Reflections on Ken Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) - Parts I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII - PDF
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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).



Why Richard Dawkins
Hung Up on Ken Wilber

David Lane

The history of science is in many ways the elimination of formerly believed gods.

Contrary to what Eliot Benjamin in "The Boundaries of Science" took away from my recent article, Is My I-Phone Conscious? I clearly believe that mysticism can be studied scientifically. Indeed, it already has been for decades.

I don’t necessarily think that mystics and skeptics should depart company and go on their respective ways, but I do think that if they seriously communicate with each other something is bound to give. And what each side may have to give up is more than they might be willing to concede.

For example, take a mystic in the Sant Mat tradition, such as the late Kirpal Singh (who Ken Wilber once cited as the “unsurpassed master of the subtle realm”), who practiced an ancient yogic technique known as shabd yoga wherein one listens to a divine inner sound which reportedly transports the soul into higher regions of bliss beyond the body and mind. The theological framework undergirding much of Kirpal Singh’s practice (which dates back centuries through such practitioners as Tulsi Sahib, Dadu, Kabir, and Guru Nanak) states emphatically that the shabd (or inner sound) is not physical or brain produced but is rather a divine melody that transcends all of physics and this universe.

But what happens if in studying this phenomenon from a neurological point of view the Sant Mat mystic discovers that such “sacred” music is tinnitus, which may be caused by ear wax buildup, or nasal allergies, or lower levels of serotonin, or any host of physically related ailments. Does this sort of information change the numinous encounter or its interpretation?

Are religious movements, predicated on shabd yoga practice, such as Radhasoami, the Divine Light Mission, Eckankar, Quan Yin, MSIA, etc., going to accept such a reductionistic explanation of what erstwhile was regarded as a direct pathway to God-Realization?

I think not.

Why? Because the very basis of the practice is centered on the notion that it is a spiritual endeavor and not merely a cranial one.

In other words, if a mystic is serious about studying the subject scientifically it means that he or she may have to radically revise their understandings and prior theological dogmas about what is actually happening when they undergo a transformation of consciousness.

This is not to suggest that mystics haven’t done so in the past. They have, but this tends to be the exception to the rule not the norm.

The best example that I know of personally comes from Faqir Chand who originally believed that the inner visions he had of Krishna and his human guru, Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal, were objectively real. Only later when Faqir became a guru in his own right and started hearing reports from his disciples that he appeared in visions to them (without any conscious knowledge on his part) did doubt their exterior reality. This led Faqir Chand to radically change the mode of his teaching.

After meeting personally with Baba Faqir Chand, it became exceedingly apparent to myself and Professor Mark Juergensmeyer (who visited Manavta Mandir in late August of 1978. See Juergensmeyer's book Radhasoami Reality (Princeton University Press, 1991) that the old sage was something of an anomaly amongst Indian gurus. For, although Faqir Chand had a rather large and devoted following (numbering in the thousands), he absolutely disclaimed himself of any miracles attributed to his spiritual work, saying quite frankly that they were products of either the devotee's previous karma or intense faith. Indeed, it was this very insight which led Faqir to his own Enlightenment.

When Faqir Chand began to initiate disciples into surat shabd yoga, at the request of his master Shiv Brat Lal, a most curious thing happened. His devotees began reporting that Faqir's radiant form appeared inside their meditations. Others related miracles that were caused by Faqir's prashad (blessed food), letters, or advice. However, all during this time Faqir claims that he had absolutely no knowledge or awareness of his form appearing to distant provinces or performing miracles to the sick and dying. As Faqir himself wrote:

"People say that my Form manifests to them and helps them in solving their worldly as well as mental problems, but I do not go anywhere , nor do I know about such miraculous instances." (Faqir Chand, The Essence Of The Truth, Hoshiarpur: Faqir Charitable Library Trust, n.d./1976?).

It was at this point when Faqir asked himself:

"What about the visions that appear to me? Are they a creation of my own mind, and does my guru also not know about his appearances to me?"

Only then, according to Faqir, did he realize the truth:

"All manifestations, visions, and forms that are seen within are mental (illusory) creations." (Faqir Chand, The Secret of Secrets, Hoshiarpur: Faqir Charitable Library Trust, 1975).

After his realization, Faqir began preaching his belief that all saints, from Buddha, Christ, to even his own master Shiv Brat Lal are ignorant about the miracles or inner experiences attributed to them. In a paper given to the American Academy of Religion in March 1981, I used the term "The Unknowing Hierophany" to describe what Faqir Chand believes; that is, a "Divine" vehicle within the temporal world that is unaware of its spiritual manifestations. A revised form of this original paper was published under the title "The Hierarchical Structure of Religious Visions," in The Journal Of Transpersonal Psychology (Volume 15, Number 1).

What is perhaps most striking about the Faqir Chand example is how he was viewed by other gurus in the Radhasoami tradition. Instead of incorporating his findings into a new and updated understanding of what occurs during meditation, most of the spiritual leaders either ignored him or dismissed him as senile (which, of course, is ironic given that Faqir “doubted” his subsequent visions instead of believing them).

The other Radhasoami mystics didn’t want to “give” on this issue of visions, since apparently conceding that all such manifestations were merely illusions or projections of the disciple’s own mind (and that the initiating guru had nothing to do with the mysterious phenomena) would undermine their very tenure.

If there is going to be a rigorous science of mysticism, one of the first casualties will be the superstructure (as Frits Staal, my old professor at U.C. Berkeley, termed it) around it. In other words, the more science is allowed to understand and explain mysticism the less mysterious and metaphysical it will appear.

Indeed, the history of science is in many ways the elimination of formerly believed gods. We replace a phlogiston theory with an oxygen theory, realizing in the process that phlogiston never existed in the first place. We didn’t explain phlogiston; we eliminated it because it was wrong.

Likewise, the scientific study of mysticism may replace some deeply cherished ideas. Some which may be so cherished that their very elimination will be too heavy a price for some.

Francis Crick has already suggested that the soul will never be explained for the simple reason that it never existed.

As Crick so astutely puts it:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: "you're nothing but a pack of neurons." This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.

Now on the surface of it, Crick's argument seems so obvious as not to be very astonishing at all, especially when we realize that every great discovery in science has been grounded, so to say, in some simpler material structure. Cells turned out be cast from molecules; molecules from atoms; atoms from electrons, protons, and neutrons. Even questions as profound as what is life? (also the title of a highly influential book by the famed physicist Erwin Schrodinger) which plagued biologists during the early and mid part of this century turned out to have a physical, if minute, answer: the D.N.A. molecule. Yet, many thought the answer would never be found because life was something vitalistic, something non-material, something science could not identify. As it turns out, though, every endeavor to locate the secrets of the universe hinge on focusing first and foremost on the empirical realm. As Crick sees it, why shouldn't consciousness have a physical basis? Hearing does. Seeing does. Why not being as well?

And even closer to our own secular bone, we may well discover that our “self” doesn’t even exist. As a summary of Thomas Metzinger’s recent book, The Ego Tunnel, puts it:

“For Metzinger, the conscious self is really nothing more than the content of a “transparent self-model” – an image of ourselves in the brain, an image that we are unable to recognize as a model. It is from this image that an Ego emerges.... The Ego Tunnel surveys a range of findings about the deep structure of that conscious self. For instance, Metzinger examines how people born without arms or legs can experience a realistic sensation that they do in fact have limbs. He explores both the workings of body and self in the dream state, and our control of those states to experience the effects of lucid dreaming. Further, he recounts experiments that demonstrate how out-of-body experiences and sensations of action and agency can be induced by directly stimulating the brain. From studies of long-term meditators, too, he gives us new insights about the ways in which the unity of consciousness is constituted in the brain. Working from these examples and more, Metzinger argues that "the" self of subjective experience is actually created by our brain mechanisms. Now, as new ways of manipulating the conscious mind-brain appear on the scene, it will soon become possible to alter our subjective reality in an unprecedented manner. The cultural consequences of this, Metzinger claims, may be immense: we will need a new approach to ethics, and we will be forced to think about ourselves in a fundamentally new way. If actions are really the product of brain states, as opposed to intentions, then what, exactly, is the nature of free will? And if one day we can create artificial systems that generate conscious selves—Ego Machines—should we actually do it? The groundbreaking findings outlined in The Ego Tunnel have implications for how we think about drug use and the brain; the ethics of neurotechnology; the extent of personal responsibility; and a host of other contentious issues. Metzinger ultimately argues that we must be willing to engage with the serious moral and cultural questions that will arise in the wake of this new image of humanity. At a time when the science of cognition is becoming as controversial as the theory of evolution, The Ego Tunnel offers an accessible introduction to the field of consciousness studies, a new theoretical vision and a compelling perspective on the mystery of the mind.”

To put this into sharper relief, as one member of Radhasoami once complained to me, “Why should I meditate for 3 hours a day if what I am experiencing isn’t God but sophisticated neural fireworks.”?

In other words, isn’t at least a good part of the mystic quest predicated upon a false idea to start with? We aren’t looking for just stuff, as Patricia Churchland once put it; we are looking for some divine meaning.

I think there is a reason Ken Wilber and Richard Dawkins don’t talk. Or, if they do, why Richard Dawkins would have hung up on Wilber. Ken Wilber still wants to believe in mystic “goo.” He wants a cosmic feel good story, even if his flowery description of the same doesn’t have even an ounce of scientific credibility. How do you think Dawkins would respond to this from Wilber [in "On the Nature of Involutionary Givens"]:

"Here is a myth that is sometimes useful in suggesting notions that cannot be grasped dualistically or conceptually in any event: As Spirit throws itself outward (that's called involution) to create this particular universe with this particular Big Bang, it leaves traces or echoes of its Kosmic exhalation. These traces constitute little in the way of actual contents or forms or entities or levels, but rather a vast morphogenetic field that exerts a gentle pull (or Agape) toward higher, wider, deeper occasions, a pull that shows up in manifest or actual occasions as the Eros in the agency of all holons. (We can think of this "pull" as the pull of all things back to Spirit; Whitehead called it "love" as "the gentle persuasion of God" toward unity; this love reaching down from the higher to the lower is called Agape, and when reaching up from the lower to the higher is called Eros: two sides of the same pull). This vast morphogenetic pull connects the potentials of the lowest holons (materially asleep) with the potentials of the highest (spiritually awakened). The involutionary given of this morphogenetic field is a gradient of potentials, not actuals, so that Agape works throughout the universe as a love of gentle persuasion, pulling the lower manifest forms of spirit toward higher manifest forms of spirit--a potential gradient that humans, once they emerged, would often conceptualize as matter to body to mind to soul to spirit. "Spirit" (capital "S"), of course, was (and is) the ever-present ground of all of those manifest waves, equally and fully present in each, but "spirit" (small "s") is also a general stage or wave of evolution: spirit is the transpersonal stage(s) at which Spirit as ground can be permanently realized.

The residue of this involutionary outpouring are various involutionary givens (or items that are given or deposited by involution, items that therefore pre-existed the big Bang and thus are already operating from the moment of the Big Bang forward), the most general of which is the great morphic field of evolutionary potential, a gentle gradient of persuasion pulling all manifest holons back to their ever-present Ground as Spirit--a Kosmic field of Agape, gently pulling evolution into greater and greater consciousness, embrace, inclusion. The universe, it appears, is tilted, and its entire contents are slowly sliding into the Source and Suchness of the entire display. This tilt, this grain to the Kosmos, this Agape, this vast morphogenetic potential, exerts a tender pull on evolution to unfold in waves of greater complexity, greater inclusiveness, greater depth, until the entire Kosmos is included in a prehensive unification that can swallow the Pacific Ocean in a single gulp, hold Mount Everest in the palm of its hand, blink and bring nightfall to the entire universe, smile and bring forth the sun to shine on all creatures great and small."[1]

My hunch tells me that after listening to Wilber’s fantasy, Richard Dawkins might just paraphrase Bill Murrary’s charcter from the original Ghostbusters movie, and exclaim “I have just been slimed by a huge ball of New Age goo.”

Wilber wants us to still believe in fairy tales, even if dressed up in pseudo-scientific jargon.

Dawkins on the other hand wants us to finally grow up and admit what we have secretly thought for a long time. We were wrong about the gods and we were wrong about ourselves.

Yes, mysticism can indeed be studied scientifically, but I think we might be a little shocked to see how different it looks when we take off its mythic garb. Even if Wilber wants to redress the old mistress in new tassels, the odd fact remains that mysticism without mystery may kill its original attraction.


[1] Ken Wilber, Excerpt A: An Integral Age at the Leading Edge, note 26, "On the Nature of Involutionary Givens"

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