Archives for posts with tag: feelings

A friend once told me, “Jesus is absolutely real to me.”

I can’t meet this half-way. It’s wrong. It is a misuse of words. Jesus is not real to you. That is simply not true.

Once a woman was getting onto an elevator with me and she said, “It’s so hot out there I was literally melting.” She misused the word ‘literally’. To say “Jesus is real to me” is to misuse the word ‘real’. Jesus is not real. He is a thought, an image, a feeling. He is not a person. This is so obvious that I feel goofy pointing it out. You could get away with saying, “It’s as if I can touch him,” but not with “I can touch him.” That is simply not true. You can’t see him, touch him, hear him, or smell him. He’s not there.

Jesus is not a person. That’s why you can’t have a personal relationship with him. Even if he exists as some sort of immortal spirit, that’s not the same thing as being a person. Jesus the person died 2,000 years ago (if he ever existed). And you can’t have a personal relationship with an old pile of bones.

“Jesus seems real to me” could be taken seriously (as a report of a feeling) – but “Jesus is absolutely real to me” is absolutely wrong. To combine the relative expression ‘to me’ with the absolute word ‘real’ – plus the word ‘absolute’! – is perfectly incoherent. This is a sentence that cannot possibly mean anything.

Maybe what you are trying to convey is that Jesus is a topic that, for you, is charged with emotion. You feel something when you read or think or talk about Jesus. But feelings don’t prove anything. If feelings made things true, then everyone on Earth would have a steady romantic partner (except for those few people who don’t want one). Your having strong feelings about Jesus doesn’t prove that Jesus exists. It’s that simple.

As we showed earlier, your strong feelings don’t even prove that you believe that Jesus exists. Feelings are not beliefs.

To sum up: I do not accept your statement that Jesus is “absolutely real” to you. I don’t believe that it can be true.

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To review. The verb ‘to believe’ refers to something one does with an intelligible proposition.

Compare with the verb ‘to read’. Reading is something you do with a text. If you say, “Let me read you something,” and you talk to us, but you’re not referring to a text, then you used the wrong word. Whatever you’re doing, it isn’t reading.

Similarly, if you say “I believe that Jesus loves me,” you used the wrong word. “Jesus loves me” is not a proposition, only a pseudo-proposition – so your relationship to it is one of pseudo-belief.

To this thesis, some people reply along these lines. “I used to be a Christian, so I know what it’s like. I really believed all that stuff. It is presumptuous and absurd for you to tell me otherwise. I really believed that Jesus loved me. I felt it in my heart. It was a good feeling! And I really believed that if I did the wrong thing I would burn in Hell – which genuinely terrified me, especially when I was little. How can you possibly say I didn’t believe? Are you claiming to know more about the inner workings of my brain than I do?”

Notice that the emphasis in this report is on how the propositions you “believed” made you feel. You’re remembering emotions you had, and offering those emotions as evidence for the idea that you “really believed.” I see a few problems here.

To my claim that you didn’t have a belief about Jesus, you reply that you had a feeling. But I did not say there were no feelings. I said there was no belief.

Are you saying that the intensity of your feelings is a kind of proof that you really believed? That would be false, because an image in your mind can have profound effects on your feelings without it being a belief.

When someone tells me about the horrors of Hell, I am horrified. This is an emotional reaction. The same thing happens when I watch a scary movie. My thoughts, feelings, breathing, heartbeat and skin conductance may all be affected; but none of these responses is properly called belief. I don’t believe the images in the movie. They are not propositions.

Religious teachings put images and slogans and feelings in your mind. And those things are routinely called beliefs, but this is a misuse of the term. An image is not a belief; a slogan is not a belief; nor is a feeling. Belief is something else.

This is not to say that no one can have beliefs! One can have beliefs. There are, for example, comforting notions like “There is someone who loves me,” and “I’m not alone,” and “Some day soon, I’ll be happy.” Such ideas are not incoherent – but neither are they religious. The Credo does not say, “Everything will be OK.” That is not a specifically Christian idea. Christianity says incoherent things like “Jesus loves you” – that is: a living person, who is not living, and not a person, has feelings for you, which are not feelings, and not for you. That’s the kind of thing that the church says you should believe. But no one can do that. It’s impossible. People do have ideas about something they call Jesus, but they don’t have that idea, because it’s not even an idea!

And everyone’s idea is different. Your image of Jesus can’t be canonical, so it’s personal. The comforting picture in your mind is different from everyone else’s comforting picture. One person’s Jesus looks kind of like her dad. Another’s looks like a soft blue cloud. But no one’s picture can be said to be more accurate than anyone else’s, because there is nothing “out there” to compare them with. The ideas we think of as being about Jesus are not about anything at all.

So when people say, “Christians believe X,” it’s not true. There is nothing that fits that description. What the church says you should believe, no one does. There is no Christian belief, only Christian slogans; and myriads of personal, individual beliefs. And all these have in common is the special words used to describe them – a Christian vocabulary of meaningless terms. Everyone uses the word ‘Jesus’, the word ‘God’, the word ‘salvation’; which fosters the appearance that everyone agrees about certain things. But no one knows what the words mean! So they haven’t agreed on anything.

You might be wondering: Why do people say such things, if they don’t believe them? Well, that’s how it all ends up making sense.

Look at it socially instead of semantically. To pronounce a phrase such as “I believe that Jesus loves me” is a social gesture. It’s almost completely independent of what the words mean. “Jesus loves me” is empty of sense, and therefore, “I believe that Jesus loves me” is strictly false. But the saying of those words is meaningful on different level, as a gesture between people – like a wink, or a badge, or a special handshake. People don’t generally go around making theological claims. What they do is to exchange tokens of affiliation, sorting out who belongs to which crowd. The words don’t mean anything as words. That’s not what they’re for. They are a prop to use in public performances.

Someone drops his shopping list in the street. A bird picks it up. The bird does not notice the words on the paper. The bird does not know what writing is, or what paper is. It just seems like useful stuff. It becomes part of her nest. The next day, it is dissolved by rain.

You can’t tell me I don’t have this belief. It’s in me, not you. You don’t feel it; I do. I feel it in my soul. When I say that I believe in God, I mean just exactly that, and obviously I am the best qualified to know!

This “argument from introspection” relies on two assumptions: first, that you perceive infallibly the events taking place in your “soul”; and second, that you have correctly identified one specific “feeling” in your “soul” as the belief we are trying to discuss.

To the first assumption: I do not deny that something is going on in you when you say that you believe. On the other hand, I have no reason to trust that you know exactly what it is; nor do you. I mean, are you an authority on exactly what belief tastes like? Very few scientists or philosophers will agree that you are that kind of expert on your own thoughts and motivations. Introspection is not an exact science. In general, when we look in there we have no idea what we’re seeing – and usually, we don’t even look.

It seems likely … that … ordinary people in their daily lives, do not even attempt to interrogate their memories about their cognitive processes when they are asked questions about them. Rather, they may resort in the first instance to a pool of culturally supplied explanations for behavior of the sort in question or, failing in that, begin a search through a network of connotative relations until they find an explanation that may be adduced as psychologically implying the behavior. Thus if we ask another person why he enjoyed a particular party and he responds with, “I liked the people at the party,” we may be extremely dubious as to whether he has reached this conclusion as the result of anything that might be called introspection. We are justified in suspecting that he has instead asked himself Why People Enjoy Parties and has come up with the altogether plausible hypothesis that in general people will enjoy parties if they like the people at the parties. [Nisbett RE and Wilson TD. Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84:231-259 (May 1977).]

It is a commonplace that speech does not require that the speaker know what she means by her words, or why she is saying them. We have all asked ourselves at some time, Why did I say that? We have all nodded in agreement with someone, after not hearing what they said. We have all expressed in words a thought we had not known we were thinking; or, contrariwise, failed to utter a truth that we were certain must be voiced. We have seen ourselves reiterate a lie and start to believe it. And those of us who are parents have heard ourselves repeat, to our children, a catchy slogan our own parents used, though we have despised it for 20 years. You are just not that knowledgeable about what makes you tick. To insist that you “feel it” does not tell us very much.

To the second assumption: when I say that you don’t have a belief, you insist that you do; and then you testify about a feeling you have. This is odd, because feeling and belief are different categories, different experiences, different phenomena. Most importantly, feelings are by definition non-verbal. You can have a thought that (for example) “god is merciful”; this is a concept, which cannot be expressed without a specialized vocabulary. You cannot have a feeling that “god is merciful”. Feelings don’t work that way.

Feelings are notoriously resistant to verbalization. To make a sentence out of a feeling you have to run it through a language-dependent thought-process. The original, non-conceptual feeling is interpreted according to the rules of the conceptual framework(s) to which you happen to have access; the output is made of words, not feelings. The same feeling (if we can say such a thing) will be described differently by different people. One will speak of it as mercy, another as benevolence, another as peace, presence, Jesus, Krishna, the Buddha, and so on. The feeling itself carries none of these post hoc labels.

‘Feeling’ and ‘belief’ are different linguistic categories; they have different grammatical roles. A belief is a commitment to a proposition. You can’t have a commitment to a non-proposition.

Imagine that we ask someone: “After you made that promise, Ted, what did you do then?”, and Ted says, “I lifted it.”

We’d be like: “What?”

“Oh, yeah. I physically lifted it over my head.”

We now have no idea what Ted is talking about. He said he lifted a promise over his head, but that is not possible, because a promise is not a physical object – not the sort of thing that can be lifted. You cannot use that class of verb with that class of noun. The combination is so empty of sense that we may start to wonder whether Ted is speaking English. We might replay just the sound of his speech in our minds, thinking that maybe those raw phonemes would start to mean something if we took them as being in, say, Finnish.

Just as you can’t lift a promise, you can’t believe a nonsense-phrase. To insist that you are doing this is to make a statement with no meaning. It is, quite simply, a misuse of language: specifically, in this case, your sentence contains a transitive verb but lacks an appropriate object. You cannot form a meaningful sentence that way.

It may be hard to swallow, but the conclusion is unavoidable. Your impression that you believe profoundly in certain religious propositions is an illusion. Here is a tentative outline of what you’re going through. First, you have certain words in your mind that sound deeply meaningful (but are not). Second, in your daily experience these words are tightly associated with strong feelings that arise through social interactions and commitments. This combination of events you interpret as a deep commitment to the ideas that the words represent. But the words do not actually represent ideas, so you cannot actually be committed to them. Your interpretation, even though it is of your own experiences, has to be wrong.

“I know that Jesus loves me.”

No, you don’t.

“How can you say that? I feel it in my heart.”

Wait, do you know it or feel it? Those are different things. Knowledge (or belief) is different from feeling (or emotion).

When challenged about their professed “beliefs”, folks often reply with what sounds like evidence from introspection. They say things like, “I feel it in my heart.” But a feeling is not a belief. A feeling is a direct, non-verbal, bodily experience; a belief is a commitment to an idea – as Thomas Jefferson put it, “the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” You had a feeling, which was originally non-conceptual, and then you connected that feeling with a concept – that of ‘god’. This association in your mind, between a warm feeling and a fuzzy concept, is then presented as the answer to whether you have a belief in god. But neither the feeling, nor the concept, nor the connection between them, constitute a belief.

If you diligently practice any of various styles of meditation, you will eventually have the kind of experience that many people refer to as ‘transcendental’. In fact, one of the reasons you meditate is that you’ve heard reports of this kind of thing and you want to experience it for yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So one day you’re sitting and this thing happens to you, and it’s amazing. It’s like – it’s like – how to describe it? Words are such feeble things compared to this thing, or place, or idea you’ve just seen, or felt, or understood!

Well, that might be true. But I know something that is definitely true. There are words waiting for you. They’re all around you. They’re literally in the air you breathe. People say them all the time. You can choose the ones you like. You had a ‘transcendental’, or ‘spiritual’, or ‘enlightenment’ experience. You reached ‘nirvana’, or ‘satori’, or ‘the Void beyond awareness’. You ‘became one with the Universe’. You ‘saw the face of God’. Take your pick; there are hundreds of them.

I’m not even saying that any of these descriptions is necessarily incorrect. That’s not the point. (Nor do I mean to suggest that such experiences should not be sought, or enjoyed, or valued.) The point is that if you’re old enough to have this kind of experience, you’re old enough to have heard the words for it – that is, the descriptions favored by the culture where you grew up. You can’t have the experience without having been ‘primed’ by that terminology. While in that exalted state you might be able to push aside such thoughts – this being a special aspect of such experiences – but not afterwards, when you’ve returned to not-so-transcendental consciousness. Then you’re going to call it what you’ve heard it called. If people around you tend to call it ‘higher awareness’, that’s what you’ll call it; if they say ‘cosmic consciousness’, that’s what you’ll say too. And if they call it ‘seeing the face of God’ or ‘feeling Jesus in your heart’, not only will you call it that; chances are it will feel like that.

But it isn’t that.

Again: I am not saying you shouldn’t do it. Quiet meditation is a Good Thing. I’m just pointing out that meditative states are frequently misdescribed. “I had a beautiful experience” is one thing; “I saw the face of God” is another. The former report may be accurate; the latter cannot be.

How do I know? Well, ultimately I know because I have noticed that the very concept of ‘god’ is incoherent, so not only are there no gods, but the idea of their existence is not even a coherent proposal that deserves careful rebuttal. But we don’t have bring out the big guns. We can observe, much more modestly, that feelings and beliefs are different things.

When you meditate (or in whatever circumstance it occurs), you have these feelings. They are powerful, special, beautiful and interesting. They do not come with a serial number, barcode, or owner’s manual. They are utterly non-verbal. For thousands of years, adepts have assured us that trying to convey such experiences with words is pointless. We have thousands of pages of such disclaimers – and attempts, by the same authors, to convey their experiences.

By the way, I am not convinced that the reason meditative states are so hard to describe is that they are so sublime. It may be simply because they are essentially non-verbal; they are feelings, not knowledge. All feelings are hard to put into words, even the everyday kind. Can you put into words exactly how you feel when you’re stuck in traffic? Could you make someone understand it who had never endured it?

In any case, feelings are, by definition, wordless. We have feelings, and on the other hand we have names for them. The original experience was wordless. That’s part of why it was so great. So, I can call my spiritual experience ‘touching the Void’ (for example), but I know that this is a label, added after the fact – that even the word ‘spiritual’ is a label, for something that originally had nothing to do with words.

Well, I should know this. But it’s easy to forget, especially in religious contexts. Because the churches have great cabinets stocked with words for us to use. And churches are more interested in our words than in our feelings. Tell your friends and neighbors in your local Baptist Church about a feeling you had this morning, while praying, of “a kind of warmth or welcoming or safety – sorry, it’s hard to put into words,” and you’ll get some half-hearted smiles. But if you say, “I felt Jesus’s love in my heart,” well, Glory Hallelujah, you’ll be a star.

Feelings are non-verbal. You can interpret them as meaning something specific, but it’s always going to be an interpretation. If you have a feeling that you attribute to the love of God, or the awareness of the Universe, or whatever, you are going beyond the data of experience and proposing a theory about what caused the feeling. Now if you hypothesize a physical agent, you can get some traction. Maybe you’ve ingested certain substances; or practiced certain psychological exercises; or you have epilepsy. Physical things can cause you to have certain experiences. Non-physical entities that don’t exist, except as words, cannot. If your theory involves an immortal spirit or a transcendent reality, no conceivable data will support it. Once you postulate an immaterial cause, you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to find an immaterial effect. You’ve painted yourself into a corner. You’ve sawed off the branch you were sitting on.

(Don’t get hung up on the idea that thoughts and emotions are “mental” rather than “physical” events. People say things like, “Love can have overwhelming effects, even though it’s not physical.” This is not correct. Mental-versus-physical is a false dichotomy. But clarifying this point is beyond the scope of this book. Try the first half of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.)

As another reason that your feelings cannot validate your religious beliefs, let me reiterate the point I mentioned in passing, a few paragraphs back. You cannot believe an incoherent proposition. No matter how much you want to, you can’t. Belief does not work that way. Just as there are no socks without a place to put your foot in, because if there’s no place to put your foot in it’s not a sock, so there are no beliefs that are not about some proposition, because if it’s not about a proposition it’s not a belief. Someone who says “I believe that bibble bobble beeble” is using the word ‘belief’ improperly. This is because bibble bobble beeble is not a proposition; therefore, the transitive verb ‘believe’ has no object; therefore, the sentence makes no sense in English. And similar considerations apply to all religious propositions. That’s how religious propositions are constructed. They are designed to be incoherent. Coherent (communicative) statements do not perform religious functions, and vice versa.

If the foregoing is true, then everyone who thinks that they can justify their religious beliefs, by any method at all, is mistaken, first of all because they don’t have any religious beliefs. No one does.