Wishing you a blessed winter solstice time — this is the ancient time for hunkering down, reflecting, and celebrating everything that survives the tight squeeze of “the dying of the light.” But of course, we now celebrate it as members of a global community that includes dear friends in the Southern Hemisphere for whom this is the summer solstice, so it’s a different kind of time now, one in which all our cycles must be seen in a bigger context.
For me, that means knowing that every blossoming implies an eventual wilting, and that every withered flower bears seeds for a new life. It’s “all moments at once — all the time.”
There’s a profound richness to the vulnerable and openhearted feeling this is releasing in me now — bright with intensity, like the color magenta (the hybrid of the longest and shortest wavelength colors) or the joyous bittersweet intensity of soulful minor chords. And it is with that feeling that I send you this solstice holiday message of appreciation and blessing. Thank you for being a part of my life and journey.
I’m happy to be sending you Part 3 of my blog series, The Marriage of Science & Spirit: Negotiating the Great Pre-Nup. This one is titled Zooming Out on Talking Back to Sam Harris.
To the many people who wrote so passionately, sincerely and intelligently in response to Parts 1 and 2, please forgive my metaphorically “leaving the room” in mid-conversation. I was delayed by a teaching trip to Guatemala and Mexico, and urgent work upon my arrival home. I also discovered, as I got into the guts of this blog series, that it’s going deep, and will ultimately have at least 5 parts.
In Part I, The Marriage of Science & Spirit: Negotiating the Great Pre-Nup
, I pointed out that the coming together of rationality with spirituality, the "marriage of science and spirit", is the most significant intellectual and cultural event of our time, something that will reshape the future of human affairs, whose terms we’re now defining: the “Pre-Nup” of this marriage contract. I observed that there’s a great debate unfolding between materialistic rationalists
who point beyond reductive materialism to a conscious universal Reality.
In Part 2, Why Sam Harris’s "Waking Up" Matters,
I took the position that this book — a well-written, persuasive, internally-coherent argument for a rational, even atheistic, “spirituality without religion” — might turn out to be profoundly influential, potentially making history, and even changing it. I praised the ways in which Harris’s manifesto could help mainstream cultural attitudes and assumptions evolve.
Now, in Part 3, I begin to articulate a critique
of Harris and point to some differences in the very kind of thinking
that different participants in this debate are engaging.
In the process, I’ll zag where I previously zigged in Part 2. In this, and subsequent installments of this series, I’ll point out some important shortcomings of Sam Harris’s view and cultural project. Later, in subsequent posts, I’ll zoom back to focus on the meta-conversation.
You see, this is not only, or even primarily, a debate over the truth, a discussion of the real nature of reality; it is a political
process, a struggle over intellectual and cultural power, and not just in abstract terms. In subsequent installments, the plot will thicken further, as we explore the implications of the fact that a true synthesis is a process achieved only as both
(or really all
) “sides” of the debate genuinely evolve
. Zooming Out on Talking Back to Sam
The “atheistic” synthesis of science and religion proposed by Harris is materialistic
in nature, taking observable measurable objective matter and energy as the bottom-line reality, and viewing consciousness as a secondary expression, an “epiphenomenon” of material processes (what Ken Wilber would call “frisky dirt”). His argument is clear, coherent, insightful, and persuasive. As I noted in Part 2 of this series, it may well prove to have tremendous cultural influence and thus historical significance.
Nonetheless, it’s a partial truth; it doesn’t acknowledge a whole series of important realities that severely diminish its status and undermine its authority:
- Science is a method, not a philosophy, whereas “scientific materialism” is a distinct philosophical position, a theory or paradigm — and a popular belief. Such philosophies are extremely difficult to prove scientifically, and thus, quite naturally, materialism has never been proven (even though many “scientific materialists”, including Sam Harris, speak and act as though it has).
Based on actual hard evidence, however, materialism has no more claim to scientific authority than does “panpsychism”, the view that all matter and energy, down to the tiniest subatomic particles, is in a fundamental sense conscious, possessing at least a rudimentary proto-sentience, or “prehension”.
Harris disagrees with the many eminent physicists (60%, according to recent polls) who, following the “Copenhagen Interpretation” and going all the way back to Max Planck, agree that consciousness (perhaps expressed as the “quantum vacuum” variously named) is the irreducible substrate of “physical” matter and space-time. Planck wrote, “'I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
Many others, like Harris, take the materialist perspective. There is no fair reading of the record except for all participants in the debate to admit that the science itself is entirely neutral and agnostic regarding the debate between materialism and a “conscious Kosmos”.
- There’s a mountain of strong scientific evidence for mind-matter interactions. Thousands of controlled double-blind parapsychological experiments, conducted by diverse groups, many of them conducted according to standards of rigor more stringent than those commonly applied in other scientific fields, have produced a mountain of scientific data that demonstrates at least subtle interactions between consciousness and matter and the (imperfect and probabilistic and usually weak, but nonetheless actual and irresponsible to ignore) phenomenon of psi, or “non-ordinary” human knowing, and the influence of consciousness on living tissue and non-living matter.
We’ll return to this later. For now, suffice it to say, scientific materialists have been very successful in the politics ignoring and marginalizing this evidence, but not very successful in the scientific project of bringing intelligence and curiosity to exploring and accounting for it. Which leads us to our next point:
- Harris’s book is a political act in the domain of intellectual and cultural politics. He presents it as a neutral rational exploration of the factual nature of reality and human neurology and its implications. However, his manifesto emerges in a social and cultural context, and can only be fully understood, appreciated, and engaged as it interacts with that context.
Materialism is the most popular, broadly recognized system of beliefs among scientists and engineers. It is the simplest and most easily understood and articulated, and thus most coherent and common philosophical basis for committing to and advancing scientific research, as well as the world-transforming technologies that science makes possible. It has enormous intellectual and institutional credibility and power.
Not only do trans-rational approaches to this synthesis lack this enormous structural advantage, they are not in agreement even with one another. The various trans-rational syntheses have only more recently emerged (which is natural, since they’re inherently more complex and nuanced) and have yet to converge in a single unified coherent thesis.
Thus, each speaks alone and tends to appear as isolated and extremely marginal “challengers” to the far more coherent, easily understood, and culturally powerful “scientific materialist” synthesis.
- Trans-rational approaches to synthesizing science and spirituality have no less of a basis in evidence and reason than do rational approaches. The atheistic rational synthesis sets forth its own ground, and implicitly, the terms of the debate it is offering to engage. In effect, it is directed toward particular arguments (the weaker arguments, or “straw men”) it effectively vanquishes. But this functions as a rhetorical slight-of-hand that diverts attention from the more interesting and formidable baseis for this synthesis (the more interesting trans-rational terms for the marriage contract between science and spirit) that deserve to be more fully considered.
In future installments of this blog, I will assert that at least some of the elements of the terms of these trans-rational approaches are not just as strong as the merely rational terms, they are significantly richer and better (more adequate) in important ways. And yet the debate itself is just one level of what’s going on here.
These trans-rational approaches have for the most part been arrived at by a different kind of thinking, and there’s work to do in translating that kind of thinking into therigorous, intellectually honest, rational terms of this public debate. Let’s begin by taking a closer look at some of the kinds of thinking involved in this conversation.
Different modes of thought
The distinction between what I’ve called “strict rationalist” and “trans-rationalist” versions of this marriage contract contrasts not just two views of reality, but also the ways different modes of thinking reach conclusions, and the challenges to engaging a fruitful mutual dialogue.
Developmental research distinguishes different structures of thought and meaning-making that unfold across childhood and on into adulthood, so that some adults continue to develop beyond the point where others stop maturing. Sometimes these structures are referred to as “orders of mind”, “stages of development”, or “levels of consciousness”. Each can be associated with a distinct general worldview that most often emphasizes particular values over others. This is a foundational insight of adult developmental psychology and integral philosophy as expounded by Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Ken Wilber, Claire Graves, and many others.
Examining the different modes of thinking involved in this debate will give us an important additional lens through which we can see more deeply into it.
In general, the “atheistic” materialist view coincides with formal operational thinking andabstract operational thinking, which focus on facts and data and derives connections from logic and evidence.
The vision of a conscious Kosmos usually coincides either with mythic believer’s thinking, or with “vision-logic”. Vision-logic begins with that same formal operational thought process, but also intuitively apprehends the nature of the whole (using multiple modes of knowing or intelligence).
There are several distinct levels of thought participating in this debate, often arguing in entirely different “languages”. This topic can be explored in depth, but here I’ll offer a simplified summary of the most important modes of thinking at play:
Mythic-rational thinking (often associated with religious belief and “intelligent design”)
This thinking begins with a (usually shared) set of beliefs about the whole of reality and then views data (the “parts”) through that lens. It is unable to see what fails to fit that view, and distorts data as needed to fit its culturally agreed-upon preconceived beliefs and conclusions. This is the thinking associated with the sort of religious beliefs and attitudes that Sam Harris so effectively condemned in his earlier books, The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation.
Early rational thinking (often associated with aggressive “skeptics” asserting atheistic materialism)
Some developmental researchers (such as Loevinger, Cook-Greuter and Torbert) have identified two distinct levels of rational thinking, the first of which is “abstract operational” thinking. Here there is the cognitive capacity to look at oneself, but with strong ultrarational defenses, gravitating toward oppositional battles with others who defend different positions. You can see this in web comment streams that have attracted atheists less sophisticated than Sam Harris. Individuals with this kind of thought pattern live in a world where things are sure and clear, and they feel entitled to impose their views on others. Thus they can seem argumentative and opinionated. Their logic begins with a conclusion — the intention to advance or defend or glorify themselves. This mental mode is unable to synthesize complex systemic or metasystemic perspectives or to question its own presumptions. It is common among teenagers, bureaucrats, junior managers, and engineers, and can be found in almost every profession.
Advanced rational thinking (often associated with intelligent scientific thinkers, including many advocates for a “rational” synthesis of science and spirituality, is also known as “formal operational” thinking, the second level of rational thinking identified by developmental researchers)
This kind of thinking is able to operate in much more complex ways, systemically and meta-systemically, holding many simultaneous variables and unknowns. It is capable of relating to information with much more openness, curiosity, and creativity. This kind of thinking can synthesize complex views of whole systems, and it can focus creatively into the future, even amidst change. When healthy, this modality, in contrast to early rational thinking, is actually actively interested in learning, and is often open to feedback and differing perspectives.
Ken Wilber offers a lucid description of advanced rational thinking in Sex, Ecology and Spirituality (p 173-174): “…'formal operational cognition'…. means the capacity not just to think, but to think about thinking (and thus 'operate upon' thinking: ‘formal operational’). Since you can operate upon or reflect upon your own thought processes, you are to
some degree free of them; you can to some degree transcend them; you can
take perspectives different from your own; you can entertain hypothetical
possibilities; and you can become highly introspective…. And….because we can reflect on our own thought processes, and thus to some degree remove ourselves from them, we become capable of imagining
all sorts of other possibilities….This is why rationality or reasonableness tends to be universal in character.”
It is hard to overstate the importance of formal operational thinking. It is the kind of thinking our educational system is built to foster. It spawned the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the Tech Revolution of our time. It is the de facto lingua franca of advanced contemporary culture. It is the language spoken by Sam Harris. It’s the language I’m speaking right now. And this is the language into which trans-rationalist responses to Harris must be translated if they are to matter. It is only insofar as perspectives can be communicated and understood in formal operational terms that they have relevance to the great negotiation over the terms of the marriage contract between science and spirituality.
Formal operational thinking does, however, have certain biases and limitations. Cook-Greuter, in Ego Development (2005, pp 18-21) puts it this way, “For…persons [at this level of mind] rationality will triumph. Thus they are interested in analysis… Truth can be found. One can come closer to it by consistently applying the scientific method, by looking at things rationally, by continuously improving and refining one’s methods of inquiry and measuring tools…. The major limit of [this] mind set is its acceptance of facts and the external world as real and its blindness to the constructed nature of beliefs, especially the grand myth of conventional science. Although complex scientific analysis is applied, the underlying assumptions of any system are rarely questioned or made explicit. Especially at this stage, knowledge, measurement and prediction are taken for granted...”
One final note: Another limitation of formal operational thinking is that although it can see “whole systems”, it sees them abstractly and relates to them conceptually; thus it only thinks from the parts (the data points) to the whole (It cannot think from the wholeto the parts).
Early vision-logic (often associated with popular trans-rational integrations of science and spirit)
Early vision logic is capable of advanced rational thinking, and it goes beyond formal operational thought to use many sources of information and multiple intelligences to intuit models of the integrated shapes of the “wholes” implied by the data, the “parts”. The opening up of vision-logic brings a rich, multileveled, and more kinesthetically integrated apprehension of patterns. As Wilber puts it, “Where rationality gives all possible perspectives, vision-logic adds them up into a totality…. vision-logic can hold in mind contradictions, it can unify opposites, it is dialectical and nonlinear, and it weaves together what otherwise appear to be incompatible notions….rationality can indeed take different perspectives.…But vision-logic…adds up all the perspectives tout ensemble, and therefore privileges no perspective as final…” This is an intelligence that thus begins to be able to think “from the whole to the parts”. It spontaneously takes opposing perspectives and questions itself.
When the capacity for this kind of thinking first appears, says Cook-Greuter, “People now realize that things are not necessarily what they seemed at earlier stages because the interpretation of reality always depends on the position of the observer… One can never be as totally detached and “objective” as the rational/scientific outlook of the [previous] stage would have it… [they] abandon purely rational analysis in favor of a more holistic, organismic approach in which feelings and context are taken into account and the process becomes as intriguing as the product or outcome. [People at this stage] also favor more relativistic or psychological approaches over merely logical ones. The need to explain everything is gone…”
Advanced vision-logic (often associated with more sophisticated trans-rational syntheses of science and spirituality)
The weakness of early, immature vision-logic is that it tends to so strongly prefer its new more holistic mode of apprehending reality that it tends to be uninterested in rigorous, rational, detail-oriented, evidence-based thinking — especially debates with those skeptically deconstructing the beautiful wholes it feelingly intuits. Thus it tends to become less capable of sustained, focused, rigorous, rational “formal operational” thinking, and the consequence is a tolerance for (and sometimes even a preference for) sloppy thinking, which is how it has given rise to what is sometimes decried as “new age woo woo.”
This thinking directly apprehends deeper dimensions of wholeness, eventually awakening what ancient Greeks called gnosis — direct intuitive knowledge of, or contact with, the essence of reality, so profoundly that it relieves suffering. Gnosis is direct experience of awakened consciousness, as distinct from merely intellectual or conceptual knowledge, belief or theory. However, advanced vision-logic is not attached to this direct intuitive mode; instead it is able to simultaneously appreciate the value of all modes of thought and knowledge (and the perspectives they disclose) and to go back and forth among them. Thus, it is able to think not only from the whole to the parts but alsofrom the parts to the whole — as well as from possible futures to the present.
Cook-Greuter traces several stages in the development of advanced vision-logic: “[The] relativism [of early vision-logic] changes into personal commitment and responsibility for creating one’s own meaning…. The shadow side of the self can be acknowledged to a greater degree and therefore a new integration and wholeness is possible….Although they experience role conflicts and dilemmas…[people begin to] recognize that these are inevitable and that ambivalent feelings are natural… Distressing emotions become more tolerable….[and] this allows them to be more tolerant [of others] and spontaneous…
“When people see through the filter of the symbolic construction and mapping of reality, their disposition towards the language habit can change profoundly. In general, [they] try to remain aware of the pseudo-reality created by words. They realize that the pursuit of objective self-identification and rational, objective explanations of the universe are futile—artifacts of our need to make permanent and substantive that which is in flux and immaterial….At the same time, [they] appreciate the vital function language plays in human affairs, in social interaction and development.”
Then, as vision-logic opens gnosis, “the capacity to draw from and appreciate insights from non-rational sources of information increases….the more regular practice of turning inward and observing one’s own mental processes also often leads to the spontaneous experience of a direct mode of being in which knower and known momentarily merge, and the personal self-sense disappears…”
This experience of transcendence of the subject-object stance of formal operational thinking is transformative. Although it often first produces a temporary disdain for conventional knowledge and thought, as it matures, it eventually enhances intellectual capacity. Vision-logic becomes the basis for a more and more free, flexible, and appreciative relationship to, and a profoundly enriched capacity for, rigorous formal operational thinking. There is the recognition that “all perspectives are both true and partial including my own.” On that basis arises the humility necessary to bring “awakened consciousness" into compassionate and respectful re-engagement with linear thinking. At this point, mature vision-logic is spontaneously interested in engaging the implications of the insight Wilber succinctly summarizes, “that all perspectives interrelate, or that no perspective is final…does not mean that there are not relative merits among them.”
Advanced vision-logic only began to appear fairly recently in cultural evolution, so it is still statistically quite rare, and therefore only a marginal emergent voice in popular cultural discourse. However, it is appearing more and more, and it's rapidly growing in its capacity for engagement with popular discourse. There, it can be recognized not only by its awakened consciousness, but by its courage and willingness to go “off the reservation” of metaphorical, poetic, and mystical expression, developing a capacity forintellectually rigorous re-engagement with formal operational reasoning.
That’s exactly what I’m aiming to engage here — a rational, yet more than merely rational, examination of our cultural dynamics. I’m looking directly at the kinds of thinking at play, and the distinctions among their modes of thought, in order to set a context for a deeper level of this conversation.
A vigorous debate about the terms of the “marriage of science and spirituality” has been underway for many decades among philosophers of science and religion, but has not yet taken place within a single coherent conversation. A whole series of segmented sub-conversations have occurred, many of them using non-intersecting kinds of thought. And they’ve all mostly been conducted in the absence of serious meditative practice and realization.
What will happen if that conversation continues on a higher level, informed by practice, realization, and awareness of the different kinds of thinking we are engaging, making use of these Integral developmental insights?
And what will happen if we then zoom back and notice the subtext of conversation as it effects intellectual politics and cultural evolution?
* * *
As I’ve said before, I think Sam Harris’s "Waking Up" may well prove, in hindsight, to have functioned as a critical lever in breaking up the cultural logjam that has long kept our public conversation about science and spirituality stuck at the level of superficialities.
This blog post is the third of a series.
In upcoming posts, I’ll look at:
- Is Sam Harris’s Waking Up an example of “advanced rational” thinking — or could it be evidence-focused “advanced vision-logic” engaging in advanced rational discourse? And either way, on what terms can a trans-rational synthesis based on advanced vision-logic most meaningfully engage with Sam’s thinking and view?
- The spectrum of distinct “spiritual” visions of reality that different people see implicit in quantum physics, Einsteinian space-time, the Big Bang, black holes, string theory, and multiverses.
- How the radical mysticism of scientists who have made the most significant contributions to our current understanding of reality does or doesn’t converge with the radical view of mankind’s highest traditions of spiritual realization.
- The invisible dispute over what constitutes a truly rigorous (or “parsimonious”) interpretation of experimental findings that challenge strict materialism.
- The dynamics of the taboo against psi research despite the broad evidence for statistically-significant mind-matter interactions, and the way this affects the context of our discussion of scientific spirituality.
All this is important because the “marriage contract” between science and spirituality may provide the source code for the great event of our time — a transformation of mainstream worldviews.
- Why mindfulness meditation practice and quantitative neurological research into its effects are the one thing that’s broadly liked and accepted by all participants in this debate — and why that will likely prove to be far more significant than most people realize.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments below.