Monday, October 08, 2007
Books That Led Me to Nonbelief in a Soul
Forget "atheism". About 6 years ago I started to open my mind to the possibility that the brain and the soul were one and no little god connector was in there. 3 years ago I decided I did not believe in an eternal soul. I decided to reflect on the journey and describe some books and things that changed my mind.
1. The Bible- Read it when I was 15. Reading it alone, with no social group telling me *how* to read it, led me to a shocking conclusion- people were lying about what was in this book or they were ignorant about it. This helped me to understand that human beings were liars, and they lie about religion out of fear.
I grew up watching NOVA and Cosmos on PBS. I learned about evolution there and understood that it was true. I never debated that much even as a believer because I saw it with my own eyes. My highschool biology class taught nothing at all about evolution. My 4 college biology classes also taught nothing at all about the mechanisms of evolution, only the classifications. The final book we were required to read in college biology was "Klamath knot". The moral of the book is that evolution is a myth which provides meaning. I only wish I could go back in time and speak to the class about how only an incomplete understanding and ignorance of the process can provide a sense of meaning. The book is not really bad, but my teacher's intent was to soften the contraversy between creation and evolution, so people could leave the class with their religious pants still on. For shame!
My spirituality phase lasted 7 years. I read countless books displaying the abject ignorance of nuage writers concerning the natural world as they discussed the "non-physical" as an alternative way of understanding the mind/body/consciousness, without ever seriously acknowledging what already *is* known about these things in a naturalistic context.
By age 27 my disillusionment with spirituality had reached a zenith. I had begun exploring the truth about the various holy men, yogis and spiritual leaders. Going to groups of people who were spiritual was like going to a museum of ignorance, superstition, and unresolved personal issues. Flashback-
2. The Path- This book is a chronicle of the life of my favorite Indian Guru Paramahansa Yogananda from the perspective of one of his students- Kriyananada (Donald Walters). I went to Kriyananda's yoga service in Seattle one day to check it out. I participated in the service and listened to the talk. When I went out into the forum, I noticed how everyone eyed me suspiciously. I asked "where is Kriyananda". The people were uncomfortable with the question, but one red haired man told me that he had moved to Europe. I went across the street to the bookstore the religious group owned and bought "The Path". From the book I learned that Yogananda was a fallible, often ignorant human being who had disdain for intellectual examination of life. This did not phase me too much, as I had become the same way at age 26. Then I had a profound experience. I looked the book up on the internet. Turns out that Kriyananda fled the country after sexual abuse to numerous students. Thats why he was in Europe. As I studied more, I found that neary every spiritual leader is corrupt. The one's that aren't are good at hiding it. I began to realize that the idea of "liberation" was impossible. Even the best were never liberated. It was a fantasy.
By 27 my mind was open to the possibility that all these brilliant rationalist people who did not believe in souls may be correct. I had trained myself over the years to stop being skeptical, as is the case with spiritualists. I started playing chess, to force myself to recover my satisfaction with pure logical calculation. If one is checkmated, they are checkmated. One cannot merely say "Bishops don't move that way in my world, maybe they move diagonally for you, but that's not my truth." What made it easy for me to leave the absurd post-modernist relativism of spirituality was my lack of comfort around people who were like this. I'm somewhat proud that I knew better.
3. The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker. Admittedly I have not finished the book yet. I wasn't ready for it at the time, and now I know so much about what it says I haven't forced myself to actually finish it, but I own it. This book argues persuasively using empirical evidence we come into this world already having a disposition. An idea we spiritualists do not allow ourselves to comprehend. I realized I had been living in ignorant denial. I had always been a reflective, introspective, thoughtful, peaceful, equinimitous person. I did nothing to achieve this. Whereas my brother is hyper-active, unplanning, addicted, uncritical, and impulsive. I realized eventually that I could not take spiritual credit for my nature. My genes are what caused my nature, not some mystical soul. I was not more "evolved" than my brother due to some experience in some past life. My genes were different. There are no "wise souls". Violent animals such as foxes and certain dogs can be selectively bred over mere decades to produce docile, loving, and shall we say, "more spiritual" dogs, merely by getting rid of some bad apples. No, I did not earn my good nature. Neither did my brother magically deserve all the problems his demeanor caused him. Shit happened. It's not fair. Life is... absurd? I began to wonder.
4. Nature versus Nurture- Matt Ridley. A more digestable book explaining how genes and environment cooperate. What I realized reading this book is that all of our nature is not determined by our genes. Our behavior is a result of our own genes interacting within a social environment created by the actions of other people's genes which influence our own. Which is my way of saying that genes don't account for everything, only the things that are important to any discussion involving human nature. It began to dawn on me that it isn't necessary to even bring the concept of free will into the discussion.
5. The Problem of the Soul- Owen Flanagan. I was mostly not ready for this book at the time. But what I got out of it is that someone who spends all their life studying this issue can explain exactly why there is almost perfect certainty that there is no such thing as a soul. He could not answer the question of consciousness, of course, but the concept of an autonomous free wheeling soul imbedded in the brain is squarely shot to shit.
6. Zen and the Brain- I never read the book and probably never will. But the existence of the book and it's author- an atheist who does not believe in an immortal soul yet has had Kensho and Satori experiences, eradicated my misconception that authentic spiritual experiences are all that is necessary to persuade anyone of an immortal soul. Not so.
7. Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology- A man falls out of a tree and hits his head. Everything about him is basically the same except for one thing- He can no longer experience love. Love is caused by neurons. This is a direct assault on my accepted idea in East Indian spirituality and NDEs that consciousness/love/bliss were one and were the Godhead. Not so. I also learned that temporal lobe excision destroyed people's ability to feel that sense of spirituality they once had.
8. Moral Animal- Robert Wright. I think this was the single most devastating piece of literature for me. And many others like me agree. This book is a damning endictment on the human animal. It was here that I learned that I am not only an animal, but that my entire journey through my spiritual pursuit was guided by impulses which were blatantly Darwinian. If I had free will of any kind regarding my pursuit of enlightenment, it was nowhere to be seen.
I was already an atheist before Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens published their latest books. But these books helped to create an identity set with which to define myself openly. I must say that "Selfish Gene" was good for providing a more mathematical basis explaining the evolution of altruism and cooperation which really solidifies the idea that the human "soul" is merely an arbitrary survival mechanism which evolved through natural selection.
In closing this long winded post, I must note on how incredibly ignorant people are of the most powerful arguments for atheism. The most powerful arguments are not indictments of God, but endictments on the human soul and free will. I just finished listening to a debate between Richard Dawkins and a theist from Oxford. It was sponsored by a church group, so at the end of the radio broadcast they had commentary by a couple of Christians. One of the Christians said that he was astonished by the terminology that Dawkins used. He remarked that he could not understand how Dawkins could possibly say that Darwinism had instilled in humanity "a lust to do good". This concept flew entirely over the man's head so high that he was ignorant enough to admit his own ignorance over the air. His partner offered no clarification.
The Selfish Gene was published over 30 years ago. The ideas in the book are older than that. The idea that evolution instilled a "lust to to good" and that the sense of morality evolved to protect genetic replicators is an idea accepted by every serious biologist the world over. It is one of the cornerstone arguments for atheism. Yet it flies right over their heads.
<--- This is the future, like it or not.