Oakville Zen Meditation

#113: The Spectrum of Belief (Sceptics argument for Spirituality).19JUN16

(Text by Kevin Moriarty)

A few weeks ago one of the attendees at the Thursday evening meeting challenged the existence of an afterlife citing the lack of proof. This led to a discussion of the basis of any belief and the reasonableness of spiritual beliefs. This piece expands on that discussion.

A black line is often drawn between belief and non-belief. But the distinction is one of rhetoric rather than reality. In reality it is not possible to be an absolute non-believer. To function in the everyday world, we believe in our senses; we believe in a continuous ordered world. We will take a quick look at:

  • Beliefs based on empirical (scientific) Evidence,
  • Beliefs based on non-empirical (non-scientific) Evidence,
  • Beliefs based on values (that is non-economic values),
  • Spiritual Beliefs and
  • Grounds for Spiritual Beliefs.

1. Beliefs based on empirical (scientific) Evidence:

Even science operates on the assumptions or beliefs – sometimes described as self evident or as intuitive. The basic scientific assumptions are that:

  • There are natural causes for things that happen in the world around us.
  • Evidence from the natural world can be used to learn about those causes.
  • There is consistency in the causes that operate in the natural world.

These common empirical assumptions or beliefs about the material world are reinforced by everyday experience and are usually taken for granted. Nevertheless, even causation itself is an assumption or belief since it is logically indistinguishable from the recurrent conjunction of events. In addition, scientific “facts” are under constant revision as new data and data inter-relationships come to light.

2- Beliefs based on non-empirical (non-scientific) Evidence

Scientific proof is the most rigorous proof available, but not the only proof. It is not always possible to set up an experiment to scientifically test every matter that we have to address. In addition, many matters that we commonly address are based on phenomena the existence of which cannot be empirically demonstrated. Legal proceedings, business deals and marriage proposals are all based in part on non-empirical evidence. These decisions are based on the best evidence available to the decider.

3- Beliefs based on values (that is non-economic values):

Value beliefs are necessary in order to function in society. We want fairness and justice. We believe and distinguish between good and bad actions. Our beliefs about values are necessary in the practical world. They operate in law, business, government and interpersonal behaviour. They are sometimes honoured more in the breach than the observance, but they are always acknowledged.

Values are sometimes described as being nothing more than the shared preferences of a particular society – presumably adopted for their evolutionary advantage – the Richard Dawkins view. However, that is not how values are experienced. If I feel that someone is being treated unjustly, it is not because I think they are being treated in a manner that is inconsistent with the shared preferences of society. It is because I think the treatment is morally wrong, or unfair, or undeserved. This belief is independent of social preferences.

Values are generally viewed as universal and not subject to empirical proof or disproof – the Bertrand Russell and others point of view.

4- Spiritual Beliefs

There are beliefs about various concepts or things which are referred here as spiritual beliefs, such as God, gods, soul, true self and afterlife (resurrection, rebirth and reincarnation). It is possible that the subject matter of such beliefs may at some point in the future be empirically (or at least non-empirically) demonstrated.

However, lack of scientific proof by no means, implies that something does not exist. Electrons existed before their proof by J.J. Thomson in 1897.

In the meantime, spiritual beliefs fall into the same broad category as values for the purpose of proof. That is, they are believed or assumed or intuited. Unlike values, spiritual beliefs are not strictly speaking necessary for social functioning and many make do without them.

Grounds for Spiritual Beliefs:

For some, a satisfactory explanation of spiritual beliefs is that they are self-evident. We simply grasp them intuitively. Others look to a basis or ground for spiritual beliefs in the absence of the social necessity that applies to values. The grounding of spiritual beliefs has the advantage of providing a higher authority or reason. Spiritual beliefs may be viewed as grounded in the idea of the greatest good, in the pronouncements of God to a prophet or in the teachings of Buddha. The grounding of spiritual beliefs can provide a framework through which they can be viewed as a coherent whole - a complete picture.

Coherent spiritual beliefs fit together in a fashion that reflects a consistency of aims. For example, justice may be viewed as the allocation of what is deserved; whereas charity may be viewed as the provision of what is needed, even if undeserved. However, charity is not usually viewed as unjust. Together, justice and charity can reflect an overall consistency of worldview.

Coherent spiritual beliefs are positively acted upon in the everyday world. As such, they typically reflect a desire to alleviate suffering. They are not simply fantasies intended to provide an escape from the everyday world; nor are they exclusionary dogmas intended to provide salvation for a select few and damnation for all others.

Arguably, the major religions, and many other forms of spirituality and worldview, contain coherent spiritual beliefs; although they may contain the fantastic, and the dogmatic as well.

The response to the question “where is the proof of coherent spiritual beliefs” is that there is no empirical proof; however, their non-existence can also not be proven. They are not square circles or positive negatives. Spiritual beliefs are more difficult; nevertheless, coherent spiritual beliefs can be clearly communicated and can be justified by their personal and societal objectives. The Buddhist Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are examples.

And who knows, perhaps at some point in the future, some apparently spiritual beliefs will be empirically demonstrated.