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On Mystics

Zhainan asked me some time ago to follow up in my post about atheism, so here are my views. I apologize for the delay but I wasn’t in the right mood until today. Today it’s Sunday and it feels proper.

There’s a quote in Aldous Huxley’s best novel, that says:

If you’ve never had a religious experience, it’s folly to believe in God.  You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters, when you can’t eat them without being sick

Well I have never had one. I am not a faith person; in fact I find the concept quite abhorrent, personally. Still, as I said in my last post, the fact that I find no need for religion doesn’t mean that there is no God. In fact there can be no sound philosophy without an idea of the transcendent. Logic as a system requires a first cause, if it is to be true. And as we all want logic to be true, we might as well think there is some fancy creator out there. That doesn’t mean that we all should go back to sing in latin at Church every Sunday. Criticism of particular religions is on the whole very justified. But the fact that all religions are false doesn’t imply that there’s nothing out there.

This is the logical critique of atheism. Then there’s the psychological critique. Why would anyone deny there’s some kind of God, and an afterlife? What do you gain by that? The atheists logic is as faulty as the theists’. But the theists at least do some good by promoting hierarchy and a moral life. What’s the point of atheism though? Why spoil all the fun of life? Do people enjoy thinking that once you die you just disappear and there’s nothing else? Nihilism, taken seriously, can only create misery and sadness. And most people agree with it these days. Of course most people don’t take it seriously, and while asserting that there’s no God they go on with their animal instincts and enjoy life as it is. But there’s actually a few unlucky people who actually get to stare at the abyss. Yet they keep preaching a depressing cult of nothingness. I can’t fathom how can they wake up every morning thinking: Cool, there’s 40 years left until I vanish, everything I do is pointless and without consequence!

See that my point is that we can’t know anything about the transcendent. I’m with Kant on this. We can’t know anything beside this world’s experiences. And we shouldn’t try. Since we decided in the 18th century that we can’t know much about God, and stopped caring, well we got modern science, fact based scholarship. Fact based medicine. To use God in scientific theories is cheating. In the same way that using HNU or other liberal dogmas in social science is cheating; it’s unfalsifiable and doesn’t produce useful theories. We need more empiricism, not less.

Now some people don’t agree that we can’t know anything about God. The fact that I’ve never had a religious experience doesn’t mean that nobody ever has. Well there’s a point to that. For all the absurdities of mainstream religion, well Pascal or Chesterton were very smart people, also very pious. When you see that logic requires a transcendent reality, well it’s obvious that any inquisitive mind would want to know something about it, see Newton or Gödel’s mysticism. So there might be something to mysticism, that I am humble enough to admit. Still for every mystic Newton or Leonardo there are many Saint Theresas or Sufi charlatans who also claim to have ‘seen’ the mystical truth. As I said in the opening, I haven’t had the experience, so I can’t really tell. I am open to the idea, in a philosophical way. My teenage years were basically spent in binge reading of Aldous Huxley and Arthur Schopenhauer’s books. Both were mildly empiricist men who lashed against the sophistry of their day. Yet they also, later in their lives, became very open to mysticism; Huxley seeking the truth in psychedelic drugs, Schopenhauer reading on Indian philosophy.

But they didn’t make much of it. The problem with mysticism is, although I can’t deny its possibility as a matter of philosophical soundness;  it’s quite obvious that it has been rather useless. It might not be certain, but I stand on my point that we can’t know about the other world, and we shouldn’t try. Newton could have come up with relativity if he hadn’t lost so many of his years in theology. I don’t mind, in fact it might be very natural that good mathematicians and physicists come to the conclusion that there is a higher power. But science, and all scholarly work, should have atheism as its working framework. It’s not true, but its good for work. God won’t punish you for trying to understand its creation without mentioning him.

But he will punish all of us if you deny its existence. Society at large should be theist. It produces good morals and happy people. We just need a new religion that takes Bell Curves into account, encourages eugenics and makes space colonization the final mission of mankind. If someone has a mystical vision about it, please let me know. I’m all ears.

PS: Notwithstanding everything written above, everybody should read this link from Zhainan’s. Makes you think like few things can.


23 responses to “On Mystics

  1. B January 29, 2012 at 23:43

    It is impossible to engineer a compelling religion like you would a tax code. You are attempting to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, against an entropic belief gradient.

    We are caught in an interesting sophistic loop, those of us who are the children of the hyper-rationalist enlightenment; we see that the snake of materialist logic consumes itself. We have learned from it to judge by its values-the value of things depends on their material reality, on whether you can touch them, eat them, fuck them, warm yourself by them. We have learned from it that all ideology is a matter of “who…whom,” and that truth is just an instrument you use to shank your enemies. Yet we have been born into the old age of this philosophy, and see its rot; we see that judged by its own standards, it sucks, that in the short run it brings Roissyistic nihilism, and in the long run it brings Detroit. But we’ve been seduced and corrupted by it since before birth; it is impossible to make yourself look at the world through the uncorrupted eyes of those before us through an effort of will.

    The only hope I see is this: much as there was a Judaic revival spearheaded by Ezekiel after the lowest low (the Babylonian conquest and exile,) which in turn resulted from nihilistic moral corruption coming from the elites of Judea and spreading to the rest of the population, maybe G-d will have mercy on us and send us a revival in our depths. Not for our merits, but just out of mercy. Of course, just having this faith is kind of an act of rebellion against Progressivism, no?

    • spandrell January 31, 2012 at 13:27

      Well seeing how we our present tax codes are easily more complex than Byzantine theology, and we aren’t having much success changing them, I think enforcing a new religion maybe isn’t that hard. Heck, if the Safavids could, why can’t we?

      Our generation certainly is corrupted by the hedonism of our forebears, and it shows. But changes happens slowly, and we are in the correct track. At least some of us.
      Seeing you use jewish terminology, I assume you are a Jew, hey we could really use a Judaic revival. Introduce a prohibition of usury and half our problems are solved =)

  2. zhai2nan2 January 30, 2012 at 03:07

    Mystical experience is one thing; paranormal experience is another.

    If you like the near-death-experience story from Ayer, by all means examine Victor’s Zammit’s weekly reports.

    Just skim through, week by week, until you find something that catches your fancy.

    As for your other points, e.g. theism for society as a whole makes people good, science should be atheist – those deserve more careful examination.

    But for the moment, examine the evidence for life after death.

    • spandrell January 30, 2012 at 19:01

      I’ll take a look, but my instinct is to avoid spending too much time in these kind of matters. My crap detecting algorithms stop working fast with this kind of stuff. I’d rather finish S.A.M. Adshead’s books.

      Now if you were to use your, surely more advanced, crap filtering and make a post condensing all the not-crap stories, I’ll be glad to read it =)

      • zhai2nan2 January 31, 2012 at 02:35

        ‘We have yet to see a solid response to Hume…and the philosophy profession as a whole agrees with me. ‘

        I think you’re mistaking the small group of philosophers that you enjoy with the profession as a whole.

        Writing from Taiwan, I can assure that there are plenty of thinkers in Taiwan who regard Hume as an unimportant detail in the history of an inferior culture!

        But let’s put some specifics to your claim –

        1- Who are the philosophers who are satisfied with Hume, and what are the titles of the relevant books?

        2- How do you get enough grounding in philosophy to speak for the profession “as a whole”?

        3-How is it that you claim Kant is some kind of failed footnote to Hume?

        4- By Reid, do you mean Thomas Reid (1710-1796) ?

        • aretae January 31, 2012 at 03:09


          Western Philosophy:
          You are correct. My knowledge is of western philosophy from Thales forward. I am moderately unaware of non-European traditions. Please accept an apology. I should have asserted that in the 200 years since Hume in Western philosophy, there is yet to be a convincing response to his skepticism.

          Kant credits Hume as the best prior thinker, and attempts to answer. His epistemological response (summarized) comes down to “Hume was right about most things, but, there is also the category of synthetic a priori statements…and that dodges Hume’s bullet.” Except that he’s wrong. Synthetic A Priori is industrial-grade organic fertilizer.

          Who accepts Hume?
          20th century philosophy started with the Positivists (Carnap, Frege, etc.) who are effectively Hume redone with 20th century rigor….Bertrand Russell, who agrees almost completely with Hume on induction, and G.E. Moore who ends up in the same place.

          20 years of toodling around…lots of reading…an idea of what constitutes consensus and what constitutes non. I think that one can speak a great deal of consensus in fields that have been running for years. “Climate scientists generally agree on Global Warming, and the importance of Carbon Dioxide” is a factual statement.

          Wittgenstein addresses Hume by pointing out that the question of knowledge is incoherent…hardly a win for the non-skeptic. That’s pretty much the foundation of modern Western epistemology.

          Yes, Thomas.

          • zhai2nan2 January 31, 2012 at 03:28

            1 – Regarding Kant and the analytic/synthetic distinction: are you familiar with Quine’s paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”? Many philosophers who follow Logical Positivism think it is rather important.


            In particular, I think Quine had much more respect for Kant than you have. So I get the impression that you are favoring Hume over Kant, and you haven’t looked at the later philosophers who thought Kant and Frege and Rusell were vastly more important than Hume.

            Quine’s paper is a little dense and I haven’t reviewed it lately, but I think it’s the second most important paper related to Logical Positivism. (The most important one, of course, is from Godel!)

            2- Frege is not Hume redone with more rigor. That’s just silly. Frege was a real mathematician. Hume was not.

            3- Russell was a great celebrity, and very good at impressing non-specialists, but his actual technical results are a lot less impressive than the publicity. Before I bang on about neutral monism and so on, I should probably deal with Quine, because Quine is more important than Russell.

            • aretae January 31, 2012 at 03:43

              I have read at least most of that paper previously. If you look at Part VI of that paper, it hews rather closely to my own position.

              Purpose first…prediction is a necessary purpose for other purposes. Prediction as a purpose yields from sense-experience the rough empiricist position, minus some of the (what I learned to call) intrisnicist nonsense.

              • zhai2nan2 January 31, 2012 at 04:01

                1- You can’t very well claim that Hume is high-quality and Kant’s rejection of Hume is “fertilizer,” and ALSO claim that you agree with Quine.

                Your position stated above rejects the substance of Quine’s paper. If you want to keep Quine, you’re going to have to look back at Hume and cut away 99% of his stuff.

                If you’re claiming to be an empiricist in the mold of Quine, how on earth can you countenance Hume’s three-card-monte tricks of semantic bait-and-switch? In particular, Hume’s notion of “miracle” is semantic rubbish.

                If you want to be informative, what you should say is that you want to retain the knee-jerk anti-Christian dogmatism of Hume, but you have learned some modern writings as well.

                2- I don’t want to overstate my professional status – I’m not a professional philosophy teacher, and you might well hold a high academic rank.

                You had some kind of post-graduate training in philosophy, IIRC. Do you read philosophy journals? Do you keep in touch with philosophy professors? Or have you been reading on your own for 20 years, and not communicating with professional philosophers?

                I can’t claim to be in touch with Western philosophy professors. I do have to work with hordes of computer scientists of every stripe, from unskilled to emeritus. I suspect that there are a lot of folks on the internet in my position – we studied philosophy years ago, but we’re not academic philosophy students any more.

  3. aretae January 30, 2012 at 12:52


    ” Logic as a system requires a first cause, if it is to be true.”

    Is this a response to the entirely compelling skepticism of Hume? If so, I recommend a different path. Drop the insanity about unchanging truth…and move towards a probabilistic, inductive approach to Life, Universe, & Everything (LUE).

    If you start from: Logic is necessarily true….what must make it so? Then you more or less need God (first mover, etc.). If you start from: What should I believe, with what probability…then you reach a point that suggests that within your awareness, logic regarding simple topics is rather reliable…and then the whole first mover bit which assumes the universality of logic starts looking awful silly.

    In simpler words: If you think of math like Bertrand Russell does: Set Theory apprehended absent a physical world…then God makes sense, has some element of necessity. If you think that Russell’s approach is silly, and math is an inductively developed method we humans use to interact with the world…then the necessity of God vanishes.

    • zhai2nan2 January 30, 2012 at 12:57

      If you think Hume’s arguments are convincing, you must have missed the fallacy of equivocation built into his definition of “supernatural,” plus his shifting goalposts of what evidence he’s willing to consider.

      • aretae January 31, 2012 at 00:01


        I have been wrestling with Hume for 20 years, personally. The rest of the philosophy profession, for 200+. Your dismissal is too quick. We have yet to see a solid response to Hume…and the philosophy profession as a whole agrees with me. The attempts to answer his questions, both from Enquiry and from Dialogues, (Kant, Reid, etc.) have largely failed. Indeed, it is pretty easy to map the last 200 years of epistemology as the sequence of attempts to grapple with Hume. The only paths past Hume are to change the question, or to ignore it.

    • spandrell January 30, 2012 at 18:57

      Yours is precisely the mindframe I think is proper for doing science. Focusing in predicting power, in usefulness. Very good.

      But philosophy doesn’t work like that. You are playing with words. If ‘truth’ is meaningless, well everything is. Straight to nihilism. And that’s bad.

      You ask, what should I believe? Well ‘should’ is a moral word. It has no inherent meaning. The correct question is: “What should I believe in order to (x)”. Now, while doing research, it should be x=have useful theories, but society has other purposes besides research.

      About what is the purpose of society, well everyone has its own pet theory. I think it should be about survival, health, happiness, progress, ultimately space colonization. What should I believe in order to have a society with health, happiness, progress and a drive for space colonization? We need a concept of truth, of authority, of certainty over which everything stands. We need the cure against nihilism. And that is God.

      I don’t think it’s that hard. Ideas have consequences.

      • aretae January 30, 2012 at 23:52


        On my own blog, I’ve argued that “should” is usually a mistake, because it misses that should presumes purpose…exactly as you have it here. I agree.

        1. I’ve also been doing philosophy (reading the masters, arguing with them) for 20-odd years.
        2. Truth is meaningless implies everything meaningless is a simple error in understanding the word meaning…just as bad as the “should” without an “in order to”.
        3. Your purpose of society is the wrong level of analysis. What should a person believe is more appropriate. And game theory considerations play here too.
        4. Even granting your goals and your level of analysis. I think authority is an almost unmitigated bad…and certainty is awfully close to it in being full-negative with NO associated positives. Indeed, I think the certaintist position of plato, also associated with religion, has caused more failure of thinking than any other position in the last 3000 years.

      • spandrell January 31, 2012 at 00:06

        I remember reading in your blog that most people are alike, so observation trumps introspection.
        I think that position screams HNU.

        Same as your position on authority; its bad if the authority is inferior to you, which I guess its your experience. But its not bad for everyone. 80% of people are utterly incapable of anything worthy unless forcefully integrated into a productive system, designed by people superior to them. But that’s a different point.

        Going back to topic, you still haven’t answered what should I believe in order to do what. Empiricism is ok but you still need crap filters to sort what data is relevant and what not. Inductivists cooked up global warming all the same.

        Hume killed a lot of self-important crap philosophy, but offered nothing in exchange. Also killed a lot of good stuff in the proces. Kinda like Karl Marx. Why should I like him again?

        About Platonism, well it has produced huge amounts of crap. But also it has produced Western Civilization, good and bad. China never developed metaphysical certaintism, and it lagged in the long term. They are very good experimentalists though.

        • aretae January 31, 2012 at 00:27

          Most people ARE alike.
          Observation does trump introspection.

          Observe most people. Then Observe lots of smart people, and measure differences.

          I’ve made something of a career of watching 4 sigmas, and I’m massively unimpressed by the differences between 4-sigmas and 0-sigmas. They think a tiny bit faster (160 vs 100 where 1 is the IQ of a tree, and 1 trillion is the IQ of a jupiter-brain)…and have a hugely exaggerated opinion of the importance of their thinking process as compared to the rest of their mind-activity…and otherwise they mostly behave just like anyone else.

          I’m actually hard-core anarchist-libertarian, and I think that authority of the high-IQ over the low-IQ is really bad…not just authority of the low-IQ over the high-IQ. Authority itself is the problem…not the standard smart-person problem with authority. High IQ folks are suspiciously good at rationalizing their own benefit, and making it sound good. Authority is itself the problem.

          Global warming is cooked up by the deductivists…look at the “science”. All models, no predictivity. Try again.

          My personal “should” to believe is “in order to predict”. Most people’s “should” to believe is “in order to fit in with my group”. An awful lot of this becomes “in order to get what I want”.

          Hume was the corporate raider of philosophy…he noticed what was dead, but pretending to live, and finished the job…and you’re correct that he didn’t offer anything in exchange. The challenge since has been to reconstruct, once you understand that a certaintist approach starting with deduction cannot arrive at the world. As an inductivist…I’m not convinced that there’s much net positive value that died.

          My claim…look at the world…believe that the world is regular because it predicts well. Believe that the senses give you accurate data (mostly) because it predicts well. Believe that logic and math works on simple propositions because it predicts well. Believe that logical analysis of complex problems doesn’t work because that belief predicts well. Did you look at my Foundational epistemology series ?

          I claim that Europe’s ascendancy, and China’s primary problem was an excess of authority, and the inability for folks to escape from it…not the metaphysical certainty bit.

      • zhai2nan2 January 31, 2012 at 02:49

        @spandrell –

        1- What is HNU?

        2- As for summarizing the evidence for life after death:
        a – There are cases suggestive of reincarnation. I.e., very often, some child w is born in location x with knowledge of language C and professional skillset D; this child insists that his name is A, not w. But his parents speak only language y, like everyone else in location x. And his parents only know about professional skillset z. So these cases usually attract a lot of witnesses, and when people travel to location B, they find that some old person A with a knowledge of C and D had died some time ago.
        Note that many researchers do NOT interpret these data as reincarnation in the classical sense. Rather, they claim that information and personality traits have been transferred, but the “soul” is a new soul from a “group of souls.”

        b- There are photographs, electronic recordings, etc., of ectoplasm materializing in seances. Some critics try to argue that these photos are all fakes, but those criticisms fail to impress many people.

        c- There are numerous cases of alleged communication with the spirits of the dead which do not involve physical evidence such as photographs.

        d- There is considerable evidence for human perception that does not depend on the five conventional senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and sound. The most popular protocol is Ingo Swann’s “remote viewing.”

  4. spandrell January 31, 2012 at 00:46

    I fixed the link for you.

    If you think all people are alike, I can’t really convince you of the opposite. All I can do is recommend you to travel around. Go to SEA, it’s pleasant enough not to harm your health, yet crappy enough for you to understand what a world without 4 sigmas really means.

    Authority over the low IQ might be bad, lack of it is… Africa =) Not my cup of tea, thanks. As the inductivist you are please go on grabbing some data about the real life consequences of lack of supervision over average people.

    Still as I said this is matter for some other post. If you are to write a post about how unimpressive 4 sigmas are (with some anecdotes you find revealing), I’ll be glad to argue about it over at your place.

    Going back to philosophy, as I said I think your approach is very productive and should be drilled hard into anyone entering higher education. But let me play devil’s advocate a bit: you say ask yourself what should believe in order to predict.

    Well why must you predict anything at all? What makes your purpose valid? Why should we do anything at all? See, we can play this game forever. Nihilism is cheap

    Al Ghazali said nobody should try to predict nothing, as it’s all Allah’s will. Cotton doesn’t burn because a flame comes into contact; cotton burns because Allah’s wants it to. He became immensely popular
    How is he different from Hume? Ghazali produced the biggest cultural wasteland in the history of mankind. Taking Hume seriously would have done the same.

    • aretae January 31, 2012 at 00:54

      0. Thanks for the link-fix
      1. The discussion game around Authority is Africa vs. North Korea. I prefer Africa.
      2. Purpose is primary, before truth. Asking to defend the validity of the goal is one of Plato’s big errors. I’m, like most 4-sigmas, close to aspy/infovore…and understanding is as obvious as breathing as a/the goal. “If you have $, buy books. If you have $ left over, buy food”. I do not need to validate my goal. If I want to validate my goal…I’d have to do so in a back-referencing meta-ethics a la David Schmidtz…and I occasionally play that way. Roughly: Predictive success is a prerequisite for success in anything, and so if you have ANY goals…you need to estabilish predictive success first. Test that hypothesis against reality…it predicts pretty well.
      3. Hume attacked Certainty, and the deductive tradition. The Inductive tradition of Newton/Bacon/Locke is what has produced the world we’ve got.

      • spandrell January 31, 2012 at 13:15

        1. Let us seek the golden mean.

        2. I don’t see how your aspy status is relevant. Which goals are valid and not is the whole point of philosophy. All the great ‘sages’ of man concluded that the good life was one of contemplation and lack of goals; they surely didn’t seek predictive power. Not that I agree with them, but they are (were) universally regarded as the wisest and greatest of men.

        Now we are derailing the discussion in tangential disagreements, and you have obviously more experience in this kind of arguments.

        Let me focus. My original point was that the kind of inductivist method that you represent is the way to go. You’re absolutely correct in that’s its the only way to gain any useful knowledge. You should design a chip to be implanted in the brains of all SAT takers.

        But that says nothing about the nature of reality. The fact that assuming God doesn’t exist makes better science, doesn’t imply that God doesn’t exist.
        And the same way that the non-existence of God is useful when doing science, the yes-existence of God is useful when organizing society.

        I’m not arguing for certainty at all. I’m arguing for possibility. Hume didn’t disprove that. Nobody can, it’s logically impossible. And inside the realm of possibility, the existence and non existence of a transcendent reality is equally true. We simply can’t know. All we have left is assumptions based on utility. Now you use induction to do science, I’ll use deduction to make morals. We will all be better off.

      • aretae January 31, 2012 at 22:29


        2. I’ve largely bought into the ZAMM/Phaedrus model of Goal prior to Truth. The claim is that Plato cheated in claiming that the true had precedence over the good.
        AFK. Back soon.

  5. spandrell January 31, 2012 at 23:35

    ‘Good’ belongs to the same category as ‘should’. Begs the question: good for what?
    Truth is relatively easier to agree on. Don’t blame Plato.

    I’ll be AFK myself for ≈8 hours. ttyl then

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