.” This warm fuzzi­ness, as an ex­pe­rience, is a re­al­ity. It’s part of that set of things that doesn’t go away no mat­ter what you say or think about them. Women (or men) will still be al­lur­ing, food will still be deli­cious, and Michae­lan­gelo’s David will still be beau­tiful, no mat­ter how well you de­scribe these phe­nomenon. The view that shat­ter­ing mys­ter­ies re­duces their value is very much a re­sult of re­li­gion try­ing to pro­tect it­self. EY is prob­a­bly cor­rect that sci­ence will one day de­stroy this mys­tery as it has so many oth­ers, but be­cause it is an “ex­pe­rience we can’t clearly de­scribe” rather than an ac­tual “mys­tery,” the ex­pe­rience will re­main. The ar­gu­ment is with the de­scrip­tion, not the ex­pe­rience; the ex­pe­rience is real, and ex­pe­riences of its na­ture are to­tally de­sir­able.

The sec­ond, sub-point: Frank thinks that cer­tain re­li­gious sto­ries and art­work may be of artis­tic value. The se­lec­tion of the story of Job is un­for­tu­nate, but both speak­ers value it for the same rea­son: its truth. One sees it as true (and in­spiring) and likes it, the other sees it as false (and in­sidious) and hates it. I think both agree that if you put it on the shelf next to Tolk­ien, and ra­tio­nal athe­ists still buy it and en­joy it, hey, good for Job. And if not, well, throw it out with the rest of the trash.

Frank also has a point about ra­tio­nal­ity not be­ing the only way to view the world. I think he’s once again right, he’s just re­ally, trag­i­cally bad at ex­press­ing his point with­out bor­row­ing heav­ily from re­li­gion. His point seems to be that ra­tio­nal­ity isn’t the only way to *ex­pe­rience* the world, which is ab­solutely, 100% right. You don’t ex­pe­rience the world through ra­tio­nal­ity. You ex­pe­rience it through your senses and the qualia of con­scious­ness. Ra­tion­al­ity is how you figure out what’s go­ing on, or what’s go­ing to be go­ing on, or what causes one thing to hap­pen and not an­other. Ap­pre­ci­at­ing art, or food, or sex, or life is not gen­er­ally done by ap­ply­ing ra­tio­nal­ity. Ra­tion­al­ity is ex­tremely use­ful for figur­ing out how to get these things we like, or even figure out what things we should like, but it doesn’t fac­tor into the qual­i­ta­tive ex­pe­rience of those things in most cases. For many peo­ple it prob­a­bly doesn’t fac­tor into the en­joy­ment of any­thing. If you don’t em­brace and ex­plain this dis­tinc­tion, you come out look­ing like Spock.

This seems to be a key point athe­ists fail to com­mu­ni­cate, be­cause it is log­i­cally ir­rele­vant to the truth of their propo­si­tions. A lot of peo­ple avoid de­ci­sions that they be­lieve will de­stroy ev­ery­thing that makes them happy, and I’m not sure we can blame them. It’s im­por­tant to ex­plain that you can still have all kinds of warm fuzzi­ness, and, even bet­ter, you can be re­ally con­fi­dent it’s well-founded and avoid abysmal episte­mol­ogy, too! In­stead, the athe­ist tries to defeat some weird, re­li­giously-mo­ti­vated ex­pres­sion of warm fuzzi­ness, and that be­comes the de­bate, and peo­ple like their fuzzies.

We ex­pe­rience warm fuzzi­ness di­rectly,2 through how­ever our brains work. No amount of sci­ence is likely to change that, no mat­ter how well it un­der­stands the phe­nomenon. This is a good thing for sci­ence, and it’s a good thing for warmth and fuzzi­ness.


1- I have ad­mit­tedly not read his book. It’s quite pos­si­ble he’s ad­vo­cat­ing we ac­tu­ally go through re­li­gion and make it fit our cur­rent sen­si­bil­ities, then take it as uber-fic­tion. If that’s the case, I have se­ri­ous prob­lems with it. If that’s not the case, and he just thinks that some of it con­tains truth/​beauty/​is sal­vagable as liter­a­ture, then I have se­ri­ous prob­lems with the ar­gu­men­tum-ad-hitlerum em­ployed against him, as it seems to burn a straw man.

2 - I’m not say­ing there’s warm fuzzi­ness in the ter­ri­tory and we put it in our map. There’s some­thing in the ter­ri­tory that, when we map it out, the map­ping causes us to di­rectly ex­pe­rience a feel­ing of warm fuzzi­ness.