As a ‘philosopher,’ by which I mean a person inclined toward reflection, I am prone to moments of space-gazing. In fact, most ideas that I have, some of which spawn posts here, occur in moments of apparent wall-gawking.
I am hesitant to call these moments “being lost in rational thought.” In such moments it is not words or linear propositions that I experience, but rather a sort of music of concepts, flowing in harmony, disharmony, and occasional crescendo of luminescence. And upon further reflection I can often put these experiences to words (and often I cannot) and subject them to analysis. I can’t help but think of Douglas Hofstadter in such moments, and anyone familiar with his work will probably understand what I mean.
In moments such as these I believe I understand the mystic, the “spiritual but not religious,” and perhaps most aptly, the meditative state which accompanies many a priest of various traditions. It is moments like these that I experience a sort of transcendence, a fact that may not seem likely to many because I am a materialistic atheist. It is here where I appreciate Sam Harris’ view about the usefulness and importance of many eastern traditions of meditation, where many other atheists do not.
Where I think many people go wrong in this ‘mystical’ or ‘spiritual’ experience is allowing oneself to live within this phenomenological experience without exterior context. It is, after all, a subjective and internal experience, and its emotional and existential power is overwhelming. But I urge people to not become completely distracted by this beauty (by all means allow yourself to enjoy it!), at least insofar as to become lost in the parochial halls of ones own mind.
There really is an external world out there. And while the philosopher in me wants to proclaim some radically skeptical caveat there, I know that this hallway leads nowhere worth pursuing, having walked its path into the darkness and seeing no end or distant light. And part of our experiences, as a brain prone to illusion, delusion, and terrible fallacy, is that we have to take whatever steps we can to not become enchanted by the magicians within us. Because just like a con-man or mentalist, our own mental attributes will fool us and we may become convinced that there must be magic behind the slight-of-mind that is our consciousness. And just like those con-men or mentalists, there is always a rational explanation.
It has been a long road to get here, historically, to a time when we have access to the methodologies employed by skeptics; logic, rational analysis, and the empiricism native to science. These are the best tools we have to look at ourselves from the outside. Not quite an objective experience, as that is impossible by definition, but a way to extend our subjective experience to include the filter of, well, reality.
This is why science is so important. It’s not that it makes the whole of what religious traditions have left us irrelevant, but it allows us to distinguish between what is is real and what is the illusion inherent to our perceptual attributes. Much of philosophy, mysticism, and even our common sense thinking is mired in these illusions, and without at least the unconscious use of skeptical thinking we are doomed to become entranced by them. The stronger the skeptical toolbox we have, the better we become at seeing around corners and avoiding our phenomenological pitfalls.
(Makes me want to say “the skepticism is strong in this one.” But hat would be nerdy)
There is no incompatibility between science and spirituality, if by spirituality we mean the phenomenological experience of transcendent thought which raises us above what we already understood or experienced. Nietzsche used the term “spirit” to refer to many things about us, none of the supernatural, and I would like to keep such company and continue this tradition, while making sure not to be confused with the supernatural-laced spirituality that pervades our culture like a cancer. If you have another word for what I mean, I have no quarrel with you, as I understand how many connotations the term ‘spiritual’ has, most which are inconsistent with a naturalistic worldview.
These types of experiences are not the domain of religion, but religion has usurped them in the same way that religion has usurped morality, social activity, and ritual. Part of the coming struggle for the atheist community will be finding ways to express these human needs (and they are needs for many, but not all) in a secular way.
And no, not every aspect of religious life will need a secular analog, as many of the aspects of theological and teleological thinking are fundamentally absurd and broken. But that which is natural, human, and worth keeping such as the moments of beauty that we, even as atheists, have can be found without the silly theological baggage which weighs us down and holds us back.