THE METHOD

This book will discuss some fundamental issues, such as the nature and meaning of life, the nature of the mind, and biological, individual and social development. Before these subjects are considered though, the method used in the process needs to be clarified first.

Knowledge of the world, as the philosopher Aristotle argued many centuries ago, comes through experience interpreted by reason[1]. However, throughout history, experience as a source of knowledge has acquired different faces. For example, scientific observation is considered empirical (based on experience), but this is very different from ordinary experience - it is even assumed that to reach objectivity, scientists have to detach from any personal involvement. In fact, three qualitatively distinct types of experience can be recognised overall: personal experience, impersonal experience (observation), and transpersonal experience (experience that transcends common perception). These have led to three corresponding approaches to knowledge acquisition: common sense, science and spirituality. On the other hand, it is generally accepted that reasoning (the other component mentioned above besides experience) has given rise to philosophy[2].

What all these four approaches share is that they are dynamic processes. Due to language and other limitations, we can never grasp truth fully, but we can keep moving closer and closer. So, in principle, knowledge acquisition can go on endlessly. However, each of these approaches has been situated within social frameworks and practices that have an organising and restraining function. Common sense is rooted in various cultural settings, science is normally associated with materialism, spirituality is traditionally linked to various religions, and philosophy is frequently embedded in certain ideologies or ‘-isms' (such as Marxism, existentialism, post-modernism).

In this part, common misconceptions about these four approaches, their relevance, the relationship to their respective social frameworks, and their limitations are examined first. On this basis two claims are made. One is that each of them is incomplete on its own. The other is that remaining strictly within their respective frameworks is not helpful any longer. It is suggested that more comprehensive and coherent understanding than we have at present requires rising above the existing frameworks and the synthesis of essential elements imbedded in these approaches. A model that attempts to do so (and is implemented throughout the book) is described at the end.

  • [1]. The concern here is only with unmediated knowledge. Indirect sources, such as verbal communications or written materials, may well be the main ones nowadays. They are not included as a distinct category though, because of their derivative nature (in principle, they can be traced back to the above sources).
  • [2]. In practice, of course, none of these approaches relies strictly on one source, and they all use reason to some degree.

THE COMMON SENSE APPROACH

Common sense is based on ordinary personal experiences (that are then shared). Although often neglected in scholarly writings, it is the most widely spread way of acquiring knowledge, skills and understanding. Common sense essentially uses heuristic methods that enable drawing intuitive insights or tacit knowledge from our experience. Because of such a nature, common sense is best expressed through narratives (myths, stories, articles, movies), although its vocal supporters sometimes come from other fields (e.g. mathematician Thomas Reid and philosopher George E. Moore).

 

SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT COMMON SENSE

Common sense is less valid than other approaches - the success of science in particular has often led to a derogatory attitude towards common sense (sometimes labelled ‘folk psychology'). To show its apparent inferiority, the examples of people believing in the past that the Sun goes around the Earth or that the Earth is flat are often brought up. Common sense, indeed, can sometimes be wrong, but this cannot justify diminishing its value and importance. Most of the knowledge gained in such a way has at least a pragmatic validity. Other approaches, when they go against common sense, more often than not eventually appear to be mistaken. For example, during the reign of behavioural psychology many parents were indoctrinated to bring up children in the ‘scientific' manner, which appeared to be, at least in some instances, damaging for children and parents alike. Eventually, such ways of upbringing were abandoned and common sense prevailed again (even the wife of John Watson, who founded behaviourism, admitted that she was not a good behaviourist in this respect).

Common sense is simplistic - in fact, common sense is probably the most intricate approach of all. This is because it deals with non-linear, complex systems. Linear systems may be more precise, but they are inevitably simplifications and therefore not fully adequate in many situations.

Common sense is relativistic - common sense may, indeed, vary from individual to individual or from culture to culture to some extent, but it is often forgotten that what people share is much greater than what they do not. Common sense, stripped of its cultural idiosyncrasies, can be surprisingly universal. The differences are often the result of an adaptation to diverse (historical or present) circumstances. 

The relevance of common sense

Common sense is the basis for the other approaches. Science, philosophy and spirituality may try to move away from personal experiences but they all have roots in, and must start from common sense. As Reid pointed out, those who ignore the common-sense principles in building their metaphysics find their reductive constructions built upon sand, which makes reaching the conclusions that their own positions require impossible (Honderich 1995, p.142). Although science sometimes corrects the errors of common sense, even scientific theories ultimately depend on its support.

The other value of common sense is that it can deal with complex systems that are difficult to address adequately by using other approaches. Even with all the help of modern technology, science sometimes needs years to prove what is self-evident from the common sense perspective, and some phenomena may be so intricate that science or philosophy may never hope to achieve fully independent results and have to invoke a commonsensical evidential basis. Futurist Alvin Toffler (of ‘Future Shock’ fame) writes:

Where ‘hard data’ are available, of course, they ought to be taken into account. But where they are lacking, the responsible writer - even the scientist - has both a right and an obligation to rely on other kinds of evidence, including impressionistic or anecdotal data and the opinions of well-informed people (1970, p.15).

One simple example is that most of us have few difficulties accurately reading even subtle emotional states of others. After many years of research science is making some progress in this direction, but it is still far from being able to match the subtlety taken for granted in personal experiences.

Common sense has a huge practical value. Everyday life and human reactions are to a large extent based on personal experiences rather than scientific, spiritual or philosophical insights. Common sense does not rely on verbal interpretations, so it can be more direct and quicker. Such an intuitive grasp of a situation is often essential.

This approach can also guard against the extremes of the other ones. For instance, although reductionist science denies phenomena such as free will, the self and sometimes even the uniqueness of experience, ordinary life and language go on regardless, fully acknowledging them (e.g. every legal system is based on personal responsibility and hence, assumes the notion of free will[1]). There is a sort of ‘bad faith’  among scientists, philosophers and those with spiritual inclinations who take for granted certain beliefs in day-to-day life, but deny the same in their practices.

  • [1]. Judge David Hodgson has written extensively on this topic (see, for example, Hodgson, 1994).

Common sense and culture

As already mentioned, culture can be taken as a social framework of this approach. Any culture is, to a large extent, an external expression of common sense, its formalisation within a particular community. Such cultural frameworks have had an important role throughout history in the preservation and homogenisation of societies. However, culture can also be restrictive and distorting. Common sense tends to be solidified and transmitted inertly by the culture it is embedded in. This solidification is often the reason why common sense in some cases appears to be in conflict with rationality and gives rise to superstitions.

Superstitions are often associated with spirituality, mysticism and the like, but this is mistaken. Even atheists can be superstitious (and, of course, spiritual people may not be). It is more likely that superstitions and other cultural idiosyncrasies originate in individual or group interpretations of personal experiences that in some instances become collective beliefs. This is why there are many superficial differences among cultures. For example, a black cat crossing one’s path is interpreted as good luck in one culture and bad luck in another. Both interpretations might have had local historical bases that were lost, while only the form (in this case an association between the colour of a cat and luck) has remained. In other words, something that perhaps made sense in certain circumstances may be perpetuated by culture even after it ceases to make sense.

Hostility towards homosexuality in many cultures, for instance, could have been, to some extent, justified in the past by fear of annihilation, when a culture was preserved in relatively small communities that needed to reproduce in order to secure their survival. After all, the Spartans (who won the war against the Athenians) seemed to disappear partly due to practically constitutionalised homosexuality that led to a decrease in their population. However, nowadays, when there is no danger that a national entity or culture may be extinguished because of lack of off-spring, there is no reason for such hostility. Yet, many cultures still harbour an antagonistic attitude towards homosexuality. Other sinister attitudes such as chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, sexism and so on, may also have been cultural distortions of certain social processes (e.g. the division of labour) that may have made sense at a particular historical moment. The same, of course, applies to epistemological issues: how reality is perceived and interpreted. It is not surprising then, that many misunderstandings and unnecessary frictions surface in a world with so many cultures. This is not to say that cultural differences should be disregarded but, especially in multicultural societies, a heavy reliance on culture can be divisive rather than unifying (leading, in some cases, to self-imposed ghettoisation).

The limitations of common sense approach

The limitations of this (and other) approaches can be grouped in three categories: extrinsic ones (the result of factors extraneous to experience), limitations of common sense as a social practice (ensuing from the way knowledge is shared and communicated) and intrinsic limitations.

 

Extrinsic limitations

Bias - insights based on personal experiences are difficult to distinguish from one's preferences, desires or fears. They are often coloured by the character of the person and shis past. Also, there is a tendency to interpret these insights in such a way as to satisfy one's needs and confirm existing beliefs, which may give rise to superstition and other unproductive ways of explaining reality. Even if this subjectivity is avoided, such insights are shaped by specific circumstances and may lack universality.

Dogmatism - when beliefs based on common sense become embedded in a particular cultural framework, they are very difficult to change and often become dogmatic.

 

Limitations of common sense as a social practice

Elusiveness - common sense is based on clues often too complex and subtle to be rationally explained and systematically described. This is why common sense, more than any other approach, finds its expression in narrative art (from myths and dramatisations to stories and films). However, such a way of knowledge transmission may be sometimes vague and not easily understood.

 

Intrinsic limitations

Limited scope - common sense is limited in scope. Not all aspects of reality are accessible to personal (even if collective) experiences. The far corners of the universe, the world of subatomic particles, or the processes in the living cell, are not within the reach of common sense. By the same token, an exploration of reality beyond the ordinary perception require a transcendence of typical personal experiences. Furthermore, some understandings can only be achieved by using logic and reasoning in a more systematic and strict way than common sense usually does.

Imprecision - common sense relies on ‘rule of thumb' methods and, therefore, is not very precise. This often does not matter, but sometimes more exact methods are needed.

 

The above indicates that common sense is a valuable approach but not sufficient on its own, so it needs to be combined with other ones.

THE SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

This is the dominant approach at the moment. At its best, it combines inductive method (observation and experiment) and deductive method (e.g. theories, mathematical findings) and produces reliable explanations of natural phenomena.

 

SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SCIENCE

Science is a modern Western invention - there is a widespread belief that science was invented in Europe and did not exist before the 17th century. In fact, science has thrived in various parts of the world (e.g. in the Arabic, Indian and Chinese cultures) since ancient times. The science of the present day is influenced and partly based on their findings. Ancient and Middle Age Europe had science too (although, following St Augustine, the observation was rejected in favour of deduction). What modern science that started in the period of Enlightenment did, was to shift the emphasis to inductive method[1]. Its original aim was to dispose of speculations and place science on firmer foundations. However, over time, only the observation of natural phenomena and experiment have become a legitimate science.

 

Science and technology are the same - although they may contribute to each other, science and technology should not be equated. Science is about increasing human knowledge and understanding, while technology is about producing tools, more often on the basis of trial and error than scientific discoveries[2] (Edison, one of the greatest inventors, for example, was not a scientist). Technology existed before science and thrived even when science was suppressed (for example in Byzantium and occasionally in China). Science and technology have sometimes even been in conflict in the Western world. When the first commercial trains were produced, scientists warned that people could not tolerate travelling faster than 30mph. While the pioneers of air flights were struggling to make the first aircrafts, scientists (and journals such as the ‘Scientific American') stubbornly resisted the possibility that a heavy solid object could fly, and refused to acknowledge the success of the Wright brothers even after many demonstrations. William Preece, one of Britain's most distinguished scientists at that time, declared Edison's attempt to produce the electric bulb ‘a completely idiotic idea' and rejected Bell's telephone. There are many other examples of technology advancing not because of, but despite official science (and there are also examples of scientific discoveries that have much preceded their practical applications or technological devices that would support them). In practice, the difference between science and technology is clear. The patent law, for example, ‘draws a sharp distinction between a discovery, which makes an addition to our knowledge of nature, and an invention, which establishes a new operational principle serving some acknowledged advantage' (Polanyi, 1958, p.177). The latter can be patented; the former is the property of all. In recent times, however, for whatever reasons, identifying science and technology has been encouraged.

 

Science is only compatible with materialist ideology - this is often taken for granted by many scientists and non-scientists alike. Yet a materialistic position is not innate to science. Science was linked to materialism in the 19th century Europe to secure the supremacy of a particular method[3]. Many of science's greatest names were not materialists: Copernicus was a priest, and Mendel, the founder of genetics, was a monk; Newton was deeply religious (occasionally using theological arguments in science, such as when he suggested that the world has an atomic structure because it is most conducive to God's purpose). Even Galileo never had a quarrel with God, only with the Church; astrophysicist Lemaître who first proposed the idea of the Big Bang in the 1920s, was also a priest. The inventor of the laser and Nobel prize laureate for physics, Chares Townes, had spiritual inclinations, as well as Faraday, Joule, Kelvin, Maxwell, Tesla and even Einstein. Science neither has proved nor can prove that reality is only material. There is nothing intrinsic to science that would preclude the possibility of non-material aspects of reality, although studying such phenomena would possibly require a different method. In fact, some branches of science (e.g. quantum physics) have already moved away from assuming that matter and the laws that govern it make the basic fabric of the universe.

 

Science is about collecting data, classifying and describing observable phenomena - this is only one form of science. An attempt in the 19th century to reduce science to such endeavours did not succeed. In fact, there are three distinct aspects of science: theoretical insights based on rational principles and using methods such as mathematics, geometry and logic; empirical research based on observation and experiments; and the interpretation of data. These three aspects do not always go together. Some landmark theories were even based on incorrect data (e.g. Galileo's work, or the theory or relativity in relation to the Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887[4]). Einstein famously said that ‘it is theory that teaches us what observations are and what they mean' (Honderich, 1995, p.807).

 

Science is fully objective - scientifically ‘objective' means that a number of experts agree about the likelihood of certain claims. So, the objectivity of science is valid only within an already accepted framework (that itself cannot be objectively justified[5]). For example, what sort of experiments are carried out, what is looked for in an experiment, how the data is interpreted and so on, depend on the experimenters' pre-assumptions. Moreover, as historians and sociologists point out, ‘scientists often depend on patronage and choose their problems and their methods accordingly' (Honderich, 1995, p.808). Even if this is put aside, an ambiguity remains: how do scientists know that an experiment has been done in the right way if they do not know the right outcome? Relying on stringent procedures may not be enough. For instance, experiments on gravitational radiation suppose to establish whether these tiny fluctuations exist or not, but there are so many factors that can effect such experiments that any conclusion can be questioned. Although science strives to be objective, in many cases scientific certainties are not so much the result of experimental method, but rather the way often ambiguous results are interpreted. Perhaps not surprisingly, scientists tend to dismiss measurements or outcomes that do not fit with the established theories. The famous physicist Robert Oppenheimer allegedly commented: ‘We can't find anything wrong with it, so we will just have to ignore it'.

 

Scientific knowledge is proven knowledge - science heavily relies on and is biased in favour of inductive method (observation and experimentation). However, in the 18th century, the philosopher Hume pointed out that inductive method, though attractive and useful, was logically invalid. It is not only that the predictions one can make on the basis of induction are not fully reliable, but also that they are not even the only predictions consistent with the accumulated evidence. This is not to say that induction is not valuable, but that relying on this method alone is not sufficient. In an attempt to get around this problem, the philosopher of science Karl Popper argued that science is not about proving that a conjecture is true, but proving that it is false. This is called falsificationism. Science progresses by attempting to falsify theories rather than by proving them to be true.

 

Science provides a coherent, unified perspective - no branch of science provides a complete picture of its field. There are still many fundamental questions that remain unanswered (how the physical forces relate to each other, the origin of the universe and life, how proteins unfold and how an embryo is formed, what is consciousness and how it relates to the brain etc.). Some accepted theories are not even mutually compatible (e.g. the theory of relativity and quantum physics). Even within the same field certain phenomena are interpreted in contradictory ways (light, for instance, is sometimes considered a wave and sometimes a particle, although their properties are irreconcilable). Scientists among themselves often disagree, as the existence of many competing theories shows. In fact, according to the philosopher of science David Chalmers, there is no single category ‘science' (1980, p.166). Attempts to apply the same method to every branch of human knowledge have failed to produce the desired results.

 

The scientific worldview is timeless - despite the tendency to present scientific results and theories as timeless, they are in fact not. In the 1960s Thomas Kuhn famously proposed that science evolves through paradigm shifts - one dominant view is replaced with another, and this process does not depend only on scientific discoveries. An obvious example is a shift from the Maxwellian Electromagnetic view to the Einsteinian relativistic view, but there are many other albeit less grand cases in every branch of science. The concept of paradigm shifts in its original form may be open to some criticisms, but the validity of its basic tenet is hard to dispute. 

  • [1]. An inductive argument involves a generalisation based on a number of specific observations. A deductive argument, on the other hand, begins with particular premises, and then moves logically to a conclusion which follows from those premises. Therefore, deduction is more theoretical.
  • [2]. The following observation may be illuminating in this respect: ‘... up to [the mid nineteenth century] natural science had made no major contribution to technology. The industrial revolution had been achieved without scientific aid. Except for the Morse telegraph, the great London Exhibition of 1851 contained no important industrial devices or products based on the scientific progress of the previous fifty years. The appreciation of science was still almost free from utilitarian motives' (Polanyi, 1958, p.182).
  • [3]. The claim that all reality is physical was explicitly expressed even later, in 1963 by philosopher J. J. Smart, who stated that ‘there is nothing in the world over and above those entities which are postulated by physics' (1963, p.651).
  • [4]. According to Einstein's own account, the Michelson-Morley experiment had, in fact, a negligible effect on forming his theory. The philosopher of science, Polanyi, claims that ‘its findings were, on the basis of pure speculation, rationally intuited by Einstein before he had ever heard about it' (1958, p.10).
  • [5]. The following statement is still relevant: ‘Ernest Nagel writes that we do not know whether the premises assumed in the explanation of the sciences are true; and that were the requirement that these premises must be known to be true adopted, most of the widely accepted explanations in current science would have to be rejected as unsatisfactory. In effect, Nagel implies that we must save our belief in the truth of scientific explanations by refraining from asking what they are based upon. Scientific truth is defined, then, as that which scientists affirm and believe to be true' (Polanyi, 1969, p.73).

The relevance of science

Although some technological advances that profoundly affect human life have happened irrespective of and in some cases despite science, there is no doubt that science has drastically changed the world in one way or another. Its pragmatic value is well documented in every popular science book, but the contribution of science to knowledge and understanding should not be underestimated either. Not only has science in many cases stimulated inventions such as telescopes or microscopes, but it has also managed to utilise creatively the data produced by such instruments (e.g. using the ‘Doppler effect' to determine the movements of distant stars). The attempts of some scholars (such as Paul Feyerabend) to relativise science are undue exaggerations.

There is another aspect of science that makes it so relevant. The scientific approach provides procedures rather than only end-results. The transparency of the way particular results are obtained is important because it means that most of the findings can be tested by repeating the process, which enables greater objectivity, minimises reliance on authority and stimulates change. Such a practice makes science more progressive than those approaches that demand the acceptance of certain claims without any way to verify or (even more importantly) to refute them independently. This has not only a profound effect on understanding the natural world but on the human psyche too, because it enables everybody (at least in theory) to make informed judgements.

Focusing on the procedures also prevents science from being attached to a particular tradition, culture or nationality, so it is in a better position to attain greater universality. Unprecedented cross-cultural recognition is one of its significant achievements. Science classes throughout the world are remarkably similar, which says much about the universality of scientific knowledge. This may not be surprising, considering that science deals with phenomena that are easier to verify than those that are traditionally associated with spirituality or philosophy. Nevertheless, science has managed to achieve that to which religions have aspired for centuries.

The scientific approach also has a quality of concreteness, an ability to resolve problems experimentally, in a way that philosophers for example cannot. In other words, although science goes through so-called paradigm shifts, they are often accumulative rather than completely different changes (e.g. the Theory of Relativity does not dispose of Newtonian physics, but reduces it to a special case). In contrast, philosophy has not been able to decisively resolve the dispute between, for example, Aristotelian and Platonic views for centuries.

Science and materialism

Science is supposed to be free from prejudice, but in practice the majority of scientists harbour some taken for granted beliefs[6]. This is what links science to a particular ideological view, with the consequence that it can sometimes become dogmatic and impede rather than further the evolution of human knowledge. Not surprisingly, materialism is the usual choice.

Pioneering scientists, however, did not set out to promote materialism[7]. It became the prevailing ideology associated with science only in the second half of the 19th century (materialist beliefs, of course, had existed before and in other parts of the world, one example being the Carvaka doctrine in India). Most misconceptions about science arise because of this link. Reducing reality to the physical world is not the result of science, but the ideology that appropriates science. Materialism (which, significantly, fits well with the dominant socio-economic system in the West) has usurped science and technology which can and have coexisted with other perspectives. This makes some scientists behave unscientifically: they adapt observations and facts to their views and method, rather than the other way around. What does not fit such a lifeless world is chased out and declared illusionary. The following example may help clarify the difference between science and its ideological baggage:

De Duve states, a scientific approach ‘demands that every step in the origin and development of life on Earth be explained in terms of its antecedent and immediate physical-chemical causes.' (Hazen 1997, p.157)

This statement may look scientific but, in fact, it is an ideological statement that contradicts good science. An honest scientist should approach the subject of his research with an open mind, and try to find the most probable explanation for a phenomenon observed. A proper scientific approach cannot demand that phenomena fit into the pre-assumptions of the researcher. The quote shows that the author is more interested in confirming his own views than providing the best possible explanation. Such a demand is not based on any evidence or reasoning, but it presupposes where to look for answers and where not, and rejects a priori any other possibility. This attitude relies on faith as much as any religious attitude. There is nothing more scientific in believing that life is only a complex chemical reaction than in believing that life is more than that. Not surprisingly, materialistic ideology seems to inherit the framework of thinking established by its antecedents. The agency of God is replaced by the deity of chance, but neither of them have a significant explanatory power, they are just an easy way out of difficulties. A religious person may claim that a complex and intricate thing, such as a flower, was engineered by God, a materialist may claim that it is a result of chance mutations. Neither, in fact, explains much[8].

The above does not imply that proper scientific findings should not be taken seriously, far from it. However, it is important to realise that much of what is said in the name of science is not facts, but interpretations that fit a particular ideological view. Geneticist Richard Lewontin summarises this position:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. (1997, p.31

The likely reason why so many scientists are prepared to accept materialistic ideology without much reflection is because it is convenient. Reducing all the phenomena to ‘solid' matter makes their lives much easier. Otherwise, scientists would be forced to concede that their method is not always adequate or sufficient, and they are understandably reluctant to do so.[9] However, as with other rigid frameworks, materialism is not only restraining, but becomes restrictive, which limits science itself. The guardian (against superstition and prejudice) becomes a jailer.

 

  • [6]. As Brian Silver, a scientist himself (and an atheist), puts it: ‘There is more faith involved in science than many scientists would be prepared to admit' (1998, p. xvi).
  • [7]. In The Ascent of Science the above writer comments: ‘Many of the heroes of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scientific revolution were deeply interested in the occult, in the so-called Hermetic writings, and in magic in general; one only has to look at the lives of John Dee, Boyle, Bruno, Paracelsus, Kepler, and many others... Newton, the herald of the Age of Reason himself, believed firmly in the mystic aspects of alchemy and of Pythagorean thought' (Silver, 1998, p.495).
  • [8]. This may be contrasted, for example, with indeterminacy in quantum physics. Although the idea is not without controversy, it does have an explanatory power.
  • [9]. This is reflected in the persistency of the mechanistic view of the world: ‘With the Einsteinian revolution at the turn of the century physicists had moved irrevocably beyond the mechanistic paradigm. Then, some two decades later, with the advent of quantum theory, they abandoned the last vestiges of classical mechanistic thinking. Yet many scientists, especially in the human, social and engineering fields, remained fascinated by the simplicity and power of the Newtonian formulas' (Laszlo, 1993, p.35).

The limitations of the scientific approach

Extrinsic limitations

Some limitations of the present scientific approach are imposed, as it were, from the ‘outside'. They are a result of materialist beliefs not science itself.

Determinism - it is fair to say that determinism is not something that only materialists adhere to. There is a long history of this belief that includes thinkers from very different perspectives. Materialism has only defined determinism in terms of the natural laws. This not only precludes the possibility of purposeful causes, but also of choice and of creativity. Ironically, modern science itself has come to the conclusion that determinism does not fully reflect reality, and yet many, especially human science disciplines, are reluctant to give it up (most psychology text-books, for example, still recognise nature and nurture as the only factors that affect human behaviour).

Reductionism - one of the most stubborn beliefs of modern science is that complex phenomena can always be reduced to simpler, more fundamental ones and the laws that govern them. Mind can be reduced to biology, biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics. This is the essence of reductionism, adopted in the 19th century. However, this belief appears to be a dead-end even on the most basic level. It is already recognised that, for example, ‘the macroscopic behaviour of a large ensemble of particles cannot be deduced from the properties of the individual particles themselves' (Silver, 1998, p.19). Many eminent scientists are ready to admit the improbability of reductionism[10].

Insisting on material evidence - a position that would always insist on material evidence, and automatically dismiss an argument that is not based on observable data is somewhat naïve. Even hardcore science inevitably operates with phenomena or principles for which material evidence does not exist (e.g. time or causality) or is based on stipulations that cannot be empirically verified (such as the ones linked to the theory of relativity). Also, many scientific concepts (gravitation being one example) cannot be known directly but only through their effects[11].

The inertia of science has been criticised by a number of scholars (Kuhn, Feyerabend and Lakatos being probably the best known). It transpires in a rigid, absolutistic demand to adhere to certain views and self-imposed methods and criteria. Physicist Max Planck allegedly said that a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. This stifles rather than advances human knowledge. As Chalmers points out, ‘we cannot legitimately defend or reject items of knowledge because they do or do not conform to some ready-made criterion of scientificity' (1980, p.169). The best scientists have always been on the front lines, prepared to sacrifice their pre-assumptions for the sake of better understanding. However, there is another, inevitably larger group of scientists that prefer to maintain the status quo[12]. Science writer Horgan comments that ‘the scientific culture was once much smaller and therefore more susceptible to rapid change. Now it has become a vast intellectual, social, and political bureaucracy, with inertia to match' (1995, p.137). Both of these groups, progressive and conservative, may be necessary, the former to prevent the solidification of science, and the latter to prevent chaos. The problem is that the conservative stream often supports and perpetuates particular ideological views in order to maintain a special status and social power. The suspicion is that some scientists are more interested in advancing their careers than knowledge. Chalmers claims that ‘[ideology of science] involves the use of the dubious concept of science and the equally dubious concept of truth that is often associated with it, usually in the defence of conservative positions' (1980, p.169).

Bias - those phenomena to which the established scientific method can be applied are studied in greater and greater detail, often without any reference to a larger picture; whereas those to which it cannot be are ignored or are declared illusionary. The Oxford Companion to the Mind, for example, has entries such as ‘Frankenstein' but not ‘will'. The consequence of such an attitude is a distorted and impoverished picture of reality. Even if some phenomena or events cannot be explained, they need to be taken into account and acknowledged:

Objectivism has totally falsified our conception of truth, by exalting what we can know and prove, while covering up with ambiguous utterances all that we know and cannot prove, even though the latter knowledge underlies, and must ultimately set its seal to, all that we can prove. (Polanyi, 1958, p.286)

 

Limitations of science as a social practice

Besides the above ideological limitations there are other self-imposed limitations to present day science that are the result of the social milieu within which it operates.

Specialisation is such an instance. The best specialisation can provide is a fragmented picture on reality, which leaves out the possibility of an overall, synthetic view. This can lead to ‘not seeing the wood for the trees', and can have highly undesirable consequences. James Burke, a scientist himself, concludes that ‘the reductionist approach, forcing people to be specialists, has got us into the mess we are in' (The Sunday Times, 1st of January 1995). The one who looks through a microscope all the time may not notice an elephant standing next to shim. Historian Zeldin proclaims:

...around the beginning of the eighteenth century... the ideal of encyclopaedic knowledge was replaced by specialisation. Withdrawal into a fortress of limited knowledge meant one could defend oneself on one's home ground; it gave one self-confidence of a limited kind... Now that the silences produced by specialisation have become deafening, and now that information fills the air as never before, it is possible to reconsider the choice, to ask whether many people might not be better off if they began looking again for the road which leads beyond specialisation, if they tried seeing the universe as a whole. (1994, p.197)

The insistence on observable, public and repeatable is still prevailing, although there are certain phenomena (in cosmology and the realm of sub-atomic particles, as much as in studying life and mind) that cannot satisfy these requirements. Any attempts to fit them within these criteria severely impoverish their understanding. The very existence of atoms was derided as metaphysical nonsense until barely a century ago. Leading scientists argued that it made no sense to talk of entities that could never be observed, which drove one of the most talented scientists at that time, Boltzmann, to suicide. His struggles against the scientific orthodoxy illustrate the dangers of allowing such a dogmatism to seep into the quest for knowledge, especially in the fields of human and social science (the mind is neither observable, nor public, nor repeatable).

Authoritarianism - to secure their special status, priests used to perpetuate a belief that their vocation made them somehow closer to God, so the best way for ordinary people to relate and be informed about spiritual matters was through them. Scientists nowadays acquire a similar aura of authority. The impression is that they are experts above others (fostered not necessarily by scientists themselves, of which some, in all fairness, are trying to break out of such an image). It surfaces in frequently heard statements in the media such as ‘scientists claim that...', without saying who these scientists are and what these claims are based on. This makes science not only vulnerable to manipulation, but also alienates it from ordinary people.

Scientific detachment was introduced to ensure a higher level of objectivity and is often justified (e.g. to enable independent verification). However, it is sometimes taken so far that it becomes an obstacle and, in fact, leads to bias through the back door.

 

Intrinsic limitations

The above ideological and historical limitations are contingent, and should not be taken as detrimental. After all, they can be overcome in the future. However, there are some limitations of science that can never be surpassed, which is why the scientific approach cannot be sufficient on its own and needs to be combined with other approaches.

Dealing with complexity - scientific method is essentially analytic, which enables the simplification and generalisation of some phenomena. Yet, reality is complex, and if that complexity is disregarded, some important qualities can be missed. One of the world's most distinguished quantum physicists and a philosopher, Werner Heisenberg, warned: ‘...the scientific concepts are idealizations... But through this process of idealization and precise definition immediate connection with reality is lost' (1958, p.200). More heuristic methods are better suited to deal with complex systems. Human beings could not operate in the world if they only relied on science and excluded the common sense that is capable of intuitively grasping this complexity. Psychologists, for example, are not yet nearly able to provide the profound insights about the human psyche that can be found in the works of narrative writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens or Tolstoy.

Incompleteness - there are certain phenomena or questions that are beyond the reach of science. For instance, one of the dogmas of the present scientific ideology is that all the processes in nature are governed by physical laws. However, science seems at loss to explain where these laws come from. It is not only a question of why there is this set of laws rather than any other, but more fundamentally, why there are laws at all, why the universe is orderly, rather than chaotic and disorderly. Physicist Paul Davies speculates that attaining full knowledge through science is unlikely, given the limits imposed by quantum indeterminacy, Gödel's theorem, chaos theory and the like[13]. Mystical experience might provide the only avenue to absolute truth, he concludes (in Horgan, 1996, p.261).

A lack of criteria for interpreting facts - Henri Poincaré, one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists in the 19th century, wrote: ‘Just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts; but a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of facts is not necessarily science'.  What sort of structure is created depends on the way scientists play with or interpret facts. Interpretations are important. Human understanding would be very limited if it was based only on descriptive statements. The laws do not have much explanatory power; they leave many questions unanswered. However, interpretations are not obvious, they are extrapolations that necessarily involve mental operations, not solely based on observations. So, many observable facts can give rise to a number of different interpretations, of which some may not be accurate even if the facts behind them are. A different set of criteria is needed for interpretations than for observations, but scientific method does not provide them. This is why it is easy to highjack scientific findings and present one's interpretations as scientific truths[14].

To conclude, the scientific approach is no doubt useful for examining natural phenomena, but it is not sufficient to explain reality as a whole. At its best, it can offer an incomplete account of reality. This is not the fault of scientists. After all, few of them have ever promised to provide a full and coherent picture of the world. However, a more comprehensive understanding requires a more comprehensive approach. A professor of Computer Science and Engineering, Joseph Weizenbaum summarises this point in the following statement:

... some people have the same type of very deep faith in modern science that others do in their respective religions. This faith in science, grounded in its own dogma, leads to defence of scientific theories far beyond the time any disconfirming evidence is unearthed. Moreover, disconfirming evidence is generally not incorporated into the body of science in an open-minded way but by an elaboration of the already existing edifice (as, for example, by adding epicycles) and generally in a way in which the resulting structure of science and its procedures excludes the possibility of putting the enterprise itself in jeopardy. In other worlds, modern science has made itself immune to falsification in any terms the true believer will admit into argument. Perhaps modern science's most devastating effect is that it leads its believers to think it to be the only legitimate source of knowledge about the world... This is as mistaken a belief as the belief that one cannot gain legitimate knowledge from anything other than religion. Both are equally false. (in Singh, 1987, p. 281

  • [10]. Laszlo paraphrases the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking: ‘Although the goal of physics is a complete understanding of everything around us, including our own existence, physics has not succeeded in reducing chemistry and biology to the status of solved problems, while the possibility of creating a set of equations through which it could account for human behaviour remains entirely remote' (1993, p.48).
  • [11]. Neuroscientist Pribram writes: ‘...we think of the force of gravity as a thing. Actually, of course, all we have are the observations of actions at a distance... this means that we are inferring gravity from our observations: gravity is not an observable; as in the case of field concepts, gravity is inferred' (Laszlo, 1993, p.12).
  • [12]. It has been observed that ‘it is no coincidence that those who feel most certain of their grip on scientific method have rarely worked on the frontiers of science themselves' (Collins and Pinch, 1993, p.143).
  • [13]. Quantum indeterminacy is the apparent necessary incompleteness in the description of a physical system; Gödel's theorem demonstrates that there are always undecidable elements within any formal system; and chaos theory sets the limit to the ability to predict future states from initial conditions.
  • [14]. ‘More recent research (Pickering, Galison, Rudwick, and others) has added that scientific facts are constituted by debate and compromise, that they harden with the distance from their origin, that they are manufactured rather than read off nature, and that the activities that produce and/or identify them form complex and, with respect to theory, relatively self-contained cultures' (in Honderich, 1995, p.808).

THE SPIRITUAL APPROACH

There are diverse views on what spirituality means. In this context, ‘spiritual approach' is used as a general term for those perspectives that do not adhere to strictly materialist or reductionist views. In other words, it includes attempts to reach beyond immediate sensory perception and make cognitive claims about that which transcends ordinary experience.

 

The spiritual approach starts from a sound premise that the physical world may be only a sub-set or one plane of reality. After all, it is impudent to believe that everything is accessible and explicable from data obtained through our five senses (even with the help of instruments). It makes sense to consider the possibility that there is more to it than meets the eye. The spiritual approach is concerned with that which is beyond the ordinary perception of reality and in which this reality may be rooted. It is characterised by a sense of ‘otherness', ‘something there' a sense that what we normally perceive is limited in its scope. So, the natural world is usually considered a part of a greater whole, and it can be properly understood only with reference to the whole. It would be a mistake to exclude this possibility outright, as long as the beginning, end and cause of the familiar world cannot be fully accounted for otherwise.

 

An attempt to expand beyond ordinary experience is not in itself something unique to spirituality. Science does the same (by using microscopes or telescopes, for example). What is specific to this approach is its method, which transcends normal perception by the means of personal transformation. Achieving such knowledge requires altering the level of awareness, which, in turn, necessitates at least a temporary personal change. So, whereas for scientific method the quality of an experiment matters (while the experimenter should be neutral, in the background), for these kind of insights the quality of the experimenter matters (while the ‘experiment' is only a vehicle). Although they are not necessary, various techniques are traditionally used to assist this process: psychotropic substances, lucid dreaming, meditation, breath-control, repetitive sound or movement, trance, fasting, sleep deprivation and so on. They all have the same aim, to reach beyond the familiar constructs of reality. Therefore, spiritual experience may include, but nevertheless transcends, an experimental element. It provides ‘knowledge by presence', a direct, unmediated mode of cognition. Thus, although spirituality is empirical in the sense that it is based on experience, it differs from conventional scientific empiricism in the objects of its enquiry and in its method.

It should be clarified though that spirituality is here distinguished from mysticism or religion (this, of course, is not to say that there are no grey areas and overlaps between them). Mysticism generally takes the stand that the riddle of reality is a mystery and will always remain a mystery - in other words it cannot be solved. The religious view, on the other hand, is that the mystery has already been solved in the past. Both, religious paths and mysticism are preparation rather than exploration. Their aim is to reach a particular state, which may have personal value and inspire others, but makes a limited contribution to the expansion of knowledge. Furthermore, mysticism is highly personal, which makes it incommunicado, while religion stresses socially shared constructs and easily becomes dogmatic. Spirituality does not need to be as strongly personal as mysticism, nor as strongly social as religion. Taking a middle ground in this respect puts it in a better position to make a bridge, integrate the larger perspective with the rest of life, and by doing so contribute to our knowledge and understanding.

 

SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT SPIRITUALITY

Spirituality is reserved for special or initiated individuals - spiritual experiences are not rare. Apparently, about 40% of people have at least one experience that they count as spiritual[1]. In fact, practically everybody who manages to move beyond the noise of everyday impressions can access at least some aspects of such experiences.

 

Spirituality requires the abandoning of autonomy - spirituality is very often associated with surrendering, the term usually poorly understood and occasionally abused by religious movements. Surrendering has no value if it is not accompanied by independence and autonomy. Therefore, it cannot be identified with the unconditional adoption of a system of beliefs, attitudes or conducts dictated by established teachings, theories or dogmas. It is not surprising that there is antagonism between spirituality and official religions. Robert Forman, an eminent researcher in this field, writes that ‘Most often, by far, spirituality was opposed to the "stuffy old church" and its fixed +-dogmas' (2004, p.48).

 

Spirituality conflicts with empirical data - certain claims from this approach may indeed contradict scientific findings or common sense, but this is not the rule. In some cases, spiritual insights have even preceded science (see, for example, Capra, 2000). There is nothing inherent to spirituality that makes it incompatible with empirical facts. Assertions that do so, are likely to stem from an inauthentic experience or a mistaken interpretation. There is one legitimate difference though: while science attempts to be objective by detachment from the personal, spirituality aspires to achieve objectivity by transcending the personal.

 

Spirituality is incompatible with rationality - the spiritual approach may, in some instances, require a non-rational mode. But, this is different from being irrational (incompatible with the rational). Transcending reason is different from contradicting reason. Throughout history, many scholars with spiritual inclinations from various cultural and religious backgrounds have tried to square rationality with their insights (Plato, Ibn Sina, Abelard, Rudolf Steiner or Krishnamurti are just a few examples). Such attempts did not intend to undermine reason, but to extend it beyond the empirical phenomena of the material world.

  • [1]. See, for example, Hay, 1990, p.79, and Forman, 2004, p2-3.

The relevance of spirituality

The major contribution of this approach to the understanding of reality is its exploration beyond immediate sensory perception. This enables a larger perspective, from which issues that would otherwise remain hanging in the air can be addressed. To clarify this point, a parallel can be drawn with a dream or computer game. They are self-contained to some extent, but can really be understood only with reference to reality outside the dream or game. This attempt to move beyond ordinary human experience and activities is important because it keeps alive the search for ultimate answers, however elusive they seem to be. It is perhaps not surprising that even more and more scientists are prepared to admit their spiritual inclinations.

The other significant input of the spiritual approach is an attempt to grapple with the question of meaning that has a profound importance for human life. The scientific approach is inadequate to deal with this matter (which is why some reductionists simply declare that the world and life are meaningless - not on the basis of any evidence, but simply because they do not have a way to address the issue)[2]. Philosophy may take up this subject, but is lame without experiences that would provide the substance for any such consideration.

Spirituality is also capable of transcending cognitive operational processes in a different way than common sense. While common sense can deal with complex situations for which thinking is simply too slow, in this case it is a qualitative shift. Some experiences and insights may go beyond what reason would expect.

Finally, the spiritual approach is essentially holistic rather than a specialisation driven endeavour. Although some individuals in this field focus on one procedure (e.g. ‘shamanic journeys' or meditative practices) most of them acknowledge that no understanding can be complete without a reference to the whole. Such a perspective, on the other side of the spectrum from reductionism, can potentially be of a great value.

  • [2]. Polanyi, who was trained as a scientist, recognises the value of this point too. He writes that ‘the biblical cosmology continues to express - however inadequately - the significance of the fact that the world exists and that man has emerged from it, while the scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our most vital experience of this world' (1958, p.285).

Spirituality and religion

Spirituality relates to religion in a similar way to how science relates to materialism. Religion is an organised set of fixed beliefs, while spirituality is empirical in a sense of transpersonal experiences and consequently more exploratory and less dogmatic. As the etymology of the word religion indicates, its purpose is to bind people together by a system of beliefs and rituals. Religions are characterised by their cosmologies, moral code, rituals, the architecture of their temples, their revealed literature, and so on. So, religion refers to more public (or exoteric) forms of spiritual practice, but there is also an esoteric core. The diversity of religions is a norm, while many spiritual experiences tend to be cross-cultural[3]. If the circumstances are favourable, if it is a historically ripe moment, some esoteric experiences can trigger a religious paradigm shift. They are adapted to particular circumstances as the means of (re)organising society or even achieving social control and power. If the new view is accepted, an official doctrine is created that becomes an established reference point for generations to come. In other words, another framework of social reality is formed. It provides a sense of security (to individuals), and also unifies by offering a common aim (to the society). However, as science does not need to adhere to materialism, spirituality does not require a religious framework. In fact, esoteric and exoteric aspects do not always go hand in hand. It is common that as soon as the latter (a new religion) reaches a point of power, it sees the former as a threat and tries to suppress it in order to preserve its status[4] (as materialist ideology often obstructs the development of science in order to preserve its own privileged position). It is a misconception, for example, that in the past the Christian church fought primarily science. In fact, it first and foremost fought spirituality and mysticism (the craze of burning ‘witches' and ‘heretics' is one example among many) and eventually allowed the growth of science (within its ranks) to help in this fight. The importance of spirituality in challenging religious dogmas should not be undermined. There have been a great number of people who have put much courage, effort and self-sacrifice into exploring reality beyond accepted doctrines.

  • [3]. An American mathematician, Jaya Srivastava makes an even stronger claim: ‘Each great religion has two aspects, a spiritual part and a ritualistic part. As is very clear, the spiritual part of all religions is the same' (in Singh, 1988, p.176). Such an assertion is probably an exaggeration and can hardly be defended. A tendency towards universality does not presuppose the sameness.
  • [4]. A poignant allegory about this strife between religion and spirituality can be found in Dostoyevsky's fable ‘The great inquisitor', where even Jesus, who returned to the Earth, was prosecuted by the Church.

The limitations of the spiritual approach

As other approaches, spirituality also has its limitations that can be grouped into the same three categories.

 

Extrinsic limitations

These limitations arise from the association of spirituality with the various religious frameworks within which it may be situated.

Infallibility - if spiritual insights are achieved through personal transformation, the issue for those who have not gone through such a process is how to decide which ones are valid. One possible solution is accepting ‘truth by authority', which means that it is more important who does the saying than what is said. Indeed, religions rely heavily on authority, because the majority of people cannot personally verify spiritual claims. Chosen individuals or scriptures are given a special status (often reinforced by their alleged super-natural source) and their unquestionable acceptance is expected. Considering that spiritual experiences can be interpreted in various ways, ‘truth by authority' can undeniably have a unifying purpose. However, the problem is that the demand to accept unconditionally and unreflectively certain assertions means that they cannot be challenged, which leads to stagnation. It is not surprising then that there are growing discrepancies between religious claims and recognised facts, and also that there are contradictions within religious interpretations, too[5]. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi is right saying that ‘...a vital new religion may one day arise again. In the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works' (1992, p.14).

Dogmatism - although religions must adapt to new circumstances to some extent, most of them are essentially conservative rather than progressive. This is because they rely on the teachings and experience of significant figures inevitably from a distant past (the further from the present and more obscure, the more authority they seem to have). However, not allowing interpretations to evolve can be cripplingly restrictive and misleading.

Moreover, despite being supposedly based on transpersonal insights, religions usually discourage direct experience, for fear that those who have them would not conform to an already established credo. So, in fact, religion in most cases, stalls the development of spiritual knowledge, which leads to an increasing discrepancy: while other aspects of human life have been evolving, official religions rely on anachronistic interpretations from a few thousand years ago. This is regrettable and unnecessary. People still respect old scientists or philosophers and build on their insights and theories (of which many, as for example Pythagoras' theorem, remain valid). However, it would be absurd to consider them absolute authorities and to reject further developments because of them.

 

Limitations of spirituality as a social practice

Locality - the heightened awareness that enables spiritual insights is typically unstable. So, even those who reach that point, quickly fall back into a socially shared reality and often try to situate the experience within an existing framework. Yet, as long as spirituality is embodied in local traditions, it can hardly claim universality.

Ineffability - even if one maintains the clarity of an experience, the problem remains how to communicate so gained insights. Considering that they are beyond ordinary experiences, something ‘out of this world', they do not fit comfortably with the usual perception of reality. A common language often lacks the words to express them adequately, there is little to connect to, and any attempt to verbalise them may sound shallow or plain weird. This is why analogies or metaphors need to be used, but they can be variously interpreted. Others may choose to understand them in a way to suit their own purposes, which inevitably leads to further distortions. It is not surprising that religious or esoteric texts often stray in attempts to conceptualise spiritual revelations.

The issue of proof - another difficulty with spiritual insights is that they are not publicly verifiable. Nothing solid can be brought back as evidence. An analogy can be made with an explorer who comes across a ‘lost tribe' without bringing any modern gadgets. S/he may try to explain to those people that there is a different world outside, s/he may speak about cities, cars, computers, TV, airplanes, but cannot prove to them that they exist (even if they may occasionally see some strange shiny ‘birds' in the sky). S/he will most likely be considered a mad person, a crank[6]. Not surprisingly, many spiritual people choose obscurity - hence the term esoteric knowledge. Yet, the fact that, by default, it is impossible to provide material evidence for non-material phenomena does not invalidate such knowledge per se. Other approaches are not immune to this problem either. Silver admits that also ‘many of the basic concepts of science cannot be verified either logically or by observation' (1988, p.503). Nevertheless, some ways or criteria that can render spiritual claims at least plausible are still needed.

 

Intrinsic limitations

Non-testability - one difficulty with this approach is that following the same procedure will not necessarily produce the same results. The content and the quality of experience are to a large extent unpredictable. Even the timing is difficult to determine. For this reason it is hard to separate such insights from wishful thinking, fantasies, superstitions and other products of one's mind. This is why a spiritual path requires a high degree of personal discipline, but discipline, on its own, cannot provide a foolproof guarantee that an experience is genuine. So, although it is meaningless to demand material evidence, any claims need to be checked against recognised scientific findings. They do not need to be reduced to these findings, but they should not contradict them either. Spirituality is not about burning the bridges between the two worlds but making them.

Convolution with other altered states - not all altered states of consciousness lead to valid spiritual insights. Some of these states can be on the other side of the ‘bell curve' (a normal state of mind) - namely madness, hallucinations. Distinguishing between these two opposites may not always be possible within a spiritual framework and needs to be validated by other approaches. For example, if it may not be straightforward to scientifically challenge (self-)destructive ‘messages' from God, they can be dismissed as poor candidates for genuine spiritual experiences by common sense.

Fragmentation - although spiritual insights may contribute to a more holistic view (by interpreting them with reference to the whole), they are usually based on isolated and disconnected pockets of experience. These experiences may yield glimpses of a transcendent realm, but they cannot, on their own, provide a full picture. Reasoning is required to make sense of them. And reasoning is not a part of the experience.

  • [5]. This applies to moral matters as well as factual. Subjecting Job to suffering (and his first wives and offspring to annihilation) simply to win a bet, or ordering the Israelites to destroy other tribes, does not seem compatible with an image of a God that is good.
  • [6]. A similar situation is vividly described in H. G. Wells' story The Country of the Blind.

THE PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACH

For centuries philosophy was an umbrella term for all the methods of rational enquiry.  Gradually, however, more and more disciplines gained their independence. Especially after the apparent failures of grand philosophical systems (such as Hegel's), its field was rapidly shrinking. On the one hand, philosophy could not compete with science in studying the natural world. On the other hand, any turn to the subjective experience would blur its boundaries with the mystical or religious with which few philosophers wanted to be associated - for fear of losing credibility. Philosophers tried to develop logic into an elaborate system, an exact meta-language that could rival mathematics, but this endeavour hit a dead-end when it transpired that logic can never be completely logical (only shortly before it happened to mathematics itself). So, they focused on the relationship between subject and object, the so-called ‘human condition'. The domain of philosophy became relations not particulars that relate, which freed philosophy from being bound to a specific subject. It is now considered to be a method of enquiry that develops defensible arguments based on reason (rather than observation or experience). The aim of philosophy is understanding, which necessitates the examination of the relation between awareness of the world and the world as the material of awareness. For example, philosophy is not primarily concerned with the question ‘does God exist?', but rather ‘does the idea of God make sense?', or ‘does the concept of reality without the idea of God make sense?' This is why philosophy can never be conclusive - people are changing, so their understanding is changing too.

 

A COMMON MISCONCEPTION ABOUT PHILOSOPHY

It is irrelevant - the inconclusiveness of philosophy has led to a widespread belief that philosophy does not matter. Yet, throughout history philosophy has influenced every sphere of life, from science and religion, to education, politics, economics, art and even fashion. Stoicism served as the working ideology of the Roman Empire, the writings of Plato and Plotinus were instrumental in transforming an intellectually rudimentary offshoot of Judaism into one of the dominant world religions. Descartes and Leibniz directly contributed to the 17th century rise of science, while Voltaire and Rousseau inspired the French Revolution. More recently, the philosophy of Marx and Engels' stirred political changes from Cuba to China, while existentialism and later post-modernism shaped Western culture.

The relevance of philosophy

The most important value of philosophy is that it utilises reasoning as the method of rational enquiry. Reasoning provides a basis for independent judgement (because its criteria can be internal, and therefore less prone to distortions). This method can avoid some of the pitfalls that spirituality and science are vulnerable to. On the one hand, reasoning is not so difficult to verify as spiritual insights. On the other, reasoning is not limited only to observation, and therefore it has potentially unlimited scope (can deal with non-observable, abstract issues). Indeed, philosophy often addresses problems lying beyond the reach of scientific investigation. So, this approach can have several roles:

It can examine the coherence of concepts, frameworks and existing practices within any individual discipline (for example, whether the concept of learning makes sense in computer science, or programming in biology).

Other approaches have their own ways to validate their findings, but they rarely have criteria for interpreting these findings. This is another sphere where philosophy can make a significant contribution.

One potential problem with any discipline is that its theoretical foundations are usually taken for granted. Thus, besides critical analysis of existing practices and theories, philosophy can make distinct contributions by focusing on the meta-level. In other words, it can tease out and examine assumptions that any particular discipline or method is based on. No individual discipline can do so, because it already operates within its own framework, which requires accepting its presuppositions.

Finally, philosophy can have an overarching, synthetic function. Cross-disciplinary subjects and themes that need a synthetic approach are largely neglected. Whereas scientists tend to become more and more specialised in their interests, philosophers generally stand back from the details of particular research programmes and concentrate on making sense of the overall principles and on establishing how they relate to each other. This can be essential in determining the way all the components function together: the practical aspects in relation to its theoretical premises, as well as the findings of different approaches. Thus, even if some epistemic categories require contributions from specialised disciplines, it is philosophy that can provide the perspective from which they are not only examined, but also combined. Such a contribution is significant because it gives hope that a coherence and completeness of human understanding can be achieved.

Philosophy and ideology

Many philosophical ideas have given rise to or been associated with various ideologies. A radical example is dialectic-materialism based on the philosophical work of Marx and Engels, which became the official credo of communist countries in the 20th century. Another instance is Nietzsche's philosophy, distorted to such an extent that it was linked to movements such as Nazism. These may be extremes, but other philosophies have also been used to justify ideological ends - for instance, an impoverished interpretation of Adam Smith's work (via economist Milton Friedman) was popular during Thatcherism. As in the other cases, such ideologies are usually distortions and simplifications of the original thought that contradict the impartiality of philosophical argument and severely restrict its independence. Philosophy properly conceived should not be one more form of power, but a counter to external power.

The limitations of the philosophical approach

As with the other approaches, philosophy also has its limitations.

 

Extrinsic limitations

Relying on authority - although less so than religion, philosophy can also suffer from an over-reliance on authorities (e.g. Aristotle, Kant, or Marx). The weight of an argument is sometimes based on who has said something, rather than on the reasoning strength of what has been said. This is reflected in the extensive use of references to other philosophers that may have an aura of authority, but mean little to those who are not initiated. Such a trend contributes to solidifying particular views into ideologies. Many philosophers have given their allegiance to various ‘-isms' and felt obliged to remain true to these frameworks.

 

Limitations of philosophy as a social practice

Focusing on the language - examining the relationship between the subject and object, between human beings and reality, degenerated in the main stream philosophy of the mid-20th century into examining only the means by which the constructs of reality are made: the use of words and language. The clarification of language (getting rid of ambiguities) was considered a proper way of formulating the truth, despite the fact that the futility of such an endeavour was realised very early[1].

 

Intrinsic limitations

Abstractedness - one of the problems with philosophy (which is, to some extent, a consequence of focusing more on relations rather than on that what relates) is that it is divorced from everyday experiences. Philosophers often indulge in attempts to outwit each other by building more and more complex arguments, while examining in minute detail the arguments of their opponents, which only moves them further away from the subject at hand and contributes little to its real understanding. This is why there is a saying that philosophers live in ivory towers, and the term ‘philosophising' sometimes has a derogatory meaning. Philosophical theories that entirely flout common sense tend to forfeit a connection with ordinary life and become too abstract.

Groundlessness - reasoning can be so proficient that it can prove almost anything, which easily leads to relativism. Sufficiently complex systems allow endless combinations and permutations, so even radically opposed views may seem reasonable. Hence, philosophy can become a game and, therefore, in effect unreliable. To relate to the real world, some other constrains or tests of acceptability are needed besides the internal criteria. In other words, reasoning needs to be grounded in hard facts that can be supplied by methods usually associated with science.

Speculativeness - philosophers are in a good position to deal with universals, but philosophical method cannot provide content (without taking into account experience, reasoning is nothing more than speculation). And if the full picture, aspired to by philosophers throughout the centuries, is ever to be reached, philosophy cannot rely only on everyday life. It would be difficult to avoid drawing from, and taking into account, what can be broadly called spiritual practices and experiences, as these can supply the raw material needed for a metaphysical framework.

  • [1]. As far back as 1902 Charles Pierce wrote in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology: ‘Think of arm chairs and reading chairs and dining-room chairs, and kitchen chairs, chairs that pass into benches, chairs that cross the boundary and become settees, dentist's chairs, thrones, opera stalls, seats of all sorts, those miraculous fungoid growths that cumber the floor of the art and crafts exhibitions, and you will see what a lax bundle in fact is this simple straightforward term. I would undertake to defeat any definition of chair or chairishness that you gave me.’

THE SYNTHESIS

All the above approaches contribute in their unique ways to the understanding of reality, but none of them is likely to provide a full picture. Not only are they incomplete and insufficient on their own, but they also seem to be stuck in ostensibly irresolvable conflicts with each other. Francis Bacon and Descartes (who are considered the founders of opposed factions in philosophy, viz. empiricism and rationalism) agreed on one point: to separate religion and the study of the natural world. They may have been right to do so at the time when the Church was all-powerful, but this does not mean that scientific and spiritual approaches are inherently in conflict. They appear so only because of ideological prejudices in both campuses. Many scholars seem to be arriving at the same conclusion starting from different perspectives[1]. Reality can be interpreted as meaningful without conflicting with empirical facts. Polanyi and Prosch make the point stating that ‘the religious hypothesis, if it does indeed hold that the world is meaningful rather than absurd, is therefore a viable hypothesis for us. There is no scientific reason why we cannot believe it' (1975, p.179).

This is not only of theoretical significance. Our very survival may depend on an ability to transcend what is superfluous and synthesise what is important in these approaches. Human society cannot long afford to live in a world in which philosophy is disparaged, religion contradicts science, and science contradicts common experience and social practice (e.g. democracy assumes choice, and legal systems personal responsibility - both are based on the notion of free will that is not upheld by science). Such antagonisms must be reconciled in order to produce a more adequate and complete interpretation. This does not require the abandonment of the current methods (they have contributed to knowledge and continue to do so), only a recognition that they have limited value in isolation and that, in some cases, it would be beneficial to combine them[2]. In order to do so, there are two obstacles that must first be overcome:

Exclusiveness stems from a belief of ‘insiders' that their perspective can grasp and explain everything on its own[3]. This is, however, highly unlikely. For example, science has a reliable method but a limited scope. Spirituality, on the other hand, can perhaps reach what is not accessible to science, but its insights cannot be easily verified and are prone to distortions. As Albert Einstein famously put it, ‘science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind' (Einstein was not practising any religion, so in this statement he most likely referred to spirituality). It is not surprising then that the frameworks they are associated with are not satisfactory. While religious interpretations are generally outdated, materialist interpretations are fragmented and incomplete. In other words, religion on its own provides an irrational interpretation, while materialism on its own provides a meaningless interpretation.

 

Ideological baggage - history shows that when one of these approaches takes over and starts dominating, it easily becomes a form of ideology with undesirable consequences. The canonisation of religious ideologies has frequently led to the slowing down of individual and social development, and also (with a few exceptions) created a state of permanent conflict and bigotry between different faiths - without change there is no hope for reconciliation. There is a profound awareness that an overgrowth of materialistic science and technology could also have a potentially devastating outcome if it is not paralleled with the development of other ways of knowledge. The aviator Charles Lindbergh made this poignant comment: ‘I have seen the science I worshipped and the aircraft I loved destroying the civilization I expected them to serve.' This, of course, does not refer only to the destructive power of machines, but also to zealous attempts to implement scientific methods in life, especially human life (eugenics and social Darwinism being two examples). An even more pervasive consequence of materialism is a climate in which technocracy, meaninglessness, selfishness, competition and consumerism dominate, which also prevents further progress and ultimately leads to a dead-end. With equally disastrous consequences, cultural frameworks and philosophical ideas can be turned into a tool of repression (nationalism and Marxism may be prominent but certainly not unique examples[4]). Even if the above cases are considered historical aberrations, there is a more subtle but enduring problem with ideology of any kind. Ideologies are linked to social power and control. However, power unlike knowledge is finite. Giving knowledge to others does not decrease the knowledge of the one who gives, but giving power to others does. Therefore, unreflective faith in an ideology, regardless of whether it has a spiritual, scientific or philosophical basis, decreases the power of individuals. This in turn limits the fluidity or flexibility of society, which are essential in times of rapid changes.

 

Overcoming these obstacles would make a synthesis possible, but this does not mean only refining and combining the methods embedded in the above approaches[5]. It also implies a synthesis between several complementary perspectives.

First of all, the bottom up direction (reductionism) needs be combined with the top down direction (holism). Reductionism attempts to explain complex phenomena by their components, while holism claims that the significance of the parts can only be understood in terms of their contribution to the whole and that the latter must therefore be epistemically prior. Most approaches have a tendency to favour one of these perspectives (e.g. reductionism in science), but this does not need to be the case. It is possible to recognise the value of both.

The synthesis also requires reconciling two ways of enquiry: one that examines the objects of experience (experimental), and the one that examines the experience of objects (experiential). A comprehensive and accurate interpretation must rely on both, objective knowledge derived from manipulating reality (e.g. by creating controlled conditions in a laboratory) and objective knowledge derived from manipulating the experience of reality (through personal transformation). Objective means, in this context, avoiding collective bias (ideological constraints) or personal bias (prejudices, preferences) respectively.

Finally, empiricism (in a broad sense, that includes common sense and transpersonal experiences) needs to be combined in a meaningful way with rationalism. This can surely be more productive than relying solely on either experience or reason.

 

When the approaches discussed above are separated from their ideological baggage and the spurious ways used to support their claims, a small number of methods remain. Three methods that relate to three types of experience as a knowledge source (personal, impersonal and transpersonal) can be discerned: phenomenological, inductive-deductive and transpersonal. However, none of them is infallible and fully sufficient, so another method, reasoning, that can serve as a link between them is also needed. Of course, not all of these methods must always be combined (there are some areas where only one is enough), but their synthesis is likely to produce a more complete picture. Before they are described though, it should be underlined that any method is only a tool, not an end in itself. Some scholars emphasise a form and correct procedures because this gives their work an aura of seriousness and credibility, but it also often kills enthusiasm and creativity.

  • [1]. For example, Schrödinger, who formulated the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics, espoused in his book Mind and Matter (1958) a spiritual view that he identified with the ‘perennial philosophy' of Aldous Huxley, and expressed his sympathy for the Upanishads and Eastern spiritual thoughts.
  • [2]. It has been recognised that ‘objections to novelty and to alternatives come from particular groups with vested interests, not from science as a whole. It is therefore possible to gain understanding and to solve problems by combining bits and pieces of ‘science' with prima facie ‘unscientific' opinions and procedures' (Honderich, 1995, p.809).
  • [3]. Scientists are most susceptible to this belief nowadays because their approach is dominant. But, as the philosopher of science Feyerabend points out, defenders of science typically judge it to be superior to other forms of knowledge without adequately investigating those other forms.
  • [4]. Nietzsche's own sister revised his writing to provide support for the ideology of racial supremacy. Philosopher Heidegger advised his students in 1933 to abandon doctrines and ideas and salute Hitler.
  • [5]. Of course, there are already grey areas and points of contact among them. Philosophy of religion and philosophy of science are well established disciplines. Some theologicians have thought that a scientific approach is the best means to understand God, while others have resorted to philosophy. However, these are rarely efforts in synthesis, but rather attempts to use one approach to support (or discredit) another. For example, Logical Positivism, a highly influential philosophical movement of the 20th century, was largely created by scientists with a certain ideological bent in order to steer science in their preferred direction.

Phenomenological method

This method can be used to achieve greater objectivity in relation to personal experiences (linked above to common sense). It has been already recognised that scientific observation, as a method, is somewhat limited. It cannot penetrate ‘below' the surface of the observable. This is a statement from mathematician Srivastava:

Gödel's theorem states that, loosely speaking, in any mathematical system which has the natural numbers (the numbers 0, 1, 2, and so on) as a subset, questions exist which cannot be answered yes and no... What all this means is that science is basically handicapped or limited in its capabilities. It is not possible by a series of experiments and related analytical reasoning to fathom the depth of the universe. To fathom the universe, man has another tool: direct perception, direct experience of reality (in Singh, 1988, p.177-178).

The problem is, however, that this ‘direct experience' typically remains on the surface of personal bias, and cannot claim universality. If there is any ‘essence', it has to lie below the objective surface of the reality and the subjective surface of individuals. So, only in the depths can the dichotomy between objectivism and subjectivism be overcome. Such objectivity is not based on facts ‘out there' or on a social consensus. It is not achieved by moving outwards and away from oneself, but by moving inwards, reaching underneath personal subjectivity, finding what is universal in one's experience[1]. This is achieved by submerging oneself below interpretations based on superficial perception, collective pre-assumptions or one's own prejudices and preferences.

The method that can assist this process is called phenomenological reduction. The term was coined by philosopher Husserl at the beginning of the 20th century, but interpreted in a broad sense (as a method rather than a philosophical doctrine) it has been practised since ancient times. This is its clearest and shortest definition:

Phenomenology is [...] a turn to subjectivity with the intention of arriving at objective truth. (Solomon, 1988, p.130)

The aim is to get insights about essence from experience alone rather than through the veil of existing mental constructs. In other words, the object of phenomenological description is ‘to... go beyond the various ‘facts' of experience and the reality of theories and practices to those features of experience which are "absolutely given in immediate intuition"... Not the evidence of the senses but of the consciousness as such' (Solomon, 1988, p.131). In fact, all personal experiences are phenomenological and as such they are real and true. What, however, can be distorted (intentionally or not) is their interpretations. An extreme example is hallucination, where an internal experience is interpreted as an external event. Interpretations are, of course, necessary and useful, but they are usually contaminated by past experiences, expectations, judgements etc. Phenomenological method means being able to examine experience as it is, prior to these possible distortions[2]. To achieve this, one needs to become aware of what comes from the phenomena experienced and what does not. This is not as easy as it may seem. It requires vigilance and discipline in ‘bracketing' (putting aside) any pre-assumptions that are added to an experience.

Phenomenological method is indispensable if insights from personal experiences are to have a degree of universality (a greater level of objectivity). However, it falls short of providing a way to construct reliable interpretations from them (to bring them back to the surface). And yet, interpretation is necessary in order to communicate these insights. Furthermore (as already pointed in The limitations of common sense, p.9), personal experiences are somewhat limited in their scope. So, this method is insufficient on its own and needs to be combined with others.

  • [1]. Polanyi makes the same point: ‘...man can transcend his own subjectivity by striving passionately to fulfil his personal obligations to universal standards' (1958, p.17).
  • [2]. To quote again the historian of philosophy, Solomon, ‘it is... a description of experience and a philosophy that is without presuppositions, and experience of experience as such, an opportunity to see clearly and without doubts the essential structures of not only one's own consciousness but of every possible consciousness' (1988, p.138).

Inductive-deductive method

Inductive inferences are based on observations and controlled experiments. To minimise bias and achieve a greater objectivity, a degree of personal detachment and independent verification is required. However, this should not lead to an objectivism that demands a researcher to be entirely neutral. Detachment, taken too far, can become an obstacle rather than an advantage. Positivistic science has conflated two different meanings of objective: ‘unbiased' and ‘external'. This is not only unnecessary, but also mistaken: perception of the external can be biased and of the internal can be impartial. By explicitly excluding the subject, reality can never be captured in its totality. Besides, scientific detachment can be only an ideal. Researchers cannot completely avoid bringing themselves into the story. So, distancing seems a more realistic attitude than detachment. While detachment strives to achieve objectivity by eliminating the subject, distancing does so by including and maintaining a larger perspective.

In any case, the value of empirical research cannot be denied, findings based on impartial observation and experimentation can greatly contribute to the understanding of physical reality. However, as already pointed out, it has been recognised that induction is not infallible, and should not be taken for granted. Moreover, some phenomena cannot (or at least not yet) be directly examined; they can only be deduced from their consequences. This is nothing new. For example, Silver writes that ‘molecules were part of the scientist's explanation of nature long before we could observe them. Their existence was deduced from the behaviour of matter' (1998, p.18). Through deduction we can arrive at certain knowledge that would not be accessible otherwise. Of course, it is important to go as far as possible in providing empirical support, but some conclusions will always have to be inferred.

 There are several tools that can be used to assist this process, such as mathematics, geometry or theoretical (logical) conjectures. Nevertheless, even with the help of such systems, however stringently applied, deductive conclusions are not completely safe. In the 19th century non-Euclidian geometry was constructed, shortly before logic appeared to be not completely logical, and Gödel's theorem (mentioned above) showed that even mathematics is not foolproof. Furthermore, deduction cannot prove that its conclusions are true, because they depend on their premises that cannot be deduced.

To conclude, although this method can contribute to better understanding and finding more probable or plausible explanations, it should be recognised that both its components, induction and deduction, have their limits. This may not matter in some relatively simple cases, but more complete interpretations would again require the combination of inductive/deductive inferences with other methods.

Transpersonal method

This method refers to transcending the personal, either in terms of perception (e.g. awareness of or sensitivity to phenomena beyond their physical manifestations), or by the way insights are arrived at (illuminations, visions, revelations). Such transcendence is often associated with mysticism, esoteria and a non-rational aspect of the mind, but, in fact, it can be relevant to any subject of enquiry, even those that are traditionally the domains of philosophy or science. Socrates habitually communicated with his ‘daemon', mathematician Gauss claimed that the answer to some of the riddles with which he was struggling was given to him by God. Chemist Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene (which was the beginning of modern organic chemistry) in a vision of a snake swallowing its tail, while neuroscientist Otto Loewi found how to conduct experiments on neurotransmitters thanks to a dream.

Transpersonal method is based on manipulating the experience of reality, rather than the objects of experience, so it requires an, at least temporary, altered state of consciousness (the most common being dreams). These shifts do not need to be something radical and can happen spontaneously, but to have any value, they require an opening up, moving beyond common perception and existing constructs. Polanyi claims that scientific discovery would not be possible without these excursions outside the pre-established framework. The same applies to religious insights: a vision of Jesus or Shiva can have an epistemic value only if the images of Jesus or Shiva are transcended, by focusing on the essence beyond the culturally specific representations (in other words, taking such images symbolically).

Most of these experiences, however, are subtle and often pass unnoticed because people usually associate them with something special and grand. To use an analogy, when a tourist arrives in a foreign country s/he is unlikely to bump into the president or the Queen first. Tiny expansions of awareness or shifts of focus are what matters in most cases. This may be compared with listening to a faint radio station that is normally muted by a stronger one. Such ‘signals' are accessible to practically everybody, but are subtle and fleeting, so effort needs to be put into stabilising them. A number of techniques can be used for this purpose (meditation being one, although not every type of meditation has such a function and would necessarily lead to it). Furthermore, isolated pockets of experience are meaningless. It is like when an untrained person looks through a microscope or telescope. S/he is unlikely to discern any meaningful information. To get a coherent picture, to make sense of such experiences, training, discipline, and dedication are necessary, as well as an altered state of mind.

 

Verification

The focus here is not on personal transformation as a ‘technology' (making life better) but as a way to knowledge and understanding. So, the verification of such experiences, rather than their effects, matters. For example, seeing fairies may be psychologically beneficial to some, but it does not have a universal value unless certain criteria are observed that will bear out the perception and enable situating it within a larger context. The same applies to the qualities of experience such as elation or a sense of unity with the universe. They are elements of personal experience, so phenomenological reduction is more relevant in such cases than transpersonal method.

 

Transpersonal inferences are notoriously difficult to empirically verify (in the same way that many scientific findings can be). The scientific criteria that currently dominate are mostly inadequate when applied to this field. ‘Truth by authority', as is widely used within religious frameworks, also suffers from well-known shortcomings. Yet, to achieve a degree of universality and objectivity, transpersonal experiences need to be distinguished from purely subjective ones. There are other altered states of consciousness such as illusions and hallucinations (triggered, for example, by mental illness or intoxication) that are entirely fictional and do not have an element of the transpersonal. Thus, what needs to be verified foremost is the source: whether the experience corresponds to something real or is entirely the product of one's mind. There are several criteria that can be used to test if such experiences are genuine:

  • A lack of other plausible explanations. This means that all other reasonable possibilities have to be examined and eliminated (applying the Ockham razor[1]).
  • As with scientific experiments, the quality of the process or procedure leading to an experience also needs to be taken into account (e.g. possible contamination by the influences of one's surroundings if using psychotropic substances).
  • Logical consistency: knowledge progresses through checking reason against experiences, and checking experiences against reason (e.g. can the question ‘why would real angels need wings?' have a logical answer?).
  • There are certain qualities that characterise such experiences (although not all of them have to be always present). These include a maintained awareness of the parameters of ordinary reality, commonly indicated by an element of surprise (in ordinary dreams even the most bizarre events do not seem surprising); non-attachment, low excitability (even if intense emotions may be present); serenity. In short, transpersonal experiences mean perceiving normally inaccessible aspects of reality with a clear mind.
  • Phenomenological criterion: ‘...from a subjective perspective [these experiences] feel truer, more real than dreams, hallucinations, even ordinary perception, they seem to represent "a more fundamental reality than the baseline reality"' (Horgan, 2003, p.78, quoting Andrew Newberg, a researcher in mystical experiences). The genuine conviction that what one has experienced is real should persist after the experience, when one returns to the usual state of mind (after a hallucination the person is normally aware that s/he was hallucinating).
  • Maintaining relative control, agency and choice (e.g. an ability to remove oneself from the situation experienced). Transpersonal experiences can be spontaneous, but are extremely rarely imposed to a degree that one feels trapped in them.
  • The object of the experience has to have a relatively independent existence from the experiencer. For example, if an observed phenomenon moves as one moves shis eyes, it is likely that it is a product of the observer's mind.
  • Although such experiences can sometimes refer to the person involved, their meaning usually has a more impersonal, general nature (whereas a schizophrenic, for example, sees everything as a personal message intended for shim alone).
  • An experience is likely to be real if others have independently had similar ones. Considering the possibility of collective bias, fantasies or even hallucinations, arriving at them independently is of the utmost importance.
  • Correspondence: the perception of somebody's energy field, for example, can be validated by correlating so gained insights to the emotional, physical or mental state of the observed person. Or, the legitimacy of non-rationally derived predictions can be verified by systematically recording the actual future events.
  • It should be possible to interpret an experience in such a way that it makes sense in relation to other transpersonal experiences.
  • Usefulness: experiences that can lead to explaining or understanding certain phenomena better can be cautiously taken as probably real.
  • Finally, these experiences should not be in breach of accepted empirical facts or basic common sense, and should not be self-contradictory. The only meaningful way to go beyond reason is to climb the ladders of reason. In other words, if a transpersonal conjecture is valid, combining it with the findings of other methods should be not only possible, but also beneficial. Mystics cannot bridge the gap created by the ineffability of their experiences, and religions are hopelessly stuck with outdated interpretations within the narrow range of existing social constructs. As with other methods, the fallacy of self-sufficiency has to be overcome to move forward.
  • [1]. Ockham razor states: ‘plurality is not to be assumed without necessity', which in this case means that a transpersonal element should not be invoked if a whole experience can be reasonably explained without it.

Reasoning

Inferences based on the above methods need to be connected to make a meaningful whole. Reasoning can serve this purpose. To preserve its independence and allow an unbiased verification, it must be governed by its own internal criteria. Four of them are suggested below. A number of examples, further in the text, show that existing scientific, religious and philosophical interpretations occasionally breach one or more of these (they are not brought up here in order to avoid repetition).

 

Congruence means that reasoning should not contradict accepted facts (facts are already statements, which is why congruence can be an internal criteria). This is not to say that facts are rock solid; they can change too. Congruence allows facts to be challenged, but not ignored. Therefore, if a statement contradicts commonly accepted facts, a valid justification needs to be provided. In this context, besides observable facts, plausible deductive and phenomenological ones are also recognised. For example, mathematical inferences and some historical events for which there may not be direct evidence (e.g. the existence of a proto-language deduced from similarities in existing languages) can be considered facts. On the other hand, theories based on an interpretation of facts do not have the status of a fact[1]. This does not mean that every claim has to be empirically proven. As already mentioned, proofs based on induction are not always reliable and can be limiting. So, no claim should be rejected outright unless and until it can be refuted[2]. In this way congruence resembles Popper's falsification method although it could not be identified with it: disregarding automatically an assertion just because it is not empirically falsifiable can be in some cases premature. In any case, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint incongruences, and it is also possible to interpret facts incorrectly without contradicting them. For these reasons, other criteria are needed.

Consistency means that individual statements that are part of the same explanatory structure should not be in conflict with each other. In other words, an interpretation must not contradict itself. Circumventing this criterion by claiming, for instance, that a ‘higher state of consciousness' transcends the contradictions is not considered justified because it is an external validation that cannot be challenged.

Completeness requires that an interpretation should be able to account for all the cases relevant to the subject. This does not mean that every detail needs to be addressed, but that no fact at the same level of interpretation can be ignored. ‘At the same level' is a caveat implying that if an interpretation is general, it is not necessary to discuss some anomalies and aberrations that may be a result of specific circumstances or features. However, even small exceptions need to be taken into account if they cannot be explained at the lower interpretative levels. If this had not been the case in the past, we would not have the theory of relativity or quantum physics nowadays. The criterion of completeness is important because without it congruence and consistency can be achieved within a limited scope, by simply excluding those phenomena that do not fit.

Cohesiveness means that all the parts of an interpretation should be meaningfully connected. This implies that all its elements should relate to each other and are necessary.  Nothing can be redundant; every part should have its place, purpose and function within the whole (it must effect the whole somehow). Cohesiveness is similar to Ockham's razor[3]. Its main purpose is to prevent deux ex machina explanations. It also guards against jumping to conclusions, when the path from the given premises is unclear. Cohesiveness can compensate for not requiring material evidence to prove that something exists. Rather than asking for proofs, this criterion demands that something may be included only if doing so provides a more cohesive or more probable explanation than if it is not. For instance, the existence of unicorns cannot be refuted (only evidence for their existence can be). However, because there are no consequences that cannot be explained without involving unicorns, their existence can be considered irrelevant, and therefore unnecessary (until shown otherwise). Science and common sense already use this criterion. For example, the physical forces, energy, or even human thoughts are not self-evident and their existence cannot be falsified. But, they offer the best explanation for certain phenomena at the moment, so they are widely accepted.

  • [1]. Silver makes this point clear: ‘...most scientists believe in the theory [of evolution], but it has not been proved. Facts may be regarded as indisputable; theories are not' (1998, p.19).
  • [2]. The Principle of Credulity may be relevant here: ‘... it is a sound principle of reasoning to suppose that things are as they seem to be, unless and until proved otherwise' (Swinburne, 1991, p.145).
  • [3]. The difference between the Ockham razor and cohesiveness is in a degree: cohesiveness allows the introduction of a new element if an explanation which includes it is substantially more likely, even if it is not absolutely necessary. For example, a meaningful word made of small stones could be the result of chance, a random falling and rolling of the stones, but this is extremely unlikely. A far more plausible explanation requires a new factor that may not be present or detectable any more in a direct way: an intelligent being that deliberately made the word from the stones.

The model

The diagram below represents the above methods and their relations:

Approach 

Method 

Objectivity 

Expansion 

 Common sense

Phenomenology 

Personal depth 

Heuristic enquiry 

 Scientific

Ind./deduction 

Distancing 

Instrum./experim. 

 Spiritual

Transpersonal 

Trans. personal 

Awareness shift

 Philosophical

Reasoning 

Internal criteria 

Discourse 

 

  • The first column refers to the approach with which these methods are associated.
  • The names of the methods are given in the second column.
  • In order to reach a certain level of a universal validity, each of these methods needs a degree of objectivity. The truth itself cannot be a guide in this case (if we knew the truth, the whole process would be unnecessary). Hence, the third column is best qualified as commitment to objectivity that can be facilitated by the above procedures. Of course, absolute objectivity cannot be achieved, so striving for objectivity is what matters.
  • Besides striving for objectivity (that leads to improving the existing knowledge) it is also important to expand, to face the unknown and try to incorporate it. The fourth column indicates the ways such expansion can be achieved. In the first case, heuristic or intrapersonal enquiry is suggested (already used in qualitative research, for example)[1]. It leads to developing non-algorithmic, tacit understanding and requires a willingness to get personally involved with the subject of enquiry. Transforming the perception of reality (object manipulation) through using instruments and conducting experiments is already well practised in science. Manipulating experience (subject manipulation) through shifts of awareness is a recognised path of enhancing transpersonal experiences. The interpersonal means (dialogue, discourse) has been used since Plato, but was significantly refined in the 20th century (through the work of Buber, Bohm, Bakhtin, Gadamer and others), and can too contribute to expansion.

The following allegorical example may help in recognising the unique qualities of each of these methods, and how they can be combined. Let us imagine that four individuals come across a river, and each of them has a preference for one of these methods. The first person may attempt to experience the river directly. S/he may taste the water or even swim in it (immerse shimself in it). Phenomenological reduction could assist in determining the extent to which such an experience can have a universal value. The second person, in contrast, may stand on the bank and use, for instance, geometry to measure the width of the river, or bring some instruments to determine its chemical composition. The third person may sit by the river and try to merge with it on a non-material level, seeking the meaning of the river beyond shis immediate experience. The fourth person, using reason, may try to conceptualise the river, probably by pacing up and down its banks and possibly by entering into dialogue with others (in an attempt to see how their experiences can make rational sense). Now, we could imagine that one person can do all of the above. This, however, is not necessary, as long as those four do their work with integrity and are open-minded and willing to put their findings together. On first sight, trying to synthesise a chemical analysis of water with a Siddhartha-like experience of the river, may seem odd, but it is not impossible. The rest of this book is an attempt to interpret reality by doing just that.

  • [1]. Heuristic enquiry asks: ‘What is my experience of this phenomenon and the essential experience of others who also experience this phenomenon intensely?' (Patton, 1990, p.71).