Saturday, December 13, 2008

Leveraging Spirit: Ethical questions for naturalistic religion

To care for the soul within us and outside in the world, we need to recognize that soul is not in our possession, but rather the points of overlap where interior experience and the outer world are joined. – Briskin, 2001, pp. 247

I am not an autonomous person. Like all people, my environment affects me. The stimuli I receive, alters some of the weightings behind my thoughts. In turn this affects the contexts and communities I pick. I subtly change the things I belong to. In turn, this changes me. How does this line of thinking relate to Briskin’s statement “soul is not in our possession” (2001)? I can influence my outer world through self-selection and action. I can perturb my inward experience by the accumulated effects of conscious choice. If I am not an automaton, some chunk of soul is in my possession and control. This has profound implications. If soul is in my possession, can part of it fall into someone else’s hands? If so, what are the ethics of manipulating community spirit arising from soulful interaction?

Present-day psychologists subscribe neither to the idea that the mind is a tabula rasa nor to the idea that the mind is completely genetically determined. Today, the nature-nurture debate is about how genetic and environmental influence interact. (Ploeger, Van der Mass & Raijmakers, 2008, p. 7)

Evolutionary scientists like Atran (2002) and Wilson (2004) convincingly explain many aspects of spirit’s emergence. Atran identifies numerous heuristics behind religious behaviours. Wilson provides strong arguments for the practical utility of this class of behaviour. Wilson argues that even if religious beliefs are false literal descriptions of the world, they are adaptive. “Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors,” (Wilson, 2004, p. 228). Belief in and of itself has great power.

This raises ethical questions. What happens to ideas that move us in a good direction, but whose ultimate promises are not realistic.

Note: This is the first part in a series of posts exploring questions around the leveraging of naturally perceived spiritual dynamics.

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