Brain States All the Way Down

Tom Flynn

Later I’ll have something to say about Barbara Ehrenreich’s frustrating recently published apologia for mystical experience. But first, it’s time to cast a new word—no, two—alongside spirit into my personal Dungeon for Words Secular Humanists Should Try Really Hard Not to Use.

In a 2013 Guardian blog post bewailing atheism’s poverty as a supporting matrix for secular ceremonies, British writer Suzanne Moore wrote: “We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on ‘nature’ and ‘spirit’ impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid.”

If you’ve been looking for an elevator speech about the differences between religious and secular humanism, this is a great place to start. Religious humanists may well yearn to “express transcendence and connection with others.” How do secular humanists differ? While we cherish “connection with others” as warmly as anyone else, insofar as we are secular, we reject “transcendence” out of hand. For secular humanists, there’s simply no such thing as transcendence or the transcendent.

A core aspect of the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. Reality is the domain of matter, energy, their interactions, and (so far as we can tell) nothing else.* On the secular view, then, words such as spirit and transcendence simply have no referents. To the degree that reverence is understood transitively—as denoting awe, veneration, or respect toward something beyond—it has no referents either. The domain of everyday experience can’t be transcended. There is nothing above it, nothing beyond or over it, nothing to revere . . . only reality. That’s not to say that secular humanists can’t have sweeping aesthetic or emotional experiences—but we understand them naturalistically. Yes, that symphony swept me away, though I recognize that my experience was brain states all the way down. It is to say that when religious or congregational humanists craft rituals that speak to “spirituality” or “reverence” or “the universal human quest for the transcendent,” they shouldn’t be surprised when secular humanists decline to join in.

Is the yearning for the transcendent a human universal? Maybe so—the jury’s still out—but even if it is, what does that prove? The yearning for eternal life is probably universal too, and humanists make no bones about pointing out that there is none of it to be had. The yearning for immortality is achingly real; its target is an illusion. What is so difficult in recognizing that “the quest for the transcendent” might be more of the same? More Americans than ever acknowledge that there’s no god. A smaller number also realize that there exists no transcendent realm, not even a shadowy impersonal one. Those who recognize this are secular humanists, and let’s admit it, many of us find the religious-humanist impulse to play in the cracks of a world-picture that we know actually leaves no room for the transcendent somewhat sad. To borrow Suzanne Moore’s harsh word, yes, some of us find it stupid.

In late 2013, I posted a version of the above on the Center for Inquiry’s Free Thinking blog. The comments it sparked were revealing and convinced me that it’s time for us to consign transcendence, reverence, and their cognates to the linguistic hoosegow alongside spirit and its cognates.

A little background: back in 1994, I wrote a piece in the Secular Humanist Bulletin urging secular folks to abandon words such as spirit, spiritual, and spirituality. I argued that spirit and its cognates are so deeply associated in the popular mind with immaterial agency that secular people simply can’t wield them without being misinterpreted as confessing to a belief in gods or ghosts, undermining our credibility as advocates for naturalism.

Today, I’m proposing to triple the population of spirit’s slammer. Here’s why: one blog commenter assured me that “Transcendence IS used in modern science” (capitalization in original), citing its use by the VIA Institute on Character. Founded by psychologists Neal H. Mayerson and Martin E. P. Seligman (the latter well known for his work on “learned helplessness” and, later, for helping to found positive psychology), this nonprofit institute maintains the “VIA® Classification of Character Strengths,” a tool popular among neoconservative “character education” activists.** Yes, “Transcendence” is one of the VIA® Classification’s six categories of character strength. Another commenter spotlighted psychiatrist-geneticist C. Robert Cloninger, who includes something called “self-transcendence” in an instrument he has titled the “Temperament and Character Inventory.”

This all sounds impressive, but is it science? Free Inquiry examined positive psychology, including questions about its legitimacy, in an October/November 2006 cover feature. But let’s look closer.

The VIA® Classification of Character Strengths breaks down Transcendence into five subcategories. “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence” is naturalistic enough. So are “Hope” and “Humor.”

More worrisome is “Gratitude,” de­­scribed as “being aware of and thank­­ful for the good things that happen, taking time to express thanks.” To whom—or should I say, to Whom—are these thanks addressed? As used here, “Gratitude” invites a transitive interpretation, and gratitude interpreted transitively is troubling for seculars in the same way that reverence is. It implies that one’s gratitude has a supernatural object—and with that, naturalism tumbles into the dust.

But it is the Classification of Character’s fifth component that veers into flat-out mysticism: “Spirituality [faith, purpose]: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme; having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort.” While those last two clauses might (at a stretch) be interpreted naturalistically, the opening equation of spirituality with faith and that clause about “having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe” point strictly up, out, and beyond—away from naturalism and, inescapably, away from any pretention to science.

How about Dr. Cloninger? He has done well-regarded studies on the genetics of personality traits, especially on the heritability of predispositions toward personality disorders. But his best-known book, Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, alternates self-serving calls for rigor with a flat statement that “a person is composed of multiple elements of body, mind, and spirit.” Wow. Here Cloninger starts from mind-body dualism—not for him the more naturalistic conception that mind and brain are one—then goes it one better, treating spirit as yet a third distinct category of existing stuff. Ectoplasm, anyone?

A bit later, Cloninger writes: “What has become increasingly clear to me is that man has a natural integrative tendency that leads to health, and that disease emerges whenever there is a block.” Science? Just sciencey? Outright woo? Let the reader decide. But colo
r me unconvinced by one online commenter’s assurance that transcendence “is already in popular use . . . among prominent academics who have already ‘carved out’” a rigorously naturalistic meaning for the word.

To be fair, transcendence can be employed in a strictly naturalistic way, denoting a sense of overcoming one’s ego that can be subjectively powerful for all that it is objectively illusory. But as we’ve seen, researchers who start out using the word that way stumble into otherworldly connotations with disturbing ease.

Transcendence and reverence, I conclude, are like spirit: words whose supernatural connotations are so vivid that secularists and naturalists simply can’t employ them without the near-certainty of being destructively misunderstood. Into the lockup with these words!

The Regrettable Mysticism of Barbara Ehrenreich

With her new book, Living with a Wild God, the veteran writer-activist (and lifelong atheist) Barbara Ehrenreich surprisingly asserts the reality of mystical experience. At age seventeen, you see, she had one. It felt incredibly vivid and vastly significant. Throughout history, individuals have recorded similar subjective experiences. Therefore, there’s really something out there, a realm whose existence science is missing and that scientists should start looking for.

Believe it or not, that’s a fair summary of the book. Based on little more than the intensity of her long-ago experience and the fact that others have recounted similar experiences, Ehrenreich has cashiered her long-held view that something remarkable but wholly internal occurred in her brain in favor of the hypothesis that she had a genuine “encounter” with some external reality. (It may be relevant that she characterizes the it-was-all-in-my-head hypothesis harshly, as “mental breakdown.”) Try as I may, I can find no explanation for Ehrenreich’s volte-face other than that after decades, her naturalism yielded to the salience and intensity of an experience that, despite its vibrancy, was almost certainly illusory.

I don’t mean to question the veracity of Ehrenreich’s account; I’m quite prepared to accept that she had the experience she recounts or one much like it (memory, even of searing events, is an inexact reconstructive process, after all). I’m prepared to accept that other individuals have undergone similar experiences. But parsimony compels us to favor first the hypothesis that all of these astonishing experiences are just illusions created within the brains that experienced them. (Far from representing “mental breakdown,” such vivid illusions seem to be just one more among the remarkable things that human brains do from time to time.) A universe that includes no mystical realm but does include intelligent creatures capable of experiencing illusions of one is immensely simpler than a universe that includes an actual mystical realm. Barring powerful evidence, there’s simply no reason to suppose the second hypothesis correct.

Ehrenreich advances no evidence, only anecdotes piled high. She notes that many others report similar subjective experiences and insists that her own (also subjective) experience was too strong, too resonant, not to be real. But none of that is evidence. Moreover, if the subjective impression of mystical experience arises from ordinary, if uncommon, brain processes, it is unsurprising that such a false experience can carry with it an overwhelming feeling of reality. Where, after all, does our impression of an experience’s reality or unreality originate? The answer is, in the very brain that, on my view, is manufacturing the experience. So Ehrenreich’s subjective certainty that her experience was real brings nothing new to the discussion.

That’s not to impugn Ehrenreich’s sincerity. People really do have mystical experiences. They constitute a phenomenon that psychology should probably study more closely. But taking the leap from individual subjective certainty to the conviction that the mystical realm is real is just what a savvy investigator like Ehrenreich ought to have known better than to do.

As I noted above, even secular humanists can have “sweeping aesthetic or emotional experiences—but we understand them naturalistically.” We recognize even the most enthralling of them as “brain states all the way down.” How sad that Barbara Ehrenreich seems to have lost sight of that.


* Okay, there may be dark matter and dark energy, but I’m betting that when we find out if—or what—they are, they too will take their places among the ordinary constituents of the cosmos.

** The whole business of “character education” has always struck me more as an effort to gratify charter­school enthusiasts and center­right funders than as anything deeply rooted in data.


On the incarceration of words:

Moore, Suzanne. “Why Non-believers Need Rituals, Too.” The, December 27, 2013.

Flynn, Tom. “The Difference between Religious and Secular Humanism in Its Essence.” Post on the Center for Inquiry blog Free Thinking, December 30, 2013.

Flynn, Tom. “Taken in the Wrong Spirit.” Free Inquiry, April/May 2009.

Flynn, Tom. “When Words Won’t Die.” Free Inquiry, Summer 2002.

Flynn, Tom. “We Need Some Exorcise!” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Fall 1994.

VIA Institute on Character, “The VIA® Classification of Character Strengths.” Online at; accessed January 16, 2014.

Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, “Department of Psychiatry/Center for Well-Being.”; accessed January 16, 2014.

On Barbara Ehrenreich:

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014.

Chotiner, Isaac. “Barbara Ehrenreich: I’m an Atheist, But Don’t Rule Out ‘Mystical Experiences.’”; accessed April 20, 2014.

Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry and the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).