The patterns of AI in the stuff of the future.

There’s a fascinating interview of Max Tegmark, a prominent physicist now focussing on artificial intelligence research, by Sam Harris (the well known atheist neuroscientist), broadly on the future of AI, in particular once it reaches the point of producing a generalised intelligence at least equal to that of humans.

There are too many points of interest for me to extract those and save you from the recommendation that you listen to the podcast, but a few points stood out to me.

Firstly, Max has apparently pretty much the same view as I have about ontology (i.e. the study of what is actually there at the most fundamental level); he even uses the same language as I’ve been doing. I suppose that as we are both physicists at root, this is not as surprising as it might seem (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read what I write, and I’ve not read anything he’s written!) There is “stuff”, and there is pattern, and pattern is not heavily dependent on the stuff which bears the pattern – as he puts it, pattern is substrate-independent. He points out that wave equations later adapted to describe fundamental particles were originally developed in fluid mechanics; the mathematics describes this class of patterns (which happen to be dynamic patterns) irrespective of whether they are in water or in, say, the electromagnetic spectrum.

He moves rapidly from there to discussing how AIs of the future are likely not to be using electrons in solid state systems, they could be in something entirely different – but the patterns will be transferrable, and in the process mentions that in IT there is one basic element, the NAND gate, which he likens to synapses in the human brain. However, of course, you can construct a NAND gate out of all sorts of “stuff”…

The bulk of the interview is about how we might control intelligences we create which could be far greater than our own intelligence, but there are many directions in which they could have gone but didn’t. Can we hope, sometime, to upload the pattern which is “us” to a computer, and thereby defeat death, or at least the limited lifespan of our biological substrate? Mention was made of the fact that the best chess player is now not a computer, after the famous defeat of Gary Kasparov, but a human-computer team, which Max calls an “android” – probably correctly, as it is a human-machine combination. Might we augment ourselves and become amalgams of human and machine? (As I get older, I would very much appreciate some memory augmentation, perhaps a few terabytes…)

What, morally, is our position regarding a machine with a generalised intelligence greater than ours? Is it morally acceptable for it to be effectively a slave? (There is some discussion of this, but by no means exhaustively). If not, will we see a situation, as Sam and Max discuss, of the superhuman intelligence being, in effect, in the position of an adult surrounded by young children, unable to make decisions as good as the adult?

If I have one overwhelming worry about this prospect (and it is closer than we might think – the self-driving car is already with us, the military are playing with machines which may, Bond-like, have a “licence to kill”, and the cheapest calculators can perform calculations many times faster than even the fastest human, giving a glimpse of what the situation might be were their “intelligence” generalised rather than restricted to arithmetic), it is that we are biological systems, and as such have emotions – and emotions are what founds most of our moral behaviour (as well as some of our most immoral). Without emotion, can an artificial intelligence ever be trusted to make good moral decisions? I worry about that; my long period of depression, which ended in 2013 (deo gratias!) ended up in a state of anhedonia, in which, broadly, I did not feel emotions. I could assess what would happen if I did something fairly well – my computing power wasn’t seriously damaged – but I couldn’t make a decision as to whether actually to do it or not because there was no emotional charge giving me this instead of that course of action. Even the prospect that the action would damage me, perhaps kill me (or others), had no emotional charge – it was a matter of indifference whether I were injured, or in pain, or dead in the future.

I got through that period by following a set of rules, largely “act as if” rules. Others did not get damaged, other than perhaps emotionally, and I got damaged relatively little and am still here to write about it. But it could so easily have been different.

Would a super-AI have the same problem? If so, we would want there to be VERY strong “rules” imbedded at an early stage to avoid disaster.

But then, I took much the same view when raising children…

The maddening thing about Mysticism

… is, firstly, that it is possible that it might literally drive you mad. Karen Armstrong records in her autobiography the discovery that her own powerful mystical experiences emanated from her suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Peter Rollins identifies the collapsing of the boundary between self and other as being characteristic of psychosis and Robert Sapolsky talks in his Stanford lecture on the neurobiology of religion about shamans clearly suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

Granted, those instances serve to show that people with certain conditions commonly considered as “mental illness” also sometimes have what appear to be mystical experiences, not that having mystical experiences can lead to mental disorders. My own peak mystical experiences did not stem from any of the “usual suspects” among mental illnesses, and I don’t seem to have developed any of those conditions in the nearly 50 years since my first such experience.  In fairness, however,  I have since developed diagnosed depression and anxiety, neither of which is linked with mysticism as such, though the “dark night of the soul” talked of by some mystics looks a bit like depression. So, perhaps, you can chalk up “might lead to profound depression” as a “maddening thing”.

But that is to take the title far too literally, and in religion, a literal leaning is a dangerous thing (to quote Dennis Norden, who was not talking about religion…).

The thing which tends to madden other people about mysticism is the apparent inability of mystics to talk in nice, simple to understand, concrete terms about their experiences. As Peter Rollins also says, mystics tend to be “slippery”; there’s a tendency to say something and then say “but it wasn’t like that”. Eastern traditions perhaps do it better, with “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” and “What is the Buddha nature? The sound of one hand clapping”.  I can cheerfully talk about experiencing being nothing and everything at the same time (and no synthesis seems available) and say that that was being “one with God”, so God is all and nothing simultaneously as well (side note – most mystics could cheerfully say “I and my father are one” were it not for an anticipation of straightjackets these days or impromptu bonfires in times past, without claiming to be a person of the trinity…).

Believe me, mystics find it maddening as well, or at least this one does, and not a few others have written about the difficulty of putting into words what is an ineffable experience.

I should clarify here that I am really talking of the full blown, falling off your horse version of the experience. Lesser versions, which I tend to refer to as having “an edge” of the full experience can be described much more easily; Peter Rollins refers to mystical experience as “oceanic”, which would be a good description of the edge – but not of the full spectrum experience. I do not remotely decry the “edge” experience – it is very good in and of itself, and has served well to assuage my feeling of needing the full version for long periods of time.

The full experience has only come to me on a very limited number of occasions, and while I’ve written of it that it is “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, that is pretty faint praise of something which, when it originally happened to me, changed me utterly and dictated a course of living which I’ve adhered to ever since, as best I could. It’s sufficiently good that many people have given over their lives to its pursuit, sometimes walling themselves up in small cells, sometimes taking themselves off into the desert, sometimes squatting on pillars. The edge is something which you can actually experience while, for instance, walking down the road or doing the dishes, while the full spectrum would result in you walking into lamp posts or needing a new set of crockery.

So another problem, which could madden at least an outsider, is that mysticism pursued vigorously can leave you pretty useless to humanity generally.

The full spectrum version can also be intensely scary – another “maddening thing”. If the overpowering impression of having your “self” extinguished, ground into nothingness in relation to the immensity of all that is were not sufficient, it also not infrequently includes a taking stock of what has gone before – a little like the suggestion that when you die, your whole life flashes past your eyes. My best imagery for it from Christian sources would be that you are judged on the spot, with as much of the attendant hellfire and brimstone as your subconscious has internalised (to me, the Last Judgment is today, yesterday and every other day in history, though most of us aren’t summoned on a regular basis). Relatively few people of my acquaintance are anxious to sit before the Judgment Seat of the Lord today (rather than at some point in the future) – though I can also attest that it comes with a side-order of complete acceptance and forgiveness, at least in my case. Even then, however,  there is an imperative to restore anything damaged by your actions – and I am not fond of making grovelling apologies or striving to repair things which may actually be irreparable. Having your faults and wrongs “burned out of you by fire” is not comfortable.

So there’s also a concealed price. It’s a little as if the best experience I could wish for someone was ringed with electrified barbed wire – you can, perhaps, reach in and grasp it, but you’re likely to end up shocked and torn up a fair amount as well.

Lastly, despite my best endeavours over many years, I can’t turn to you and say “do this and you will definitely have a peak mystical experience”; I can point to many contemplative traditions and say “these give you a very fair chance of having an oceanic experience (a lesser mystical experience) if you stick with them long enough”, but the full spectrum experience? No, that seems obstinately to be an “out of the blue” occurrence with little or no rhyme or reason about why it happens when it does.

And that maddens me, and has maddened quite a few people to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about mysticism as well.

Believe me, if I knew how it happened, I’d be encouraging everyone to give it a try, even with caveats about electrified barbed wire!

Timings at Lincoln – pushing boundaries

I spent Thursday and Friday at the excellent Timings event in Lincoln. I just couldn’t resist the prospect of hearing (and hopefully meeting in the flesh) Rob Bell and Peter Rollins; there was a third speaker, Roger Bretherton, of whom I hadn’t heard – but how could he be bad when in that company?

And indeed, he wasn’t bad in the slightest, except perhaps in Michael Jackson language. He’s a psychologist who is also a reasonably well-known Christian . I probably actually learned more from him than from the two speakers I’d actually gone to see – but then, I’ve followed both of them online for ages, bought their books and had a pretty good idea of much of their material. With Roger, I had no idea.

His first talk went into character strengths (as opposed to character flaws, which he said psychologists were more typically interested in), and involved audience participation. We were asked to pick someone in the audience we didn’t already know and who was preferably somewhat “high risk” and talk to them, first about a success we’d had, then about a failure – and in each case, identify in the other’s story character strengths (or in the second case, excess of them…). I have to thank Graham for being my “threatening other” – he’s pretty unthreatening, but I was in a room of 100 or so people I didn’t know, and ALL of them were threatening. For readers who don’t know, I score very high on tests for introversion, and on top of that have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and groups of people are a particular problem. I was always going to have difficulties – but as Roger shared from his own experience of debating Richard Dawkins, it wasn’t that courage won out (he doesn’t think he’s particularly courageous, and I’m certain I’m not) but that intellectual curiosity was just stronger than the fear, at least initially.

I think experimental psychologists are frustrated torturers (think of the Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment) – just joking – but was the sudden loud music with a countdown and flashing images on screen towards the end of each segment of that interaction REALLY necessary? I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time, and felt colossally pressured.

It may be, however, that that experience engaged another feature of courage (which he later focused on, together with humility, the subject of the clip I linked to); if you’ve done something once, it’s easier doing it again. Thursday evening I went looking for people who were going to be meeting in an unspecified restaurant on Brayford waterside, and saw a couple of people I vaguely thought might be doing the same thing and walked up to them and asked – and they were, and so I got to meet James and Sarah, both of whom I expect to be talking with on the internet in the future now, and another four people who recognised one or the other of them. We never did link with the main speakers, who it turned out had arrived slightly later and holed up in another restaurant two doors along from the Prezzo we ate in, but it was really good listening to them and getting to know them a bit – more listening than talking, though, as a group of 7 is getting a bit large for my comfort!

Even so, I was feeling particularly fearful on waking up on Friday morning and realising I was going to need to do it all again, and got a pep talk from my wife on the phone to encourage me to jump in again. I’m very glad I did, because I got to talk to Rob Bell a little and Peter Rollins and Roger rather more.

So, Roger’s second talk delved into the dangers of too little or too much of the various character strengths he’d introduced, and in particular the fact that people perform at their best in a band which falls between too little and too much courage, where they are relatively comfortable – but they are, from research, at their absolute best when they’re just pushing at (and sometimes a little beyond) the point where they’re uncomfortable (and fearful). And it occurred to me that that’s exactly what I’d been doing for the whole event, pushing a little beyond the envelope where I was comfortable.

My psych people (who I haven’t now seen for some years) would be really pleased with me!

However, I also pushed the envelope of how much walking and uncomfortable sitting I could comfortably manage, and pushed it a lot further… my physiotherapist is going to be a lot less pleased when I see her on Tuesday.

Oh, and yes, I am now suffering from an introvert hangover – but I’d do it all again anyway in a flash!

Shattering the chandelier

One of my guilty pleasures is the blind auditions of “The Voice”. I’m less struck on the rest of the show, but the unseen singer and the chairs turning (or not) is a magic formula.

Saturday night saw the first blind audition of this year which I’ve thought truly exceptional (OK, most of the other acts this year I’d have turned my chair for, none of the judges liked…). The singer was Kevin Simm, once of Liberty X (which seems to have escaped my notice). I was sufficiently struck by his performance to want to listen to it again, and then to do a little digging about the song, which also had escaped my notice, apparently in 2014, written and recorded by the Australian singer Sia.

It more or less immediately occurred to me that the subject of the song lent itself to the more emotional (and painful) rendering which Kevin gave it than the electropop of the original; that wasn’t, I found, original to Kevin, as Jordan Smith had also got a four-chair turn with the song on The Voice America. However, reflection and some research indicated that perhaps Sia had seen it as ironic, which was borne out by the fact that one critic is recorded as saying that the song made him want to “swing from the chandelier”. The rest of the critics mostly seem to have recognised it for the rather dark piece it is.

” Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything, when will I learn / I push it down, push it down / I’m the one “for a good time call” / Phone’s blowin’ up, ringin’ my doorbell / I feel the love, feel the love”, then the refrain

” 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / Throw ’em back, till I lose count /
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier / I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist…”

then “But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes / Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight”. Feeling dreadful and shameful in the morning, and then “1,2,3,1,2,3…” Rinse and repeat.

Aside from the fact that by the time I got myself into a cycle like that, there was no swinging from the chandelier, just an ability to function somewhat normally for a while (and the period kept decreasing), I recognise this all too well. It’s about a slide into alcoholism, with a strong note of desperation. There’s the wanting to stop negative feelings there, the having to put on a front for the world, the suppressed misery and above all the feeling of helplessness and inevitablility all distilled into what are really very few lyrics – it’s extremely well crafted. And in the song, it’s decorated by soaring voice on the word “chandelier”, particularly beautifully sung by Mr. Simm (who deserves to do very well in the rest of the series).

That was some years ago now, and although I keep the memory alive through 12 step meetings, it’s usually very muted – “we shall not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”. This song, which has stuck in my brain as what we refer to as an “ear-worm” removes the muting, and makes the experience of 10-12 years ago vivid again. Though, unlike the critic, it doesn’t make me want to swing from the chandelier, more to run and hide from anything remotely like that. For the twelve-steppers, more like “1,2,3, don’t drink”.

The memory is still painful, it seems. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But please can the song stop running through the back of my mind for a while?

Supernatural or not?

I’ve had much the same kind of question asked of me a few times recently. In essence, it’s “Chris, you don’t believe in the supernatural, so how can you be a Christian?”

This tends to come up which someone puts to me that, in order to be a Christian, I have to believe that some supernatural event either took place or will take place (usually the first). It is, I’m sorry to say, completely beyond me to say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event actually happened. That said, I also can’t say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event didn’t or couldn’t happen. I am, strictly speaking, agnostic on the subject, though I have a powerful tendency against seeing supernatural causes for things.

This is because I am methodologically naturalistic. That’s a mouthful, but what it means is that where anything happens, I look for naturalistic explanations, explanations which rest on the operation of established scientific principles. Almost every Christian I know tends strongly to do the same; OK, I did hear a preacher recently who claimed to have tried to walk on water, buoyed up by God’s power (he failed, on his account), but very few people of my acquaintance would try this with even a remote expectation of success. Most think that the popular story of the man caught in a flood quite reasonably justifies methodological naturalism even if you believe that God just might intervene (and I agree).

Where I perhaps start parting company with some more conservative Christians is that where I cannot find a plausible naturalistic explanation for some event, I assume that there actually is some naturalistic explanation, it’s just that either I’m not clever enough to figure it out or there is some feature of reality which science hasn’t yet found an explanation for, but might in principle. The figures aren’t as much with me there as in the previous case, but I think probably a majority of the Christians I know take pretty much that view except when considering miracles in the Bible. They would, for instance, take exactly the same view as I do when considering an account drawn from Judaism other than in the Bible (say the story of the Oven of Akhnai), but still hold that Jesus actually multiplied the loaves and fishes.

Then  there’s the case of events for which there’s definitely a naturalistic explanation, but which seem to people to be coincidental beyond the bounds of expectation. There, a majority of the Christians I know tend to talk of God guiding events, and I reserve my position, because I know too much about human tendencies to detect patterns in the random (hyperactive agency detection) and other cognitive biases. I notice, for instance, that the same people who detect the hand of God where something good happens to them very often don’t detect the hand of God where something bad happens, though some I know tend to identify those as the work of Satan.

Actually, the concept that God is not an agent in the world is a lot more respectable than many of my questioners might think. Formal scholastic Catholic thinking, for instance, as well as being keen on Aquinas’ for proofs of (the existence of) God, also decided that “exist” was the wrong concept to use of God, as it argued that God was a part of creation rather than the creator. I happen to disagree with Aquinas’ five proofs and the Catholic insistence on God’s complete otherness, but they do represent theological orthodoxy on the point. How miracles could actually happen on this basis rather escapes me, however, as a completely separate God would seem to have no mechanism to effect miracles!

Going back to the question of naturalistic phenomena for which science does not as yet have a viable explanation, I’m open to possibilities. Indeed, back in my youth I spent a lot of time exploring such concepts as astrology, astral projection, telepathy and telekinesis – I was, after all, 15 in the year when the musical “Hair” proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the New Age movement was becoming popular, and having just had a peak mystical experience which scientific naturalism didn’t have any good description or explanation of. I was, however, looking for evidence that the phenomena occurred, and trying to develop naturalistic concepts of how they did (if they did).

The snag is, I ended up with the conclusion that none of these things actually works, at least not in any remotely reliable manner. Not, at any event, in any place other than the consciousness of the person who is trying to do things; there, some New Age concepts can definitely have profound effects. I say this with one caveat; there is, I think, a small possibility that some of these may operate if and only if all the people involved fervently believe that they will (this would mean that they would probably not operate if any sceptical observer were involved). I think this unlikely, given that an “all believer” audience will be prone to detect what they expect irrespective of whether it has in fact happened, but I cannot rule out the possibility.

That said, I have personally experienced what I interpret as God breaking down the resistance of a very sceptical individual with no belief in any such thing as the supernatural, let alone God, and providing a set of insights; this was what happened in my first peak mystical experience. I have also experienced (due to a large amount of experimentation in my younger days) the apparent fact that certain techniques can improve the likelihood of such peak experiences happening, including certain forms of prayer and meditation (which I recommend); so can things such as sleep deprivation and temporary anoxia, and certain drugs (which I do not recommend).

Was this a “supernatural” occurrence? I don’t know. I have gone over the circumstances of my first such experience in detail with doctors, psychologists and several ardent sceptics, and we cannot identify a cause from within any of those science has identified a mechanism for. I had done nothing to facilitate such an experience and didn’t desire one, having no conception that that was a possibility. No drugs were involved, I was neither sleep-deprived, anoxic or stressed and electromagnetic stimulation was easily ruled out. I was not epileptic or schizotypal (or any of the other potential neuropsychological candidates). That leaves us with either an as yet unidentified physical (or neurological) cause or supernatural intervention.

In passing, I can’t really do more experimentation, as all repetitions of the experience have followed a lot of work conditioning my mind and practising prayer and meditation, so might well result from that rather than from whatever the cause of the original experience was. I can say, however, that I have not found it possible to “force” a full-bodied repetition – those are few and far between and seem to be “out of the blue” as well. I think the evidence is that certain practices improve the likelihood, however, and therefore recommend prayer and meditation without any note of caution (and anything else with considerable caution).

Of course, if God is conceived of as fundamentally supernatural, it was clearly a supernatural experience. However, one feature of what was an extremely self-verifying experience was that God was radically immanent, i.e. all things were at the least permeated by God to the very smallest and very largest scales, and probably all things could be regarded as being part of God as all fixed boundaries appeared capable (at least) of dissolution; I was a part of this, and all other things were also parts of it. If that is a true insight, then God is in any event able in principle to act through everything that is, including (of course) the material, if one assumes that there is anything which is not material in and of itself.

I therefore, on balance, think that there was some mechanism the details of which are not clear to me (though one of my atheist friends said it must have been a “brain fart”). It is, of course, possible that this mechanism was God (whether supernatural or immanent) deciding to do this. Another facet of the experience was that God had at least some aspects of what I understand as being a person.

I think it reasonable to point out that most people who believe in a supernatural God also believe that God acts in rational ways, and develop theologies which, probably non-accidentally, have an objective of being able to predict what God will do in any particular circumstance. This, it seems to me, is almost imperceptibly different from me seeking to establish by what mechanism this occurred. We are all, in one sense, trying to psychoanalyse God. There are plenty of scriptures to indicate both that one shouldn’t do that and that it won’t work, including Isaiah 55:8, the whole of Ecclesiastes and the last portion of Job.

These, indeed, illustrate my problem; I do not know how anyone else can experience something akin to my peak experiences (and I would dearly like more people, and preferably all people, to be able to – these have been by far the best experiences of my life), and if this all does indicate a God who is acting as an agent and can break into the minds of humans at will, why does this not happen more often?

This does, however, leave me with the conclusion that God acts in the world, in all probability, only by influencing the minds of His creatures.


Depression, the system of Satan and the Devil’s evangelism

My Small Group has been doing the Jeff Lucas series “Elijah, Prophet at a Loss”, and I got to lead the last session recently.

First, a few words about the series. On the whole, it’s pretty reasonably constructed and at least intended to leave those leading sessions fairly little to do. It takes a standard evangelical approach to scripture, but there is material on which you can base excursions beyond that. There are four sessions, and each then has five days worth of short readings and bible passages, plus a prayer. Jeff writes rather good short prayers. I do worry that having five readings after the last actual session doesn’t allow a neat conclusion, though (especially given the tendency of groups to “do their homework” if at all, the day before the next session…).

However, the series only deals with Elijah’s earlier career, and ends with an episode where he becomes completely dis-spirited, so the last session material deals with depression, stress and burnout. In fact, I added some material at the end of the session to underline a more upbeat trajectory from Elijah’s later story and his reputation in Judaism and as referred to in Mark 8:27-8 (inter alia).

The “icebreaker” question for the session involves drawing a picture representing your worst fear. I elected to just ask people to share, suspecting rightly that the group would balk at drawing, but even that was, it proved, asking for more disclosure than many were happy with.

And, of course, I was completely targeted (I’m assured, and I believe, that knowledge of my history was not in anyone’s minds when allocating that session to me, which makes it one of those coincidences which either reality or a hyperactive pattern recognition tends to interpret as a guiding hand). I’m the only member of the group who has suffered a major clinical depression (or debilitating stress, or burnout), so I had a story to share, and I’m a twelve stepper, so I’m not unused to sharing my story.

Now, whether Elijah, in the story, was actually suffering a major clinical depression or merely a depressive episode is uncertain. It was, in the account, fairly short, but did involve a loss of hope and a wish to die (I spent six and a half years telling myself “Just for today, I will not kill myself” and hope, as a positive emotion, was entirely beyond my comprehension at the time). Jeff Lucas has clearly not suffered even as serious a depression as Elijah, and while he tried hard to understand, he could really have done to listen to testimony from someone who has actually been there, like this TED talk from Andrew Solomon. Even better, he could have given a section of the video over to someone who had first hand knowledge. At least he didn’t suggest that some trivial prayer would inevitably cure depression, which I have heard far too many times, but I didn’t feel he communicated the potential severity of the condition, and neither did the group. However, there was, I think, good discussion. I was very glad that I’d prepared a more upbeat ending, though!

My greatest fear, as I explained to the group for the icebreaker, was that my depression might return. It’s not something I dwell on, but in low moments I do wonder if that might be happening, as my slide downwards was not something I really noticed at the time. That, of course, highlights the difference between low mood and depression; I can still have distinctly down times and not be remotely in the same place as clinical depression. Incidentally, I have found that a touch of prayer and meditation is good medicine for low mood!

As came to me in the course of our discussion about fears, however, is the fact that pre-depression (and all the stuff which contributed to it), my greatest fear was of being broke and jobless; eventually the depression resulted in me being both, and that fear has now been more or less eliminated. There’s a good chance that that’s actually because “the worst happened and I survived it”. Circumstances combined to put me in a place I couldn’t see a way to achieving by myself, as I couldn’t then and still can’t bring myself to follow the example suggested to the rich young man by Jesus. I had to have that done for me. That is, of course, a positive I can take from the experience – and rather than accept several years of “ruined time”, I want to find as much positive as I can in it!

I can link this with Elijah’s story at the point we looked at (1 Kings 19); Elijah flees, afraid of death at the hands of Jezebel, but then ends up disspirited and praying for death. Perhaps this was his equivalent of giving up his fear?

From where I stand now, this fear of economic catastrophe led to me being overly concerned for years with making money, latterly trying to make enough to be able to retire and not have to worry about money again in the future. If you look at an operational definition of my position, I was behaving as if money was my main objective in life, rather than spiritual progress or practical care for others, and if you behave as if something is your ultimate objective, you are worshiping it in fact even if not in theory. As the love of money is the root of all evil, and you cannot serve God and Mammon, although I was still trying to give practical care to others as well, in accordance with the social gospel, I can point to that period and say that I was operationally “worshiping strange Gods”, i.e. Mammon, as money frequently came first. I have described free market capitalism as the system of Satan, and I was thoroughly caught up in it. Certainly my spiritual praxis declined almost to nothing over the years against the background of this need to make money; I was by and large not stopping to seek moments of prayer and meditation, to become closer to God.

I can now ask myself if this idolatry of money was, in fact, a major contributing feature of the depression in the first place. However, there’s more. Although at the time our national social security system was not yet broken to the extent that makes unemployment and lack of capital a real demon, I felt that I had to achieve this by my own efforts; I was fiercely self-reliant and did not want to ask for or receive help from anyone else. This in itself was a turning from God; we are repeatedly told to rely on God for our basic needs (and not ourselves), including in the sentence “Give us this day our daily bread”. I was praying that frequently, but I was not really thinking of its full implications, nor those of “give no thought to tomorrow”.

As a last point, the fact that I was always conscious of not yet having enough money, fearing the lack of enough money to buy the basics of existence (Maslow’s lowest two levels at least, and possibly the third as well), made me a slave to work, and a more or less willing slave at that. In my case it was based on a lie I told myself, that I needed not only to have enough for today, but enough for the rest of my life. It wasn’t that I felt that I needed a lot of new stuff all the time, what I wanted was not just to have enough today, but enough forever. However, I look at advertising, which is generally calculated to make you feel that you need stuff you in fact don’t, and consider that it is trying to make us all slaves to money. We are encouraged to have more and more, newer and newer. And we don’t need it – in fact, the perception of that need is bad for us. You might describe it as the Devil’s evangelism.

Finally my thoughts have to turn to those people who don’t even have enough to fulfill the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, these days in a climate of “austerity” which seems to hit the poorest the most an increasing number, frequently people who actually work very hard, just at jobs which don’t pay enough for even basic requirements of life. They are not free, they are slaves. They have no option but to take such jobs (and, if they can get them, second jobs which give them some small hope of getting as far as Maslow’s third and fourth levels, but never the highest level), no option but to work extremely hard for nothing but a bare minimum.

I can say from my own experience that when you are enslaved this way, it is incredibly difficult to turn your attention to the top two levels proposed by Maslow. It’s very arguable that faith and spirituality are actually in the top level. It’s difficult to turn your attention to the third level, love and belonging, and one would hope that those are available through a church community.

I dream of a society in which Maslow’s two bottom levels are met for every one of us by our community, working as a whole (and that implies that we use the mechanism we have for operating our community, namely the State and lower levels of government). We are not too poor as a country to provide for everyone air, water, food,  and shelter (level 1) and personal and financial security, health care and care in the event of accidents (level 2), and to provide it as of right, provided by those of us fortunate enough to be able to make surplus money, and provided by us as an absolute obligation of living in a community which has some aspiration to be considered civilised, let alone one which is moving towards being the Kingdom of God on earth.

Let us, therefore, demand that government give up the system of Satan, and stop listening to the Devil’s evangelists.

Eternal conscious bull****

There is a nice piece at Unfundamentalist Christians about hell as “eternal conscious torment”. I agree with it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

The idea of Hell (assuming that Hell is not a mere rhetorical device, or even, perhaps, a metaphor for what an eternity separated from God might feel like – which is something which I might, perhaps, contemplate to be a viable possibility if, firstly, our consciousness, once created, cannot under any circumstances ever be destroyed and, secondly, if God has renounced any coercion to force a change of mind on us, and allows us freely to elect not to turn to Him and, thirdly, if there is any possibility that, given eternity, any consciousness would not so turn) is one which has been orthodox in Christianity for most of its history.

Incidentally, I do not think that the first and third of the provisoes above are correct, although I am reasonably confident that the second is at least largely correct. I say “reasonably confident” and “largely correct” on the basis that my personal history indicates that God will occasionally give the consciousness of even the most recalcitrant (i.e. the 14 years old evangelical atheist Chris) a good kicking to persuade it differently, but does not appear to have got round to doing the same to (for example) Richard Dawkins.

Let’s leave reformed theology on one side for a moment – given its insistence that God determines absolutely who is going to be saved and who damned without any reference to character, circumstances or effort, and therefore just creates humans destined for Hell – and concentrate on the rest of Christianity.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned. This, at least, is frequently quoted; I cannot as yet find an accurate reference to it in the Summa, however. Thomas was, no doubt, thinking of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which, taken literally and aside the real point of the parable (which is that some cannot be convinced by whatever evidence you  can conceive of), indicates that the saved in Heaven can see the damned in Hell. 

And that would make Heaven into eternal conscious torment for anyone who had lived their life trying to follow Jesus’ second Great Commandment, that you love your neighbour as yourself. He even went on to point out in the version recorded by Luke, using the parable of the Good Samaritan, that “neighbour” meant anyone, even your traditional enemy. Maybe not physical torment, but certainly mental.

I wonder how St. Thomas could have managed to ignore this absolutely basic tenet of his faith. Could he, I ask, have been basically a sociopath, setting out the rules by which things worked and pointing out that by following these, you would end up in a good place, irrespective of any human feeling (which sociopaths do not experience)? In the system described by him, indeed, success would go to the rational sociopaths – and that makes it look like a system of corporatist free market capitalism to me rather than the radically inclusionary kingdom of God preached by Jesus – and I have been known to describe corporatist free market capitalism as a Satanic system.

Could it have been that Thomas’ famed rationality had taken over to the point at which mere human feeling was far from him? If so, this is not the spirituality of Christianity, it is the spirituality of the Eastern traditions in which freedom from attachment is the highest aspiration, and freedom from attachment does, of course, mean an end to compassion. I will grant that the mystical ways of the East do have a tendency to produce this withdrawal from humanity in service of uninterrupted ecstatic contemplation of union with God. That has, in a way, been dangled before me as a possibility; I do not consider it one to be aspired to unless the rest of humanity can join me there, and that is a long way off, but perhaps Thomas was a mystic and was seduced by that promise himself. I don’t know. I prefer not to think of one of the greatest theologians of all time as a potential sociopath, or even someone prepared in the final instance to abandon his fellow men to agony, but that seems to be where the evidence leads.

Also, of course, the God whose fulness dwelt in Jesus, of whom Jesus was the most perfect expression, could not, would not, set up a system in which those favoured by him could be those who would look upon even the most evil of their fellows and relish their torment endlessly, without any hope of either annihilation or and eventual purgation and return to Him. If that is indeed the system which has been set up, the one responsible for it must be Satan rather than God, and I want nothing to do with him or his works.

OCD, TLE and Schizo theologians…

The inimitable Robert Sapolsky, in his younger days, gave a lecture on the biological underpinnings of religiosity. It’s fascinating for many reasons, but watch it at your peril, as it may seem to explain away your own spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology. Thus I feel impelled to comment immediately that just because neurobiology finds that certain psychological conditions which are commonly understood as abnormal tend to produce experiences which have typically been understood as spiritual does not necessarily invalidate them. This kind of argument is, indeed, one of those which Richard Beck seeks to correct in his book “The Authenticity of Faith”, which I strongly recommend to anyone who has a problem with this, or indeed with the outlooks of any of the “Masters of Suspicion”, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. All three of them had explanations of religion, which reduced it to something which could be regarded as an aberration; Beck shows, I think, that although all three might have some measure of truth in their views, they do not offer an adequate explanation of faith. Sapolsky brings the Freudian critique up to date…

One of the fascinating aspects is Sapolsky’s presentation of the case study of a young monk called Luder, who exhibits all of the symptoms of a fairly crippling degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He then remarks that this monk is more commonly known as Martin Luther. He does not, however, go on to comment much about Luther’s contributions to theology; however, it becomes immediately clear to any student of post-Luther theology that his concepts of personal inability to avoid sinning and of the natural state of man as being “incurvatus in se” (obsessively self-analysing) are exactly symptoms of OCD. Inability to avoid sinning links directly to the typical OCD conviction that one can never manage to wash enough to be thoroughly clean; I saw this at close quarters in my late mother-in-law, whose OCD was not particularly severe, but who would feel obliged to wash her hands ten or fifteen times where most of us would wash once, and in the process actually scrubbed off skin from time to time.

Now, I do not suffer from OCD. I have also not tended to find any real difficulty in following sets of rules, particularly given the fact that I don’t suffer from an obsessive tendency to reinspect what I’ve been doing and find it not good enough; OK, yes, I have some measure of that, but trained myself many years ago not to obsess about it, as that way leads to never getting anything done (I’ve blogged before about the perils of taking “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” literally…). I also haven’t since childhood suffered from a compulsion to test the boundaries of rules and regard something forbidden as therefore irresistibly attractive; I acquired a really rather strong impulse control by the time I was in my early teens, as did probably the majority of my acquaintances.

So when Luther, and Calvin on the back of his thinking, suggest that we cannot ever by our own efforts live in a way acceptable to God, I fail to understand them. Sapolsky has here opened my eyes to the fact that this line of thinking may well be just the result of a personal psychological quirk of Luther’s, which these days would be labelled as a personality disorder. I might suspect, although I have no clear evidence of it, that Calvin was afflicted to some extent by the same problem.

However, what about Paul? Luther based his thinking on Paul’s tortured reflections that he could not do good, even where he wished to; he would still find himself doing something bad. Now, there’s no real evidence that Paul suffered from OCD either, although I have always wondered what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been. There, Sapolsky’s lecture offers a couple of other possibilities – Paul’s account of his conversion experience could well have been an episode of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, or could have been a vision associated with a Schizotypal Personality Disorder. We can’t know for certain, but the mere fact that most adults I know don’t have significant problems in obeying sets of rules makes me think that Paul’s thinking was not what we’d now describe as normal (and no Orthodox Jews I know have problems following all of the 613 commandments which Judaism finds in the Torah, in contradistinction from Paul – indeed, they applaud the efforts of the Rabbis to make these even more restrictive).

I think it’s well worth bringing in another theological giant here, in the form of St. Augustine. Reading his “Confessions”, I could very readily find someone suffering from sex addiction (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), in addition to a distinct tendency to the Obsessive Compulsive. I ask myself if the whole history of the Church’s doctrine of original sin and it’s attitude to women has been based on one or more personality disorders suffered by it’s greatest theologian between Paul and Luther.

“Hold on a moment”, I might hear the reader ask, “haven’t you started with a caveat that just because an abnormal condition may have produced an experience doesn’t invalidate that experience, so why are you now saying that there’s a problem where abnormal conditions seem to have produced particular theologies?”. An understandable comment, so I need to distinguish between two different types of result we are seeing here. In the case of the “nobody can do good” and “everyone is obsessed with sex to the exclusion of any spiritual life” positions, these theologians are creating an anthropology out of their own experience; they are assuming that everyone is like they are, and that just isn’t the case.

In the case of visions which may be the product of TLE or Schizotypalism, there is no assumption that everyone else has the same visions, it is the content of the vision which the seer puts forward as containing a truth. That, incidentally, is seer as “the person who sees”, without any connotation of the content of the vision being validated, though typically visions in both cases have a strong component of self-validation to them.

As, indeed, do mystical experiences, and I would not be self-identifying as a panentheistic mystic Christian and writing this blog if I hadn’t had a set of self-validating mystical experiences. This leads to the obvious question “Were these the product of TLE or Schizotypalism?”. That is a question I asked myself shortly after the first such experience I had, which was an extremely rude shock for someone who was at the time a scientific-materialist evangelical atheist very much in the Dawkins mould (although this occurred before Dawkins had written anything much more than, perhaps, an undergraduate paper or two).

It was not TLE, as confirmed by my then doctor, to whom I expressed some worries (that visit also eliminated any environmental factors including drugs, exhaustion, pain and hypoxia as possible contributors – it was fairly thorough!). I was also not then suffering from any diagnosable Schizotypalism, nor have I since been diagnosed as such.

That said, I have scored fairly highly on Schizotypal in a self-test of “What personality disorder do you suffer from?” a little over 15 years ago, though in fairness it has proved in hindsight that I was at the time suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Depression and Chronic Anxiety, and possibly as a result of those (which the test didn’t disclose) I also tested fairly highly on every other personality disorder the test dealt with, with the exception of narcissism (on which I tested very low indeed). I do sort of fit Sapolsky’s criteria of loose associations (I love wordplay and odd associations) and social withdrawal (this may just be being an introvert) but I really don’t do metamagical thinking. I don’t tend to believe in strange things (in fact, some would argue that I don’t tend to believe in anything much at all, and I’d have some sympathy with that); out of Sapolsky’s selection of metamagical traits, OK, I like SF and fantasy, though I don’t take it immensely seriously, I don’t have much time for any New Age stuff and I don’t believe in UFOs, though I hold onto a gentle wish that telepathy worked (It would make some other theories I toy with much easier to deal with!) but finally, and most stridently, I really do not tend to concrete interpretations (i.e. fundamentalism) at all. So OK, I may be just a little bit of a shaman, but not really very much of one by Sapolsky’s set of signs.

Not, at least, if you look at the integral Chris. If I split myself down into the SR (scientific rationalist) and EC (emotional Chris) bits (see my “About” page), EC would be a lot more along the lines Sapolsky paints as schizotypal. EC does tend to black and white thinking, for instance, and has a lot more time for “strange things” than SR – my generally agnostic position on these represents a compromise between SR and EC. There is the distinct possibility that I have shoehorned into my brain a borderline schizotypal and a more or less passionless rationalist, who have worked out a modus vivendi. In passing, had I not had several years of extreme depression and anxiety, I would probably never have self-examined (or perhaps been able to self-examine) sufficiently to realise this – another instance of finding, in retrospect, some reason why those years were not entirely “ruined time”.

The question I eventually asked myself, both in the beginning and after that realisation, was “does it really matter?”. Karen Armstrong has written at some length about her own experiences in “Through the Narrow Gate” and “The Spiral Staircase”; she suffered from TLE, which gave her some extremely strong unitive mystical experiences similar in many ways to my own, but which she has continued to base her faith on. I do likewise. I can still entertain the possibility that my peak spiritual experiences may be the product of abnormal psychology (they certainly seem to be the products of unusual psychology, because relatively few people seem to have such powerful experiences of this kind), but they nonetheless  carried with them this colossal self-verification, somewhere within which is faith.

I entertain the possibility that the following analogy might hold good; I have a friend who, when he was younger and his eyesight better, could see the convergence of the Balmer series of the Hydrogen spectrum. This lies just outside the normal visible range, in the ultraviolet (those with normal vision can see the lines becoming progressively closer, but not the point where they merge and stop). His eyes were, clearly, abnormal – but this meant that he could see something real which was denied to the rest of us. On the other hand, a reader could well dismiss anything I report about spiritual experiences in the kind of terms an old atheist friend (a psychology professor) did after interrogating me to find what the trigger for the experience was, and finding nothing; he said it was a “brain fart”. Bless him!

Going back to the anthropological assumptions of Paul, Augustine and Luther, it is unfortunate that these have given us between them (with some assistance from a couple of mediaeval theologians) the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which is very dominant in Protestant thinking and has significant traction in Catholic; a significant number of Christians I know would say that this IS the story of salvation, and that that IS the gospel. I reject both suggestions on a number of grounds, but the one I present here is that the whole theory assumes an incorrect picture of human anthropology. By and large, we are quite capable of following a set of rules; this is, I think, a considerable consolation to many conservative Christians, who seem to have reduced following Jesus back to following a set of rules.

What we are not capable of, of course, is loving our neighbour as ourselves (which, in the spirit of affirmative action, really means loving our neighbours rather more than ourselves); we are not capable of doing that after our conversion experiences any more than we were before them, though we may well come a lot closer – and some of us manage to come very close indeed, as witness the “Little Way” of Therese of Lisieux. Incidentally, a brief look at her biography strongly suggests that she also suffered from OCD in some measure.

Some of us, I reluctantly conceded, may also not be capable of having, say, an intense peak unitive mystical experience; it may be that that is reserved for those with TLE or Schizotypalism in some measure. Some may not be capable of the kind of conversion experience which seems, in evangelical circles, to be thought of as the one and only way to become a Christian. I have certainly known quite a few people who would have loved to have such a conversion experience, and who put themselves in a position to have one as nearly as they could time after time, only to be disappointed, and I rather suspect that those who have first had a peak unitive experience are among them. Does it invalidate their experiences if some of us cannot share those?

I would hope that we do not think so; I would hope that instead, we can listen to the testimony of those who have had experiences we cannot share ourselves, and can take from that as much as we are able to. That’ of course, includes those eminent theologians who have been suffering from OCD or some other psychological “disorder”.

I have, however, pointed out one thing in previous criticisms of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and that is that there are some people, commonly people who have had particularly awful life experience, for whom no other concept of salvation seems to have any traction. I cannot find any comfort, any salvation, any link to God in this theology – but there are those for whom it is the only theology which can bring those things.

For them, I say, this is a valid way for you. Do not ask that it be a valid way for me. For me, mystical unitive experience is the valid way; I do not demand that it be the only way for you.


A religion for the extrovert?

Last Sunday, I heard a sermon in which was the comment “We have a sign on our door saying ‘No admittance except on party business'”. Had I heard it out of context, my first impulse would have been to walk up to the preacher’s house humming the Internationale.

However, the context was in a sermon around the theme of festivity; the encouragement was always to be in a state of communal celebration.

I’d prefer to be always in a state of cerebration. Actually, I mostly am in that state. The thing is, that isn’t because of any lack of wish to be happy or joyous – I’d love to be able to do that when in company with lots of others. The trouble is, I’m just not constructed that way.

On a Meyer-Briggs personality test, while three out of the four categories are ones which I have historically fallen on either side of the dividing line (I’m currently borderline between INTJ and INFJ, though I’ve occasionally registered as marginally S or P), I always register as an introvert, and where the test delivers a percentage, 85% is usual. This makes me really very introverted, such that contact with groups of people saps my energy quite quickly, and I need time alone to recharge (it’s the other way round for extroverts). As a quite separate issue, I’ve always tended towards social anxiety from an early age (and this isn’t always a characteristic of introverts, though they often go together) and for the last 20 years or so I’ve suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. The result of that is that in the presence of lots of people, particularly if it’s in an unstructured format, I feel ridiculously anxious and, truth be told, threatened. I can be in a group of old friends who pose no threat at all, and I still feel threatened.

This makes it extremely difficult for me to cope with communal celebration. In fact, it makes it impossible for me to enter fully into the spirit of the more free-form types of worship – the closer to charismatic things get, the less comfortable I become. That said, I currently attend an evangelical-charismatic Anglican church, which is a trial I put myself through every Sunday. I have reasons entirely unconnected with the style of worship for that, of course, but in addition I keep hoping that continual exposure will lessen the anxiety and allow me to be more festive, more celebratory in company.

In a previous post I mentioned that I seem immune to the forms of religious experience which are drawn from communal activity; while I suspect that having had a peak solitary mystical experience may have in effect burned into my psyche the pathways for that type of experience to the exclusion of others, a simpler explanation is that I’m very unlikely to have a significant religious experience when I’m very anxious (one of the things I find essential to the mystical contemplative path is the stilling of the mind and the emotions). Celebrations are loud and unpredictable and full of people, and all of those make me anxious.

The trouble is, I feel that this kind of exhortation from the pulpit is asking of me something I just can’t deliver, and making me feel that there’s something wrong with me – and this isn’t limited to church. Time and again I’ve found extroverts wondering why I shy away from large gatherings and encouraging me to be more outgoing, as if I were deliberately making a choice to be antisocial. I’ve become used to terms like “party-pooper”, “stick-in-the-mud” and “misery-guts”. It seems to me that the standard position of the extrovert is to think that everyone should be an extrovert, and if they aren’t either they’re deliberately being unpleasant or there’s something wrong with them. And it also seems to me that in order to be clergy in an evangelical setting, you have to be an extrovert.

And yet, as I understand it, around half the population are introverts rather than extroverts. Granted, I’m probably towards the maximum introversion consistent with actually functioning in society, but it seems to me that a church model which is going to make half the population uneasy and maybe ten to fifteen per cent acutely uncomfortable needs some thought, at the least.

So, why do I continue attending? Well, it seems that for the time being at least, this is where I can be most useful. Or, alternatively, this is where prayer has lead me, and it isn’t yet indicating going anywhere else. His ways are not our ways, it seems…

Faith -v- humility

A couple of weeks ago, my church had a sermon and a small group session revolving round humility. I have a problem with humility (and no, that isn’t the set up for a joke like “When you’re this near perfect, it’s hard to be humble” or “Humility is my greatest virtue”). I have a particular problem being humble about things I have faith in.

It seems to me that the church generally has a lot of difficulty with this too. My link is to an article which criticises fundamentalists for too rigid an attitude and for being unwilling to consider even for a moment that they are wrong, but liberals and progressives are also guilty of this – the “Malleus Progressivorum” series on Unsettled Christianity starts with a complaint that progressives in that church aren’t prepared to consider other points of view, and much as I dislike the current move by eight “Biblical” churches in Fountain Hills to criticise the one church in town which is progressive, a close reading of the background does show that a conservative, literalist viewpoint is one which would probably feel excluded at the Fountains UMC.

And I write that despite wanting to say “And the UMC are absolutely right there, and the eight conservative churches should be excoriated”. Because liberal and progressive are so much closer to my own beliefs than is any form of biblical literalism. More “my tribe”.

My ultimate reason for wanting to criticise, though, is the thesis they are putting forward that progressive Christianity is wrong, something which you cannot espouse and still be a Christian (with “saved” and “not destined for the everlasting bonfire” close behind in the case of the conservatives). I try very hard to consider that there can be other ways of thinking about things – in fact, my last blog post considered a theological point of view which my experience tells me forcibly is wrong (namely that God might be depressed); it’s a thought experiment, suspending disbelief for a while in order to explore a set of concepts.

Note here that while I said “faith” to start off with, I’m now using the term “belief”. That’s important. To me, faith is largely an emotional commitment (involving, for example, love and trust) which has relatively little to do with logical argument; belief is something which I arrive at by considering things rationally and deciding what, on balance, I think is most likely to be the position. I try to hold my beliefs lightly (hence thought experiments involving another set of beliefs) and, as I’m a scientist by training, my root position is that any belief I have can be challenged by contrary evidence, and that what I believe for the time being should be whatever is, on my rational estimation, the most likely concept to coincide with what a situation really is. This is, of course, why I have difficulty with any belief system which starts out by saying that I need to believe in supernatural events.

That said, an insistence that I believe in the supernatural is merely an insult to my rationality, and does not affect my faith. I can, for the sake of argument, adopt the position that supernatural events may occasionally occur – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that someone else feels that, for them, it is essential that they do. I am interested in why they may feel that way, and open to thinking, at least for a while, as if that position were correct. I like to think that, were I to be provided with some very good reasons for doing so, I might change my mind about the absence of supernatural factors in the world. In addition, when treated as a way of talking about things rather than a statement of truth, I’m fairly happy to talk supernaturalist – let’s face it, I sometimes talk about my computer as if (in animistic fashion) it had consciousness of its own (a mischievous and malevolent one, on the whole). It may even be that some part of my subconscious actually believes that it has – but, it seems, that doesn’t apply to supernatural causes more generally.

I have not always been so epistemically humble. The 9 year old Chris who had worked out to his satisfaction that there were no supernatural entities and that scripture was on the same level as fables by Hans Christian Andersen (and somewhat less entertaining) was keen to share this indupitable truth with all and sundry, and to persuade them of the true state of affairs. Had he not, at 15, had a peak mystical experience which failed utterly to fit within a scientific-rationalist-materialist-reductionist framework, he might well have gone on to produce an adult in the mould of (say) Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

That, however, was largely just intellectual arrogance; it went to belief but not really to faith. If there was faith there, it was unfounded faith in my own powers of reasoning.

Then came the “zap” which changed everything, and for those who have not had a peak mystical experience or some other religious experience of similar intensity, these come with a massive quantity of self-verification. Not only do you suddenly see the world in a radically different way, but you are automatically convinced of the rightness of that experience. Incidentally, I include “some other religious experience of similar intensity” not because I have ever experienced such, but because I now hold open the possibility that (for instance) the ecstatic group-based experience may have similar force and validity. I have in the past tried quite hard to find a way to various alternative expressions of peak religious experience, but have failed; I now suspect that this is a function in part of my own psychology (I am seriously introverted and have a tendency to social anxiety) and of the fact that the original experience has created or accentuated extremely well-defined mental pathways which are now my default.

As a result, for many years I was inclined to say, when pushed, that I didn’t need to “believe in” God or “have faith in” God, because I experienced God. I might have said (and probably did on occasion) that in the same way I didn’t need to believe in air, or have faith in it, because I breathed it and knew it to exist. This self-verification tends to extend to parts of my interpretation of the experience, and for many years I would have said that these were equally self-verified by the experience itself. For instance, once I found a description of this type of experience as being of a panentheistic God, it was immediately clear to me with massive force that that was the way God is. When I read passages by (for instance) Baba Kuhi of Shiraz or Meister Eckhart, or from the Oxyrhyncus papyrii (part of the Gospel of Thomas) it was immediately clear to me (with massive force) that they were talking of the same kind of root experience.

There is a potential problem there. Although in my memory the descriptions have referred themselves back to the experience, I can recall that my initial reaction was that while something massively significant and full of meaning had happened, I lacked language to express it. I have to enquire whether, had I found some other descriptive language, whether I would have seized on that instead.

I can therefore now entertain the possibility that some of what I feel  is certain due to these experiences is stretching beyond what was actually self-verified in them, although it certainly feels to me as if it was, and continues to feel that way despite a substantial amount of self-interrogation. You will not, for instance, now find me saying in response to “Why do you think that?” the blunt “Because that’s how God tells me it is”. Apart from anything else, I have found that that is a complete conversation-stopper (which, actually, was one of the attractions – I have in the past shut up more than one doorstep evangelist that way). I might like to hear the same reticence from some who feel that “this is what the Holy Spirit inspires me to say”, which I anticipate may have something of the same force for them. I recognise the look in their eyes, but wonder if they may have stretched beyond what is basic to the experience.

Let’s face it, this was an issue which confronted Paul at an early stage in his ministry. In 1 Thess. 5:19-21 he talks about prophecy, and warns “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Thus, I will always try to find confirmation elsewhere, in scripture or in the writings of mystics or other thinkers, of anything which arrives with me with this self-verifying force, and in general if I’m trying to convince someone of the reasonableness of my position, it will be by quoting these sources.

But that isn’t necessarily how I reached the conclusion… and there’s the rub. I may be acting humbly but not feeling humble. However, as the only way I know to adjust my feelings is to use the “Act as If” principle, I think this is as good as I can get at the moment. Scientific Rationalist Chris can do humility these days (it was not always so), but Emotional Chris lags behind.