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
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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 DOUBTING MEDITATOR
Is Radhasoami Really A Science?
A Cautionary Note
“If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”-- Tenzin Gyatso
“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”-- Galileo Galilei
"You cannot meet God until you carry within yourself the dagger of disbelief.”--Kabir
If Radhasoami really wants to be a science then it has to do that which it has failed to accomplish so far: be willing to be wrong.
Radhasoami satsangs, particularly those at Beas and at Dayalbagh, have advertised themselves as a scientific enterprise. However, on closer inspection they both seem to have much more in common with religion than science, despite their concerted efforts to create a “science of the soul.”
Ninian Smart, the late Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of many seminal books, argues that religion has seven major dimensions: 1) Myths; 2) Rituals; 3) Experiences; 4) Doctrines; 5) Ethics; 6) Social Aspect; 7) Material Forms. Radhasoami fits Smart’s model almost to a tee and by his yardstick would be cataloged as a religion, albeit a new and emerging one worldwide.
Gurinder Singh (the current head of Radhasoami Satsang Beas) and P.S. Satsangi (the current head of Dayalbagh Satsang Agra) want to emphasize how Radhasoami serves as a scientific model for exploring higher states of consciousness. Yet, their respective definitions of science are invariably intertwined with a specific theological agenda. And, as such, gives one pause about whether Radhasoami is really a science or just wants to appear scientific so that its spiritual practices and aims will be taken more seriously.
This came into sharp focus for me this past year when I gave a talk in India at the International Conference on Quantum and Nano Computing Systems and Applications at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra. I argued that understanding how consciousness evolved in the first place was elemental and that would-be mystics should also be trained skeptics. Just as we can be deceived by our brain in this world (what my wife Andrea calls the “cerebral mirage”) without being aware of it, so too can the meditator being duped by in his/her interior explorations.
It is a simple point, but one which has devastating implications for any religion that believes that it has already uncovered the ultimate truth of the universe. If our senses can (and do) betray us about what we see and hear and smell, so too can our consciousness mislead us about the reality of our inner experiences.
The present guru at Dayalbagh, P.S. Satsangi, heard my entire talk and later after some impromptu remarks I made at a panel discussion, he spoke for about ten minutes expressing his disagreement with my emphasis on being skeptical of the mystical. It seemed as if my wife Andrea (whose talk was even more pointed than my own) and I had hit a sensitive nerve since we were calling into question the absoluteness of Radhasoami’s cosmological schema.
It appears that Radhasoamis want to embrace science provided that it dovetails with their own belief system.
Not once have I ever heard a Radhasoami guru (with the notable exception of Baba Faqir Chand) admit that a long held doctrine or tenet was mistaken. Not once has a Dayalbagh or Beas guru corrected a previous master in their lineage as being mistaken. Why?
How can Radhasoami really be taken seriously as a scientific path if one cannot question its very foundation?
While it is certainly true that Radhasoami is experientially based and advocates a systematic meditational technique, it never questions or doubt its founder’s writings at any point. Indeed, it accepts Shiv Dayal’s Sar Bachan as gospel and attempts to fit any and all scientific discoveries within its boundaries.
This is like physicists today never questioning Aristotle or never doubting Newton. Science progresses precisely because it doubts any and all authorities, even those with esteemed reputations like Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr. Biologists don’t bow dddown with bended knee to everything Charles Darwin wrote in On Origin of Species, despite how much they respect his insights. Chemists don’t take everything Linus Pauling wrote hook, line, and sinker. To be scientific is to question, to be corrected regardless of what status one might hold in the pantheon of reason.
Have Radhasoami gurus at Beas and Agra demonstrated this same kind of apprehension about its leaders and their history? No, and herein lies the heart of the problem with Radhasoamis billing themselves as a science. They want the prestige that a scientific aura gives them without undergoing the hard work of trial and error that is endemic to any true science.
“There can be no ultimate statements science: there can be no statements in science which can not be tested, and therefore none which cannot in principle be refuted, by falsifying some of the conclusions which can be deduced from them.” -- Karl Popper
Is it reasonable to call various Radhasoami satsang Beas centers throughout the United States as “Science of the Soul Research Centers” when none of these places have laboratories or research facilities of any kind? Instead, they are big halls designed for satsangs where the guru or his designated representative gives talks for an hour or so based on the teachings of previous saints. No deep investigation or experiments or analysis is ever conducted at any one of these centers.
What is Radhasoami Satsang Beas trying to accomplish by this sleight of hand entitlement? There are probably several reasons, but not one of them has anything to do with science as it is generally known and practiced.
Dayalbagh, on the other hand, is genuinely trying to conduct original research in shabd yoga by studying the brain waves of deep meditators within their community. They have even built a specially designed room that others and I witnessed first hand. Dayalbagh has also devoted significant time and money to holding conferences on consciousness studies, including the one I attended with my wife Andrea. They have invited renowned scientists such as Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford University to give talks and have encouraged many in their community to pursue studies exploring the connection between quantum theory and the mind. This is altogether commendable.
However, and my however here is a large one, Dayalbagh (like Beas) appears to have an underlying motive for why they are pursuing a neuroscientific understanding of consciousness and it is not as objective and value free as one might suspect.
A recent official newsletter PARITANTRIKA: General Systems News (Volume 9, No. 1, January 2015) explains quite clearly what Dayalbagh’s real agenda is all about.
“Dayalbagh and DEI have a major role to play and therefore a great responsibility devolves upon us to make ‘MISSION RADHASOAMI’ i.e. ‘MISSION CONSCIOUSNESS’ fully successful. We pray to the Supreme Father that the Dayalbagh community and DEI rise to the occasion, because this is one way of making Radhasoami spiritual philosophy a globally, scientifically accepted phenomenology. Earlier, people had tended to believe that, perhaps, some day, some top notch scientist would get converted to consistent and complete philosophy of consciousness of Radhasoami Faith and experience the inner phenomenon of highest spirituality and then, because of his authority, the rest of the world would accept this Faith. But in the present world in which we live, even the highest Nobel Laureate professing certain thought would not win over the entire world. SO WE HAVE TO CONVINCE THE SCIENTISTS by means of such integrationalist efforts as of holding conference series like TSC 2013 and continuing to participate in it at the world stage and publishing scientific documents on consciousness integrating eastern and western perspectives. Continuing such scientific exchanges seems to be the only practical course in making universal appeal at the global level for the ultimate consciousness perspective of Radhasoami Faith its due place in the evolving inner science of consciousness. . . . The following quote from Sir Sahabji Maharaj (Sir Anand Sarup Kt), Fifth Revered Leader of Radhasoami Faith, Who, in 1915, established Dayalbagh as well as various educational institutions in Dayalbagh, which are now celebrating their Centenary (1915-2015), spells out the Vision of our Mission Consciousness: “May the radiance of Satsang (Meditation through ‘Surat-Shabda Yoga’ of the Eastern Spiritual Philosophy of Saints) which has been kindled, be spread all over, after we have left, so that Mankind may know about your holy services and the magnificence and glory of our Supreme Father, resplendent in His Abode, spread all over the Cosmic Universe.”
This is quite a revealing document and underlines what others and I perceived when attending the QANSAS conference in November of 2014. Simply put, Dayalbagh wants to legitimize Radhasoami theology in the scientific world and believes it can do so by hosting and attending conferences on consciousness worldwide. On the surface this looks very impressive indeed, except that Dayalbagh isn’t interested in the pure and unadulterated study of consciousness, per se, but rather in championing its own theopneustic paradigm. Would Dayalbagh (or Beas) actually accept and appreciate a neuroscientific finding that contradicted its own religious beliefs? I think not.
In examining the Paritantrika newsletter closely a number of key words and phrases stand out which plainly illustrate why Dayalbagh is so adamant in pursuing a scientific pathway to bolster its religious aims:
1. Dayalbagh is not taking a wait and see attitude in its understanding of consciousness when it equates “mission consciousness” as synonymous with “MISSION RADHASOAMI,” followed with a supplicating prayer to the Supreme Father that “that the Dayalbagh community and DEI rise to the occasion, because this is one way of making Radhasoami spiritual philosophy a globally, scientifically accepted phenomenology.” Praying to a supreme deity to make sure your theory is accepted is contrary to the very essence of the scientific endeavor, particularly if one needs to be open to its refutation by experimentation. Given Dayalbagh’s modus operandi, it appears that any finding that contradicted their a priori divine creed would be rejected or explained away. Substitute Mission Radhasoami with any other ism (such as Mission Mormonism) and you can readily see through the evangelical propaganda.
2. Holding and attending international conferences to understand the latest research on consciousness is praise worthy, but to do so in order to convert others to Radhasoami’s worldview is, to be polite, manipulative at best. Why even worry if a Nobel prize winner or a top notch scientist sides with your view if you are truly interested in the research because it is evidence (and not authority figures) that matters in the end. But Dayalbagh doesn’t point to an open-ended inquiry when it admits that “continuing such scientific exchanges seems to be the only practical course in making universal appeal at the global level for the ultimate consciousness perspective of Radhasoami Faith its due place in the evolving inner science of consciousness.“ If Dayalbagh was genuinely interested in making Radhasoami scientific, it would be heavily invested in finding out where and when it has been wrong in its theoretic orientations in the past. But not once in any of its sanctioned presentations has a Dayalbagh researcher opened up this Pandora’s Box and asked the hard and necessary questions concerning mistakes that may have been made over time by its unique lineage of gurus. Instead, the Parintantrika newsletter posits its real agenda by quoting its Fifth spiritual leader and the founder of its colony, Sir (or Sri) Anand Sarup who detailed their scientific mission in purely theological terms when he exclaimed, “May the radiance of Satsang (Meditation through ‘Surat-Shabda Yoga’ of the Eastern Spiritual Philosophy of Saints) which has been kindled, be spread all over, after we have left, so that Mankind may know about your holy services and the magnificence and glory of our Supreme Father, resplendent in His Abode, spread all over the Cosmic Universe.” This is perfectly fine for a religious dogma but it shouldn’t be confused with an open-ended and objective quest to understand the true nature of consciousness and its causation, particularly if anything which contravenes the stated theology is swept away as irrelevant to “Mission Radhasoami.”
If Radhasoami really wants to be a science then it has to do that which it has failed to accomplish so far: be willing to be wrong. In other words, Dayalbagh and Beas cannot simply call themselves a science and not face the consequences of what that entails. They must, if they are serious in their quest, allow alternative and contravening interpretations of their inner experiences and not merely reconfigure such to fit their metaphysical schema. I suspect that Dayalbagh and Beas are not ready for such a radical endeavor.
This is not to suggest that Radhasoami doesn’t have anything to offer the scientific study of consciousness because I think it has much to contribute. Dayalbagh, for instance, is definitely on the right track by developing sophisticated neural scanning machinery to study brain waves of advanced shabd yoga meditators and reporting their findings. But they must be careful not to massage the resulting data to conform to a preset paradigm. To be sincere scientists, they must follow the evidence wherever it may lead them, even if it point blank contradicts their fundamental belief system.
I also believe that much of the religious mythology intertwined in Radhasoami has to be differentiated from its more universal aspects, lest one gets forever bogged down in unnecessary cultural baggage. The core of Radhasoami practice is shabd yoga and this technique (clearly defined in its three-fold method of simran, dhyan, and bhajan) offers much promise as a pathway to experience different and more lucid states of awareness. The experiences of shabd yogis are undoubtedly a treasure trove waiting to be explored. Nevertheless, we should not prematurely pontificate about their significance but rather encourage an open-ended inquiry into their ultimate meaning and purpose. Otherwise, we are engaged in a theological debate and not a scientific one. If Radhasoami wants to advertise itself as a science then it is time for it to live up to its own hype and question its own foundations versus trying to saddle up exclusively on those findings that buttress their spiritual purview. For Radhsoami science to be worthy of such an exalted appellation it should follow Charles Darwin’s lead and point to how its pet theorizing can be upended. As Darwin warned about the mechanism of evolution by natural selection, “"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down."
Do the Beas and Dayalbagh satsangs have any proviso that is even close to Darwin’s about how their respective theories on spirituality could be wrong in light of future neuroscientific research? No, and this I would suggest reveals in a nutshell why Radhasoami’s claims to be a science are deeply suspicious.
As Richard Feynman explained about the scientific method in his famous 1974 commencement address at Cal Tech,
“There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.”
While I certainly applaud and encourage Dayalbagh’s repeated efforts to have shabd yoga experimentation taken seriously, I think they must in turn contemplate seriously about how their particular view of higher states of consciousness (as revealed by their founder and in their holy writings) could be mistaken and how their own theological viewpoint could be changed. In this regard, I think they should follow the Dalai Lama’s lead concerning his openness to science disproving certain theological tenets in Tibetan Buddhism.
As Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer and skeptic wrote concerning the Dalai Lama, “In theological discussions with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central dogma of their faith were disproved by scientific discipline. When I put this question to the Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no traditionalist or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to alter. Even, I asked, if it’s a really central tenet, like reincarnation? Even then, he replied.”