Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Five

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Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

Planet Without Laughter by Raymond Smullyman

Smullyan, still alive and a few years shy of 100, is an very unique person, so reading his background is interesting. He was a professor of Philosophy, a mathematician, a magician, and a musician, among other things. In general, he seemed to not be religious, but leaned towards a rather Taoist philosophy of life. You can read more at the Wikipedia entry for Raymond Smullyan.

I’ve read several of his books, which were interesting, but the most memorable of his writings was a story written as a parable comparing mystical spiritual understanding with humor. Since so many people have different understandings of what “god” or “spirituality” means, conversations among people can be maddeningly abstract. In this story, he imagines a planet where different types of people approach humor in different ways:

Planet Without Laughter, by Raymond M. Smullyan:

The main philosophical problem of the Middle Period was to establish whether this mysterious thing called “Humor” really had objective existence or whether it existed only in the imagination. Those who believed it really existed were called Pro-Humorists; those who believed it did not were called skeptics or Anti-Humorists. Among the Pro-Humorists there raged bitter controversy as to whether the existence of Humor could be established by pure reason, or whether it could be known only by an act of faith. The Pro-Humorists were roughly of three sorts; the Rational Pro-Humorists, who claimed that the existence of Humor could be established by pure reason; the Faith-Humorists, who believed that reason could be somewhat helpful but that an act of faith was crucial; and finally there were the “Mystic-Humorists” (known in modern times as “laughers”), who claimed that neither reason nor faith were of the slightest help in apprehending Humor; the only reliable way it could be known was by direct perception. Reason, they said, leads nowhere. To believe in the existence of Humor on the mere basis of authority means that you obviously don’t see it for yourself. To have faith in the existence of Humor; on what basis is this faith? Is this faith based on acceptance of authority? Is it based on some sort of hope that there really is such a thing as Humor? Is it perhaps that the Faith-Humorists believed that Humor, if it really existed, would be something very good, and hence, because of their desire for the good, they took an oath to themselves to conduct their lives as if Humor really did exist? Yes, this seemed to be it. But, as the Mystic-Humorists pointed out, this attitude, though well intentioned, was a sad testimony to the fact that the Faith-Humorists could not see humor directly. The Mystic-Humorists kept repeating, “If only you could see humor directly, you would not need rational arguments nor any faith nor anything like that. You would then know that Humor is real.”

[….]

“What you utterly fail to realize is that it is not the ability to laugh correctly which gives you a sense of humor, but the very reverse. Once you have the sense of humor, then you will automatically and spontaneously laugh correctly without your having to analyze how you laugh. Yes, we know that you have fallen under the spell of many books with such titles as “How to Laugh Correctly,” but we can solemnly assure you that no true laugher would ever write such a book. Indeed, such books are totally antithetic to the true spirit of humor. You must remember that the activity of laughter is only the outward form of Humor; Humor itself is something entirely within the inner spirit. And you can never attain this spirit by any amount of imitation of outward forms of behavior.

And if you liked the above, you might also like his thoughts on free-will and “sinning” in Is God a Taoist?

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11 Comments

  1. Melody

    A very interesting and fun parallel. How sad it must be to believe in humor and never have experienced it! (Worse than not believing in humor at all.)

    I like how some of them want to prove or disprove the existence of humor which does in some ways disregard personal experience with humor. However, I would like to have actual proof of God if He/She/It truly exists. It sounds strange when compared to the humor claim (as that is about experiencing it for yourself), but my personal experiences with God no longer count as proof for me. I don’t believe they were real anymore: they happened but it was all in my head.

    I guess that means I now distinguish between two kinds of reality: actual observable measurable reality and non-measureble feelings or experiences of reality. The latter can feel just as real but that doesn’t make it real in the real world. If I would have visions because I used some kind of hallucinogenic drug or mushrooms, these would be real to me but they would not be real in the real world. I might be fighting monsters which don’t exist even though I do perceive them and perhaps hurt someone. In my reality I would have killed a monster but in the actual reality, I would have hurt someone.

    This difference is important to me (and I’m still learning it) because I often feel or think bad about myself for no reason at all. My self-esteem is not very high, even though there is no reason for me to feel that way, though I understand why the circumstances have made it so. So in that regard it is also important to realize that the negative ideas and feelings I have about myself are not grounded in reality and I should battle them and focus on what is really real.

    Anyway, this is not to disregard anyone’s beliefs, perceptions or experience with God(s). It’s just how I’ve come to see it for myself after walking away from my faith. So what I’m saying is: I understand that someone would see their personal experiences as proof, just like humor is mostly an experience, but for myself I think that personal experiences can be deceiving when it comes to observable realities.

    Reply
    1. anotherami

      I can understand your reluctance to rely on personal experience and in many cases, this is wise. But at the same time, our individual personal experiences are a large part of what defines us. Science is also discovering that there are more subtle differences in how we process the information our senses give us than previously thought. Color makes a good example. While most of us know about red/green color-blindness, brain imaging of two “normal” test subjects show differences in brain activity when looking at the same color/shade/hue. We actually don’t “see” the same colors. (Which handily explains all those arguements over whether two objects/colors match, why people have favorite colors, and the whole issue of “black” in clothes shopping.) Science can measure the frequency of the light the test color reflects, but it can’t predict how we percieve it. That is strictly a function of the eyes and brain of the individual. It also explains beauty, poetry, art, music and the most immeasurable thing humankind possesses- the capacity to love.
      Our experiences are what makes us human, not drones or clones. The great task of humankind is trying to maintain that balance between the collective, shared (observable) reality and our individual ones. Thus we create governments, religions, a plethora of social institutions and computers with millions of colors instead of just 16. It is your personal experience makes you uniquely Melody, insightful commentator on this blog. Not all personal experience is deceiving. Sometimes it is our low self-esteem telling us that we aren’t important enough for our experience/perception to count. May we both find courage in our efforts to learn to distinguish the difference.

      Reply
      1. Melody

        Thanks 🙂 You’re right that we need a balance between the two. I do rely on my personal experience for many things, and when I was a believer my experiences with God were very precious to me, so I can easily understand that they are. But when it comes to believing huge things about life, personal experience can feel a little small, and perhaps too subjective to solely make those kind of decisions on.

        “Sometimes it is our low self-esteem telling us that we aren’t important enough for our experience/perception to count.”

        There is that too. It’s not for science nor religion to rob us of personal experiences, tastes, and opinions. It can be hard to trust yourself though, when I do believe I was wrong about some pretty big things. At the same time, without a religion to pre-frame my opinion for me, I do have my personal experiences to take as a starting point rather than my (more generic) beliefs.

        One of the things I disliked most about writing papers for college was that examples and anecdotes were disregarded/frowned upon whereas I really liked to add them, if only to build a richer story. It does make it more personal and easier to relate to or to explain arguments sometimes.

        “May we both find courage in our efforts to learn to distinguish the difference.”

        Hear, hear.

        Reply
  2. Kindred Spirits

    re: “However, I would like to have actual proof of God if He/She/It truly exists. It sounds strange when compared to the humor claim (as that is about experiencing it for yourself), but my personal experiences with God no longer count as proof for me. I don’t believe they were real anymore: they happened but it was all in my head.”

    One aspect of the story I really liked was that it made looking for the wrong thing quite obvious. And I think that’s the problem with fundamentalist religion – they’re looking for God in the “inerrant” Bible, but the Bible is actually based on the subjective writings and subjective selection of those writings and selective interpretation of those writings, all by others. Without understanding the process that produced their allegedly inerrant Bible, they are simply looking for the wrong thing the wrong way.

    As for proof of God — which God? Recall the Karen Armstrong quote in an earlier post (Part 3 of the series) about how God didn’t really exist as an external reality. Looking for that God will send you looking in a very different place than the God the fundamentalists are looking for.

    Lots of people use the same word, God, and yet mean very very different things by it. In fact, much of this series is really an exploration of what different people mean by “God,” and if any of those meaning might have a bit of truth to them. Alas, many people’s ideas of God are pegged to the notion of the Fundamentalists, and it’s viewed as a binary choice — believe in the fundamentalist god, or be an atheist, there is no other choice. The fact that it’s perfectly acceptable to believe in a radically different sort of God than the fundamentalists seems to be left off the table.

    I’ve read that about 30% of the population has had some sort of mystical experience. I believe the phenomenon is real, ie, people aren’t making it up. However, that does not mean that whatever insights they get are true, or complete, or that therefore the entirety of their religious texts are completely true.

    I’ve read a few people’s experiences, and they’re often pretty generic, ie, “a feeling of peace,” “feeling of being loved by the universe,” etc. Hardly an endorsement of literal 6 day creation. Furthermore, the experiences are usually grounded in the religious culture they’re in, ie, Christians in Christian nations have visions of Jesus, not Krishna, not Mohamed, not Vishnu.

    If you’ve watched the 3 hr “The Big Silence” documentary (from part 6), several of the participants had some sort of mystical experience.

    And coming up in a future post, (part 8) is someone who was not Christian who had an out-of-body experience that at the time she thought was astral projection.

    Reply
    1. Melody

      I believe the experiences are, or at least feel, real-definitely to the people themselves-but wouldn’t call it God anymore. Just a beautiful meaningfull and spiritual experience that people then attach to their beliefs or world view, trying to make sense of it and give extra religious meaning to it. I’m on the fence if the experiences are really real, or that they perhaps will in time be explained as certain brain processes. There seems to be some evidence for this, something about temporal lobe occurrrences, but it is just as likely that some of these phenomenons will at one point have a more tangible explanation outside of ourselves. We didn’t know the earth was round for a long time, we didn’t know bacteria existed for a long time either, perhaps these things will be explained in time as well. I’m rather curious for that to be honest.

      I used to believe in the innerant Bible, six day creation, the whole shebang and that is why I made the choice, or was persuaded and convinced to flip to the other side, i.e. atheism. Agnostic atheism to be precise. I believed in this God that was over-involved in people’s lives. Every single one of our lives. Now I don’t think such a god exists.

      Because of that background where Gods are real beings that are very powerful and present, I won’t call anything God anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t think people cannot have spirtitual experiences, they can and they do. And some of them call this God, and some of them don’t. I wouldn’t call it that anymore, I’d call it a powerful numinous or spiritual experience which can be very important for someone personally.

      That’s also where the crux is for me, I think. There is a huge difference between having personal experiences and calling them God and finding them very precious for oneself or making these experiences some sort of textbook rule for everyone else and turning it into dogma.

      “Alas, many people’s ideas of God are pegged to the notion of the Fundamentalists, and it’s viewed as a binary choice — believe in the fundamentalist god, or be an atheist, there is no other choice. The fact that it’s perfectly acceptable to believe in a radically different sort of God than the fundamentalists seems to be left off the table.”

      I agree. The third option is just as valid and is very different from the other two. It is not for me personally but it provides a way of believing in a god and being open to spiritual things without the bagage of a faithsystem with enshrined dogma’s. It gives answers (or has a space for them) to things science (yet) cannot and is more open to an other kind of experience, more mystical, that atheism isn’t always open to (though sometimes it is, like Sam Harris’s work shows.)

      This is getting a bit long, however, I had some spiritual experiences myself and I saw them as proof of the Christian God. I still had these experiences even if I don’t see them as proof for the Christian God anymore. That means I don’t exactly know what these were, but I have (in my own particular case) an idea for at least some of them. Dissociation. A feeling of sereness and detachment from the world, and a feeling of being carried somehow by a larger force. A feeling of not being in your body, but only in my head, or slightly outside of it, or of being in something else for a while (like your soul being transported into an object for a short while.) I’ve had some trauma in my past and dissociation is a survival tool for that: one that especially children can get very good at. It is a mixed blessing as it can help you survive but also causes alienation from yourself, the world and your body.

      Reply
      1. Kindred Spirits

        Sorry about your traumatic experiences.

        Like you, I don’t use the word God much, as I don’t personally find it very useful. However, I pay much more attention to how other people use the word God, to understand what they mean by it. I’ve found various people throughout history that use it a way that I could agree with. Alas, those people are relatively rare, and I haven’t found any organization that has a substantial number of people like that. Hence, I’m not likely to join any particular spiritual movement or group.

        My hunch is that the major religions and branches of major religions are founded by someone with mystical experiences (eg, Jesus, Buddha, George Fox), and then later followers and political manipulators turn it into dogma and a tool for control.

        Also, it seems many assume that a mystical experience confirms far more of their assumptions about the world than I believe the experience does. Somehow, these mystical experiences don’t make everyone who has them come to the same conclusions about God and the universe, despite them frequently giving a feeling of “oneness” to the one who experienced it.

        Also, I suspect that these religious symbols and mythology develop in civilizations spontaneously, and are ways to program our subconscious indirectly, since we can’t directly reach the subconscious. (More about mythology in future posts on Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, probably posts 12 & 13, with additional stuff about how the brain works from McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, even later.)

        Reply
        1. Melody

          “My hunch is that the major religions and branches of major religions are founded by someone with mystical experiences (eg, Jesus, Buddha, George Fox), and then later followers and political manipulators turn it into dogma and a tool for control.”

          That reminds me a bit of The True Believer where mass movements are analyzed, both religious and ideological. It begins with visionaries and ideas, but at some point the organizers and power brokers come into play and the original founders may lose influence in their own movement. Often the ideals get tossed aside or corrupted as well.

          I think it is one of the reasons why I find some things that Jesus said still worth listening too while no longer accepting Christianity as the one truth. Republican Jesus is not a very Biblical one after all: he told people to give all their money away for one thing 😉 which, granted, is not the soundest advice either yet is very far away from money hoarding and the prosperity gospel.

          “Also, it seems many assume that a mystical experience confirms far more of their assumptions about the world than I believe the experience does. Somehow, these mystical experiences don’t make everyone who has them come to the same conclusions about God and the universe, despite them frequently giving a feeling of “oneness” to the one who experienced it.”

          People try to fit it into their existing narrative which is already religiously colored. So, for instance, a wise woman in a vision may become Mary for a Catholic but can represent mother Earth for someone else.

          I remember that when I read that Hindus experienced a same kind of feeling as I had when they were in contact with their god(s), I found this unsettling. The same when I read that someone who deconverted described this as liberating, freeing and other conversion-like language. These stories were so similar to things that Jesus gave (and was suppose to have the patent on) that it made me wonder and doubt the truth of my own beliefs. Other Christians (in the article on the Hindus) immediately called it the Devil being able to mimick God’s powers etc. etc. but it made me doubt. This whole the Devil can do the same felt like an easy way to dismiss any valid argument and that seemed unfair to me.

          So if people had similar experiences in other (at that moment perceived by me to be false religions) what did it say about the truth claims of my own? Anecdotes like this got me thinking and wondering and eventually got me out of fundamentalism.

          Reply
          1. Kindred Spirits

            re: “The True Believer”

            Have you read the book? I haven’t read it, or read a summary of it, but I’ve seen references to it a number of times. I think it probably fits into the topic of this series really well.

            re: “People try to fit it into their existing narrative…” plus your own recognition of other religions having similar experiences to you

            Confirmation bias, and other tricks our own brains play on us coming up in posts 9 & 10…. (Wait, don’t answer yet, there’s MORE!!! I feel like a midnight infomercial with all the “coming soon to a theatre near you” comments, but all these topics seem quite interrelated and you can’t talk about all of them at once, so it has to be spread out somehow.)

  3. Melody

    re: The True Believer

    I haven’t finished it yet but have read parts of it. It’s a pretty good read, short paragraphs but very insightful. He describes the appeal of mass movements and why some people are (more) attracted to them. He adresses what the movement brings the followers but also describes how the movements rise (and fall). Visionaries are needed at the start but social organization is quickly needed as well. I think would fit well with the series.

    re: similar religious experiences

    Looking forward to your posts on conformation bias. The topics are really interrelated, which also makes it so interesting 🙂

    Reply
  4. anotherami

    I want to thank you for writing this series and Bruce for posting it. While I have always known that I did not see faith the same way as many, this “American Jesus” who loves guns, preaches ostentatious prosperity and ultra-nationalism and “hates foreigners” (but only the brown ones, apparently) is not only unknown to me, he is anathema to me. It is why I have ceased to call myself Christian; that label is tainted beyond use for me. But it has left me struggling to both define my faith and understand its role in my life. I do know it is my faith that calls me to be a better person, not out of some misguided fear of hell or desire for heaven. but because I honestly believe the principles I follow represent a better way. I know I see Jesus as an example and my spiritual brother, not as the answer (as a billboard near my house claims) and my Lord. The Jesus I have followed would want a hug from me, not my obeisance.
    To you, Bruce, and all the commenters on this blog, who have provided touchstones and a sense of community along what continues to be a difficult segment of my journey through this life, my deepest heartfelt gratitude.

    Reply
  5. Kindred Spirits

    Glad you both are enjoying the series, as that encourages me to spend the time needed to turn the rough outline I have into the more detailed posts.

    Reply

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