Do you believe in ______?

When someone asks you whether you believe in god, spirits, auras, or spiritual energy, you should reply by asking them to define exactly what they mean by those words. If you do, what you will typically find is that they respond by unpacking the concept into even more nebulous terms and concepts that themselves require definitions. Essentially, what you find is that they are using the word as a place holder for something that they are unable to describe.

The most basic function of words is to label something that you understand, and can therefor describe. If you ask me whether I think it’s going to rain tomorrow, I know what you mean by rain, because I have seen it before, and I can know to a satisfactory degree of certainty that we share the same definition: little droplets of water falling from the sky. However, if for some reason I am unaware of the existence of rain, you will have very little trouble describing what you mean: little droplets of water falling from the sky. Words pertaining to spiritual concepts, however, are used as place holders for things that people have agreed exist, but cannot describe-using unambiguous language that anyone could extract the same basic meaning from. A lack of clear definitions like this strongly suggests that a person is just dispensing pseudo-profundities. In fact, if they fail to elucidate, we are unable to evaluate whether what they are saying has any root in reality. In order for a claim to be intelligible, it must be empirically actionable. In other words, it has to be testable, either by directly measuring or observing the thing itself, or by using the claim as a model with which to make predictions (because if the claim were true, it would have real world implications that themselves could be directly observed).

One possible criticism is that I’m attacking people’s right to use metaphorical language. Touché, I am. I am not however, attacking it in general. That would entail a rejection of all linguistic art, which is useful for evoking and describing ineffable human emotions that simply cannot be described literally (at least not without bringing up physiological aspects of the human brain, which defeats the purpose). That would be foolish. What I am attacking is the use of fuzzy, metaphorical language specifically in discussions where people are attempting to describe some alleged feature of reality.

When someone asks you whether you believe in spiritual energy, they are really begging the question, “what is spiritual energy?”. If in their attempt to describe it, they resort to an argument from ignorance, invoking a host of new nebulous things that lack definitions, they have only compounded the problem. You can’t possibly answer their question, because it is fundamentally vague and unintelligible, and therefor incapable of being stated more clearly. They may sit there with a sage look on their face, expecting you to do the mental contortion required to try and make some sort of sense out of what they’ve just said, but the onus is not on you to do that. The onus is on them to make sense in the first place.