Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David 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).
THE MYSTIC AS SKEPTIC
Intertheoretic Reductionism as a Spiritual Tool
We don’t need to invoke esoteric or superluminal doctrines to understand that in an ocean of innumerable possibilities improbable events are destined to happen.
I really enjoyed Elliot Benjamin’s latest essay describing his Critical-Skeptical-Agnostic Perspective contrasting it with my own “Remainder Conjecture” article.
There is much to commend about Benjamin’s piece, particularly his openness to keeping within an interpretative “no boundary zone” where one remains free to ponder differing explanations without having to shut off alternative theories too early. I quite agree with Benjamin when he writes in his penultimate paragraph that he is comfortable in “not knowing.”
I also like Benjamin’s insightful acronym CSA that encapsulates his critical-skeptical-agnostic purview. Perhaps I should just respond to his three-fold approach with an affirmative “yes, yes, yes.”
However, there are a few things in his essay that I think I want to explore further and in the process perhaps better explain why I think intertheoretic reductionism doesn’t have to devolve into that most overused of New Age invectives: promissory materialism.
First, and I think this point cannot be overemphasized enough, looking for physical explanations for erstwhile transcendental or paranormal events/experiences is ultimately a practical endeavor and doesn’t necessarily have to be intertwined with some overarching paradigm where all things are just atomic or chemical interactions. Rather, one could be deeply enmeshed within a spiritual community and utilize a doggedly skeptical outlook simply because he/she doesn’t want to commit a Wilberian pre/trans fallacy, where one confuses palming powdery burnt/dried cow dung (vibutti) with some sort of divine miracle, especially since such a conflation can (and did) lead to all sorts of massive delusions about a holy man’s supernatural powers.
In other words, being skeptical doesn’t have to descend into an ontological stance of “it better be material or forget about it.” I realize that through my various writings (especially my more acerbic books and essays on various cults) that I come off as a hardcore materialist, but the truth is that I am much more aligned with Elliot Benjamin’s and Faqir Chand’s position of radical unknowingness. When I am asked (as usually happens near the end of the courses that I teach) what my own philosophical worldview is I answer (undoubtedly to some consternation) that I am literally “con . . . fused.” One part of me is mystically inclined and deeply emotional about my relationship with the universe at large; the other part of me is deeply critical and analytical and I view the world through a Darwinian lens where it looks like I just showed up on a real live action set of the Hunger Games gone wild; and the other part of me is simply dumbfounded and awestruck by how little I actually do know. Hence the literal use of the word confused. Indeed, I oftentimes ponder that given our triune brain and the patchwork quilt of our evolutionary past, Homo sapiens are almost eternally at odds with itself, since there isn’t just one idealized homunculus residing behind our eyes. We are a multiplicity of selves and depending on the time and the situation, one aspect versus another predominates and we react accordingly.
Thus, I see the remainder conjecture as a cautionary tale and not necessarily one that is trying to prop up (at whatever costs) a never cashable promissory check from myopic materialists. In fact, I see Wilsonian consilience as a pathway in which to take religious and supernatural claims more seriously, since if indeed some phenomena are transcendental in the cosmos then rigorously testing whether they have a physical basis or not seems both necessary and wise.
Let me give a few examples which underline and illustrate this point further.
1. A student of mine at Mt. San Antonio College a few years ago was taking my Sociology of Religion course at night and after one of my lectures on religious experiences, particularly those of a dissociative character, came up to me and told me that she has suffered from epilepsy most of her early life. She went on to describe what happened right before the convulsive attacks and while much of it was unpleasant, frequently she would experience a blinding white light and have a temporary feeling of euphoria and visionary hallucinations which at the moment seemed vividly real. Thankfully, after exhaustive medical tests her doctors found the right medication for her particular symptoms and she hasn’t had seizures for several years.
Now imagine that this same woman was brought up in a cult that believed that such seizures were actually the product of Divine grace and were not in any way generated by the brain. Would these cultists then spend any time and energy on understanding neurology and its pathology?
Even if we believe that this woman’s visions were real and indicative of higher planes of consciousness, I think we would agree (and I know she does today) that focusing on the physical mechanisms that trigger her often-painful epileptic episodes was a fruitful endeavor. In other words, focusing on the brain doesn’t by itself disregard or discount what emerges through it.
2. Baba Faqir Chand, as I have written about extensively before, was a most remarkable Indian sage, primarily because of his disarming honesty and frankness in talking about his own spiritual quest and what he uncovered. In the Unknowing Sage, Faqir recalls a momentous incident concerning the first vision he had of his future guru, Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal, otherwise known as Data Dayal:
“In the meantime, I got a permanent job in the Indian Railways and was posted as Assistant Station Master at Baganwala Railway Station. But my craving to see the lord did not diminish; rather it reached its peak. Once, I wept for 24 hours continuously for the glimpse of my Lord. Doctors were called in and they administered medicine to me. At about 5 A.M. Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal Ji Maharaj appeared in my vision. He drew water from a near well and gave me a bath and then told me his address of Lahore. In this very vision my father also appeared and he made many complaints to Data Dayal Ji against me. In the meanwhile, a class IV employee woke me and this vision came to abrupt end. This vision convinced me that the God had incarnated Himself in the form of Maharishi Shiv Brat Lal Ji. So, I started to write one letter every week and address it at the address, which Data Dayal Ji had told me in the vision. Inside the letter I always addressed Maharishi Ji as God. For ten months I regularly wrote to Data Dayal Ji. After full ten months, I received a letter from Data Dayal Ji Maharaj, wherein he wrote, “Faqir, your letters, I have beenreceiving regularly. I value your sentiments and your passions for Lord. I,myself have discovered, Reality, Truth and Peace at the feet of Rai Sahib Salig Ram Ji of Radhaswami-Matt. Provided you feel no reluctance in following this path, come and see me at Lahore”
For a number of years, Faqir was convinced that the vision was not self-projected since it contained the correct address of Shiv Brat Lal, a guru he apparently had never heard of. But years later, after Faqir realized that such visions were indeed projections of his own mind (drawn as they were from information from his day to day interactions), he reflected that he must have come upon one of Shiv Brat Lal’s many articles or magazines. Why? It turns out that Faqir’s guru was a prolific writer and a chief editor of Arya Gazzet and author (according to his official biography) of more than 3,500 books/booklets/essays in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, and English. Given Shiv Brat Lal’s enormous literary output and popularity, Faqir recalled that he was exposed to such literature and must have seen his guru’s address before his illustrious vision.
I distinctly remember when Faqir explained much of this to me personally when I met him in the foothills of the Himalayas in the summer of 1978 when I was on a research project to compile the largest genealogical tree to date of shabd yoga gurus connected to the founder of Radhasoami, Shiv Dayal Singh, who died in 1878. When Faqir was appointed as his guru’s successor, many of his disciples (and even some devotees of Shiv Brat Lal) started have startling visions of him in their time of need or in deep meditation or for a few when they underwent a near-death experience. Yet Faqir had no knowledge whatsoever of appearing to these people. As Faqir explained to me, “Now, you see no Jesus Christ comes from without in anybody’s visions. No Rama, no Krishna, no Buddha, no Baba Sawan Singh, no Baba Charan Singh and no Baba Faqir comes from without to any body. The visions are only because of the impressions and suggestions that a disciple has already accepted in his mind. These impressions and suggestions appear before him like a dream. No body comes from with out. This is the plain truth.”
Faqir’s deep realization, controversial as it is within more orthodox shabd yoga circles, dovetails almost precisely with the Tibetan Book of the Dead which may be the most skeptical religious text in history, particularly when it proclaims, "O son of noble family, if you do not recognize them [the various lights and apparitions] as your projections, whatever meditation practice you have done during your life, you have not met with this teaching, the coloured light will frighten you, the sounds will bewilder you and the rays of light will terrify you. If you do not understand this essential point of the teachings you will not the recognize the sounds, lights and rays, and so you will wander in samsara."
Faqir was not amiss in the least in trying to find a simpler, and more rudimentary psychological explanation for what on the surface appeared to be supernatural. He was utilizing intertheoretic reductionism, even if he was not conversant with such terms. How did this process help him in the long run? It made him realize that he could go beyond such mental phenomena since it had no binding force. This is similar to when we have a frightening dream and wake up within the dream knowing that it is merely a passing phantasm generated by our unconscious. This type of realization is liberating.
Faqir’s realization came into sharper focus for me this past year when I went to India to give a plenary presentation at the Quantum and Nano Computing Systems and Applications Conference held at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Uttar Pradesh. Before I undertook the three-hour journey from Delhi to Agra, I got a chance to meet with Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal, current spiritual leader of Manavta Mandir in the Punjab, and a longtime friend who I first met at Faqir Chand’s ashram back on Guru Purnima day in July of 1978. We even went together to the Bhrigu Samhita, the ancient astrological book that I first wrote about back in 1982 and republished with additional material on Integral World.
Professor Kamal initially met Baba Faqir Chand in 1956 and knows his teachings probably better than anyone now living. Professor Kamal related to me that he used to have inner visions of Faqir in his meditation. However, an incident occurred concerning his father that changed the course of his spiritual development.
In 1972, Professor Kamal’s father was seriously ill and had an extraordinary experience (probably best described as a near-death vision), where he was taken out of his body into the upper astral regions by two persons in white clothing. He then witnessed a line of people receiving a karmic review of their good and bad deeds and being sent to various regions because of them. Kamal’s father prayed at that moment to be released from this judgment and right then his son appeared (Professor Bhagat Ram Kamal) along with Baba Faqir Chand who then instructed the two persons in white (and apparently those doing the karmic review) to release Kamal’s father and send him back to his body.
After this NDE, Kamal’s father explained in detail to his sons what happened to him and how he was saved. Professor Kamal was wonderstruck by it and went to Baba Faqir Chand to tell him in detail about what happened to his father and to thank him. Faqir then asked Professor Kamal if he was aware of appearing to his father like that and Kamal looked at his guru and pulled both his left and right ears down in a very humble gesture admitting that he was quite unaware of appearing to his father. Baba Faqir Chand then explained to his disciple that all such visions (even the visions that Professor Kamal was having of him) were illusions, projections of his own mind due to his faith and concentration. This is a point Faqir has discussed in detail in his many books.
“O, man your real helper is your own ‘Self’ and your own FAITH, but you are badly mistaken and believe that somebody from without comes to help you. No Hazrat Mohammad, No Lord Rama, Lord Krishna or any God or goddess or Guru comes from without. This entire game is that of your impressions and suggestions which are ingrained upon your mind, through your eyes and ears and of your FAITH and BELIEF. This is the change that I am ordained to bring about.”
I have elaborated on Faqir’s revelations since it demonstrates how even those steeped in a yogic tradition (and who focus on the transcendental) have found tremendous benefit in being skeptical of even the most intimate of spiritual phenomena. Faqir and Kamal are mystics in the deepest and best sense of that term. But they are also grounded in a profound skepticism, since they do not want to naively believe something without sufficient evidence. Their approach isn’t novel, but one that has a long tradition in certain schools of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and even Christianity. As the Tibetan Book of the Dead enjoins, “The Lords of Death are your own hallucinations. . . . Apart from one's own hallucinations, in reality there are no such things existing outside oneself as Lord of Death, or god, or demon. Act so as to recognize this.”
3. Elliot Benjamin also raises the issue of synchronicities and argues that he is in the “middle” or “agnostic” position concerning whether his repeated number sightings are due to mere probability or “could involve a generalization of our currently accepted quantum physics theories for sub-atomic particles, though how this could possibly work to bring about the kind of events that I have experienced with music and mathematics is completely unknown territory.”
While I can readily appreciate Benjamin’s openness to varying interpretations of such phenomena, I don’t think accepting a purely naturalistic explanation lessens the powerful lessons he has learned from such desultory decussations (def.: random events intersect to form an X like intersection where we might find highly unusual but nevertheless meaningful). As I argued back in November of 2010 in a video presentation to the SPIRCON conference at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute, we have a bad tendency of thinking that if something is “just” matter or “just” chance that it somehow demeans the extraordinariness of the event. But this is simply not the case. As I wrote in Mysterium Tremendum, “A very strong argument can be made that the real problem with materialism (the idea everything that arises is nothing but permutations of matter) isn’t that it is the exact opposite of spirit or that it somehow diminishes human consciousness, but rather that we do not properly appreciate what the word actually means and what it entails. To say something is ‘just’ matter is akin to say something is ‘just’ light (which matter, by the way, also contains). Even when intertheoretic reductionisms hold true there is no ‘just’ about it, since the very phenomena under inspection doesn’t lose its mystery by being contextually or algorithmically comprehended. If someone says that the Atlantic is merely H20, the ocean and all its magnificence isn’t lessened by such molecular equations. The trouble isn’t with matter or our tendency to ground all properties to it, but rather that we are assuming that matter is one thing when it is completely the opposite of that.”
The reason why we don’t need a new and deeper understanding of atomic physics to understand license plate synchronicities is because we already have a simpler and better explanation for why such coincidences happen in the first place. And it comes from a deeper understanding of mathematics and statistics, as has been pointed out in detail in a number of studies, including the recent one by David Hand in his popular book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. As Issac Newton articulated a few centuries ago very clearly in his Rules of Reasoning in philosophy (see Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy):
“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.”
As a surfer for nearly 45 years and spending countless hours in the ocean, I have been privy to all sorts of improbable coincidences riding waves so I can well appreciate Elliott Benjamin’s cautionary agnosticism in this regard. But a deeper understanding of oceanography has demonstrated to me and to countless other wave riders that given a large enough number of events, truly spectacular events are bound to occur. For instance, there is well over 300 million cubic miles of water on our planet, as Wallace J. Nichols, points out in his new book, Blue Mind. Given such a huge volume of H20 there is a colossal number of possibilities within this saline arena, most of which remains unexplored. To appreciate this incredible vastness keep in mind that in only one cubic mile there is well over 1 trillion gallons of water. 300 million multiplied by 1 trillion is a number that staggers our imagination. Yet, this is statistic is almost nothing when compared to how immensely big our observable universe is, which is roughly estimated to be at least 90 billion light years in diameter and continually expanding at an accelerating rate. Of course, if this universe is part of an unseen multiverse (containing innumerable astronomical systems) our very notion of numbered measurements may be likened to a young girl trying to count all the grains of sand around the world one by one.
Yet, just because synchronicities can be explained by probability doesn’t make them any less fantastic. We are probability avatars and in a world predicated upon chance and necessity (to echo Jacques Monod’s famous title of the 1970s) we should expect the unexpected.
I remember the very first International bodysurfing contest I won back in the summer of 1997. I had tried unsuccessfully for nearly 8 straight years to win but to no avail, try as I might. I spent hours trying to master certain difficult techniques, such as sustaining prolonged underwater dolphin take-offs and reentries, three-fold spinners, retaining my breath (and my fear) in deep cavernous tubes and anything else that I saw the masters of the sport doing. But surf contests are fickle events, since much of it depends on wave intervals and constantly changing wave shape, so that luck (or the lack thereof) plays havoc on even the most seasoned veterans.
I was in the Finals and there was really no chance I was going to win. All the waves coming through that day were lefts and I was positioned 10 yards away from the pier. If a wave was going to come I would have to ride a right peak (which were non-existent that day) and do something I had never done before in a contest and that was shoot the pier bodysurfing, a maneuver I had performed many times stand-up surfing, but never with just my body given how gnarled my face would be if I messed up and smashed into the barnacle filled pilings. The ocean then went flat. Right at that moment I remembered when my friends and me had invented a silly chant to call in more waves when we were young (“Voodoo Voodoo and Two More Waves”) and how it had mysteriously worked on occasion. And just as I was thinking this thought, to my utter astonishment a large right set loomed on the horizon and with just seconds before the closing horn was sounded I caught the wave, shot the pier, and rode the wave to the sand. My closest competitor was on the beach at the time and shook his head in disbelief that I had somehow managed to catch the best wave of the entire heat. Needless to say, I was beyond the moon when I learned that I had won the contest.
How did this happen? Did I will that wave just at the appropriate time? Did my secret mantra really help Neptune wake up and send me that much needed folding envelope of energy? Nope. It was just chance, just probability. It was, to be a bit more accurate, the nature of the ocean. We don’t need to invoke esoteric or superluminal doctrines to understand that in an ocean of innumerable possibilities improbable events are destined to happen and happen they must given such a large liquid arena. Yes, it can be startling but my winning that particular contest is not diminished because I realize that chance played a huge part in my success. Chance has also played a huge part in why much more capable surfers never win contests, even though they have a skills that sets them apart from other lesser mortals.
4. Finally, I think the remainder conjecture can be seen (ironic as this may at first appear) as a spiritual tool and a very necessary one for those on a mystic quest. As Elliot Benjamin and I know very well from years of research on new religious leaders and their respective movements, there are a large number of charlatans who can deceive their followers by all sorts of underhanded tricks that to ardent devotees appear to be the real deal.
I remember one very bright computer engineer who contacted me back in the late 1970s after reading my critical expose’ of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar. He had been a member of that group for a couple of years and truly believed that Twitchell was telling the truth that he had traveled to India in the 1930s and met a shabd yoga adept by the name of Sudar Singh in Allahabad who later introduced him to a mysterious master named Rebazar Tarzs who was over five hundred years old living in a small hut in the Himalayan mountains. This computer engineer who claimed to have had visions of Rebazar Tarzs in his dreams was utterly dumbfounded when he learned from my book that Twitchell had lied about his past and had never gone to India in the 1930s as he claimed in many books. Instead, Twitchell invented these names more or less as cover names for real gurus he had met in the 1950s, such as Swami Premananda of the Self-Revelation Church (associated with Yogananda’s SRF), Kirpal Singh of Ruhani Satsang, and L Ron Hubbard of Scientology, each of whom he met in the United States. Paul Twitchell never went to India as he boasted, except in his imagination. This prompted the computer engineer to leave Eckankar.
I didn’t talk to him for a few years until he called me up to tell me about how he had fallen in love with the teachings of John-Roger Hinkins of MSIA. He seemed genuinely excited about J.R., as he was affectionately called by those who knew him, and wanted to know my opinion of him. I immediately hesitated since I knew far too much about John-Roger’s nefarious activities and I didn’t want to disappoint him with what had been uncovered. But he persisted and I sent him extensive documentation concerning how John-Roger had robbed my house, threatened to kill my wife, and how he had intimidated those very close to him who left after they found his duplicity overwhelming, not to mention his underhanded criminal activities. The computer engineer was devastated. I told him not to rely solely on me and instead do some extensive research which he did and he found out even more sordid details about J.R. that even I was not privy to. After this we saw each other a bit more often and I knew that he was still on a spiritual quest and he held out hope that he would one day find the ideal master. Well, you can probably guess what happened next, given this man’s run of encountering (or attracting?) less than stellar gurus. I got a phone late one night from the computer engineer, now friend, who was happy to report that he had finally met a Master of the highest integrity. When he told me that his newfound teacher was none other than Thakar Singh, I almost bit my tongue and hung up the phone right then and there. I was completely silent and didn’t say a word. But he knew something was fishy and I still vividly recall his query or was it a plaintive plea, “David, don’t tell me that I got suckered again by another charlatan?” I wanted to stay mum, but he persisted and I said, “Well, let me put it this way. I would follow ten Paul Twitchells’ and five John-Rogers’ before I followed Thakar Singh.”
He yelled, “John-Roger threatened your wife’s life, robbed your house, and you are telling me that he is worse than that?”
I said, “Yep. He is on the very top of my scum bag guru list. The worst of the lot and I have met a number of them. I lived with Thakar Singh for a week in Old Delhi when I was on a research project in India, so I am not talking purely academically here.”
I then proceeded to direct my friend to Thakar Singh’s former North American Representative who left in fear of her life after what she had personally witnessed. I also gave him reams of documents relating what Thakar had done to women and children under his care.
Why do I bring all this up in light of the “remainder conjecture”? Because it highlights why I think it is vitally important to be as skeptical as possible about those who make extraordinary claims. This can range from New age teachers to those alleging to have miraculous powers of healing.
I am not claiming that the paranormal doesn’t exist. No, I am arguing that looking for materialist explanations first (and exhaustively as possible) is a powerful means to differentiate the potentially transcendent from that which is incidental and natural. If we forego this tool (and its implications), we run the very real risk of being duped or even worse becoming hapless pawns in a con game.
Yes, we should also heed Elliot Benjamin’s wise counsel of not opting for premature conclusions (even if materially warranted), lest we also error on the side of anti-informational cynicism.
I oftentimes feel that we don’t demand enough of those who make extraordinary claims. There is nothing wrong if we simply ask for more evidence and more proof. If something really is true in that realm, it isn’t going to disappear because some magician or professor or skeptic wants more, not less, data and confirmation. Near-Death experiences (or, more accurately, the reporting of such), for instance, will only benefit by increased skepticism. Why? Because if they really are signposts from beyond the brain, then no matter how sophisticated our MRI’s become, they will not be able to constrain a consciousness that transcends all such empirical measurements.
I learned about the power of skepticism (and the irony here is rich indeed) not from my Ph.D. and M.A, studies at the University of California, San Diego but from devoted followers of varying cults I had exposed in my career. No matter what evidence I proffered which showed that Paul Twitchell was a plagiarist or that he had lied about his past, it was never enough for certain believers. Instead of seeing this as a form of pathological ridiculousness (which to be confessional I did at times) I took it as a goad, a challenge, a unique opportunity of upping my game. This forced me to do further research and the result was that I learned more and added more evidence over time to back up my claims.
This I suggest is really the practical utility of the remainder conjecture. As odd as this may sound at first, intertheoretic reductionism can be seen as Occam’s Razor in service of the Numinous. That is why I feel strongly that those most interested in a spiritual view of the universe are best served by exploring eliminative materialism to its fullest.
In closing I want to thank Elliot Benjamin once again for writing a thoughtful and engaging article that made me think anew about a subject close to my heart. I believe Elliot was touching upon an important truth when he wrote, “Perhaps David Lane and I are talking about the same thing, but in a different language.”
I agree, and perhaps more importantly, I think his alternative threefold Critical-Skeptical-Agnostic approach is a welcome one and to this CSA acronym I would like to repeat with what I said earlier: yes, yes, and yes.