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).
Why a Spiritual Perspective Needs
Science to Make Sense of the World
Science's emphasis on looking for physical causes and correlations is a “matter” of focus.
I perversely enjoyed Steve Taylor's recent essay ["Beyond Materialism"] precisely because I completely disagree with it. Indeed, I can summarize my disagreement with his thesis quite easily by taking his subtitle “Why science needs a spiritual perspective to make sense of the world” and reversing it into “Why a spiritual perspective needs science to make sense of the world.”
This is not to say that Taylor's essay is without merit, but only that in championing his anti-materialism views he is arguing against a bogey man of his own making. For example, Taylor makes grandiose and all-encompassing statements which betray the very nuance necessary to make a cogent argument, particularly when he claims that “Materialism denies the reality of mind,” neglecting to distinguish who precisely holds such a view or to point out that empirical scientists don't deny the mind as such, but only that it should be understood as part and parcel of the brain that generates it.
But more importantly (and the wording here is intentional, even if it is an ironic pun), science's emphasis on looking for physical causes and correlations is a “matter” of focus. We can take any host of examples to illustrate why this attentional stance works and why the “asana of science” (to crib Adi Da's clever phrase) continues to align itself with such a posture. Simply put, it works and produces tremendous results.
Science, in general, is looking for explanations behind why the world operates as it does and because of this it is grounded in verifying its speculations within the physical arena where we can experiment, test, compete varying hypothesis with each other, and make real-time and real-space predictions.
If we want to understand why large ocean waves from the south tend only to arise during the months of April to October in California, we look first to oceanography and weather patterns, paying particular attention to storms off New Zealand or the coast of Chile or hurricanes below the tip of Baja. Now it could well be that the King Neptune in his divine chicanery likes to trick humans and only sends waves out from the south to mislead us into believing that massive winds generate long distance swells. But since looking for such metaphysical beings doesn't produce any usable outcomes we have quite understandably given up on invoking Roman or Greek gods as necessary explanations. Same holds true, of course, when we get a flat tire. It could well be that there is a Michelin ghost that likes to live off air embedded in rubber circular tubes and goes around deflating tires throughout the United States. But since we have better mundane explanations (nails, glass, wear and tear) nobody really believes in these air sucking apparitions.
Thus, it isn't that scientists are merely myopic in their emphasis on looking at the empirical world for answers, but only that such physical centering is a first line of inquiry precisely because it has been so bountiful in providing us with enormous sets of data about how certain things behave.
Yet, Taylor persists in confusing science's spotlight with an overarching metaphysic, forgetting that they are two distinct issues and conflating them together is not only misleading but completely unnecessary. For example, just because a neuroscientist wishes to reverse engineer the brain to better understand consciousness doesn't mean that because of his/her approach that “nothing but matter exists.” That is an unnecessary leap, since a means doesn't equal an end. Rather, it indicates that studying the neural net and how neurons interact is a very fruitful endeavor in itself. It already has helped us better understand such neurological disorders as Vascular, Lew body, and Frontotemporal dementia, not to mention how Huntington's disease causes nerve cell degeneration.
Would a spirit-first agenda have discovered this? No, but if it did and it was really fruitful in making the kind of remarkable determinations that modern neuroscience has already achieved in its field, then guess what? It too would be a major tool in the scientist's toolkit, regardless of whatever “ism” one is entrenched in. Science is practical above all else and that is the reason why researchers concentrate on astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology since those endeavors have revealed much more about how the universe at large works and our place within it than philosophies or religions which have a “panspiritism” purview.
I realize there are some that abhor the word “reductionism” but the fact remains that intertheoretic reductionism has been remarkably successful in explaining hitherto unaccounted for mysteries. Does this mean that “only” reductionism works? No, but it does suggest that anyone interested in the paranormal, spirituality, or “beyond matter” would be wise to take a physicalist approach first and not disdain such a process a priori since it upends one's cherished Ista-devata.
Steve Taylor seems to be in a rush which is highlighted when he writes,
“And the third major issue that materialism does not actually work well as a way of explaining the world. Its explanatory power is actually very limited. On the one hand, there are a wide range of 'anomalous' phenomena that it cannot account for, from psychic phenomena to near-death experiences and spiritual experiences. These are 'rogue' phenomena that have to be denied or explained away, simply because they don't fit into the paradigm of materialism, in the same way that the existence of fossils doesn't fit into the paradigm of fundamentalist religion. On the other hand, there are many scientific and philosophical issues that it cannot adequately explain, such as consciousness, the relationship between the mind and brain (and the mind and the body), altruism and even evolution.”
To the contrary, scientists have made enormous progress in understanding “rogue” phenomena especially since the information we garner about any so-called paranormal event tends to yield (via Occam's Razor and Laplace's Dictum) a less complicated explanation. The real problem, I would suggest, is that we haven't fully explored or exhausted the physicalist world enough and instead we invoke spirits of the gaps like causations in our desire to bring back god or purpose into the proceedings. Now it may well be that our physics and biology and psychology is insufficient to the task at hand, but we won't actually know that if we prematurely abdicate the hard work necessary and opt for unverifiable metaphysical overlays.
A good example of this rush to judgement can be seen in Jeffrey Kripal's essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education where he attempted to seduce us with stories of how researchers were ignoring amazing stories of psychic foreknowledge since they didn't fit into their preset paradigms. He even went so far as to suggest that Mark Twain had a psychic dream about his younger brother's death that couldn't be explained by science. Yet, it took me (not even a Twain scholar or should I say Samuel Clemens expert?) all of thirty minutes to unearth pertinent contextual details that showed exactly why Twain had such a dream and why it was anything but psychic given what had transpired during those momentous weeks leading up to Henry's untimely death. Over the course of time, the more information we can unearth about any so-called paranormal happening the more likely it turns out to have a naturalistic cause.
But we won't find this out, if we blitzkrieg away from being patient, empirical detectives.
This, again, doesn't mean that physical explanations are the sum total of reality, but only that we don't want to unnecessarily commit a Wilberian pre/trans fallacy in our hopes for a teleological drive behind evolution or that Eros has an overall plan for our liberation.
I realize that (like Karl Popper who apparently popularized the term) advocating a physics-first approach may be criticized in some corners as “promissory materialism” but such an overused canard actually betrays what science is trying to achieve.
A physicalist approach is not anti-spiritual in the least since if there really is something “beyond matter” then the surest way to discover that is not by foregoing physics and biology but by letting them fully examine the natural world through rigorous skepticism. That very skepticism will reveal what mere belief cannot.
“My own hunch is that the most fruitful avenue for the scientific study of awareness is to fully exhaust a physical explanation of it first. This does not mean, of course, that such an endeavor will be successful or that consciousness is merely the result of a neural net, but only that if our efforts fail we will be left with a most interesting remainder which in itself will be highly instructive about the nature of awareness. More precisely, unless we fully option a materialist approach, we run the very real risk of prematurely optioning something as spiritual when, in fact, given better instrumentation and technical prowess it may well have been the result of subtle neuronal discharges. The good news in advocating this consilient approach is that if our self-reflective consciousness is ultimately non-physical, then our science will end up driving itself to the very brink of an epistemological cul de sac and in the process reveal that which cannot be explained away. The materialist agenda, I suggest, should be fully embraced, by those most engaged in a spiritual quest since it is, ironically, the surest pathway to discover that which is immune to our rationalist inspections.”
Taylor's essay is not only exaggerated but quite misleading, particularly when he can write,
“. . . Materialism is hopelessly inadequate. A metaphysical paradigm which can't account for so many fundamental aspects of human experience and the world should surely be discarded. We surely deserve a more satisfactory metaphysical paradigm, which can explain the world more coherently and doesn't deny the reality of so much of our experience.”
First, science as a process doesn't deny anyone's experience as such, but rather tries through a variety of tools to understand them. That our scientific ideas change and get corrected over time is what makes it so progressive. Second, confusing the method of science with an ontological end game is bad philosophy. Those working on the large Hadron collider at CERN are trying to unlock the mysteries of the atomic world by smashing protons against each other at extreme speeds. They have made extraordinary discoveries in doing such, though there is still much that remains a mystery. But do we lament their efforts because they don't opt for “panspiritism” where one takes a consciousness first approach? No, like the title of my article points out, “It's a matter of focus.”
The very discussion we are having on Integral World was brought to us by those communicative and mathematical pioneers who developed ways to compress information down to its minimal substrates. Ironically, these mathematically gifted reductionists have provided us with a web of hugely semantic meaning, despite the fact that when stripped to its core we are only using a binary code of 0's and 1's by turning on and off electronic signals at the level of miniscule silicon chips. In a famous paper (later published as small book), A Mathematical Theory of Information, Claude Shannon provides a glimpse of how this was going to be accomplished:
“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem. The significant aspect is that the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages. The system must be designed to operate for each possible selection, not just the one which will actually be chosen since this is unknown at the time of design. If the number of messages in the set is finite then this number or any monotonic function of this number can be regarded as a measure of the information produced when one message is chosen from the set, all choices being equally likely. As was pointed out by Hartley the most natural choice is the logarithmic function. Although this definition must be generalized considerably when we consider the influence of the statistics of the message and when we have a continuous range of messages, we will in all cases use an essentially logarithmic measure.”
Taylor believes in his essay that
“From the panspiritist point of view, consciousness does not emerge from complex arrangements of material particles; it isn't located in certain areas of the brain, or produced by certain types of brain activity. Consciousness doesn't emerge from matter because it was already there, as a fundamental quality of the universe. The brain does not produce consciousness, but it acts a kind of receiver which transmits and canalises fundamental consciousness into our own being. Via the brain (not just the human brain, but that of every other animal), the raw essence of universal consciousness is canalised into our own individual consciousness. And because the human brain is so large and complex, it is able to receive and canalise consciousness in a very intense and intricate way, so that we are (probably) more intensely and expansively conscious than most other animals.”
The problem I see with Taylor's twist on this theory is that if consciousness is indeed a fundamental quality of the universe, I see no compelling reason why it would need “large and complex” brains to better display it. Moreover, and contrarian to Taylor's lamentations about all things “material,” studying the physical constraints of the brain should actually be first on his scientific agenda because if as he suggests such complex entities are “receivers and transmitters” of this gravity like force called consciousness then understanding why such awareness waxes and wanes due to biochemistry and cranial capacity would be of elemental importance. So even here, the physicalist agenda holds court.
Let me conclude with a more personal example about why I am such a strong advocate of physics and neuroscience in the study of consciousness as our commencement point. My childhood friend Bob has recently been admitted to a memory care loss center because of his increasingly severe dementia. Given all the possible scenarios for understanding why such a tragic thing has happened to this happy go lucky surfer-musician, it is fairly obvious to me and to his entire family, but more importantly to his doctors, that his present disease was triggered by a serious stoke that happened to him several years prior. In looking for a cure, doctors are focusing on his brain from a purely physicalist perspective. They are not engaged in ontological arguments about whether his brain is a receiving station for some indelible spiritual force or whether materialism is bankrupt. No, they are exclusively studying the brain to see if they can find some pathway to repair what has been damaged.
In sum, they are being practical, not philosophical. Or, as I have often quipped to my students in my own Critical Thinking courses in college, “Philosophy done well is science. Philosophy done poorly remains philosophy.”
I would suggest that the study of consciousness will benefit greatly if we keep to the matter in our heads first before invoking imaginary forces or beings in our impatience for final answers. Can you imagine if Francis Crick and James Watson and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin fell under Henri Bergson's spell of “Élan vital” instead of being influenced by Linus Pauling and Erwin Schrödinger (specifically his 1943 lectures later published in 1944 as a book under the title, What is Life?) which encouraged them to find the secret of genetics in the physical structure of DNA?
This doesn't mean that Shakespeare's Hamlet is wrong: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But only that we won't truly get “beyond” matter until we have fully explored all of its subtleties first.