A Mini-Discourse on Spiritual Method

Which Way to Truth?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013
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We don’t know much. That’s the one thing we do know as we survey this universe of ours and the human milieu that is such a small part of it.

But what of spirit, the soul, the psyche, human well-being? What do we know about that? Again: not much. So here we find a unifying factor between science and spirit: a common ignorance about ultimate answers. This suggests, perhaps, a common method for learning, first, the more complete contours of our ignorance and, second, pursuing a productive path to reduce our ignorance.

Descartes, one of the founders of modern science and philosophy, made his mark in part through his approach to knowledge in his Discourse on Method (full name Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences). In his Discourse, he introduced his most famous statement: I think, therefore I am. What he meant with this foundation for his intellectual edifice was that he knew nothing with any certainty except this one thing: There is thinking here, and we can conclude from the very act of thinking that there is a thinker.

Tam Hunt
Click to enlarge photo

Tam Hunt

Descartes’s first step was the ultimate in intellectual modesty. It is ironic, therefore, that he immediately deduced as his second step, away from the certainty of his knowledge of self, that God must also exist. I won’t go into the details here, but will say only that I found his logic very dubious in making this secondary conclusion. (I have written on my views of the Ultimate here and here).

We may still emulate Descartes’s humility, however, for spiritual method, as well as for scientific method. Science today, particularly in its more popularized forms, all too often states as fact things that are more correctly labeled conjecture or inference. Karl Popper correctly noted that all of science is a series of conjectures and refutations. There is no proof. Gregory Bateson made it even more clear: “Science probes, it does not prove.”

In terms of spiritual method, the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, stated in his final sermon that we should all be a light unto ourselves. That is, we should always forge our own path and not follow any particular set of views on authority or faith alone. We should test statements, test methods, and find our own path.

Based on his own teachings, if the Buddha were alive today, it is highly unlikely that he would wholeheartedly embrace Buddhism. Why? Because human knowledge has improved since the Buddha’s time, and because we have also become more humble in our approach to knowledge.

Our worldly knowledge has undeniably improved vastly since the time of the Buddha. Modern science has only been around for a few hundred years, kicking off a vast accretion of empirical knowledge that only began in earnest more than two thousand years after Buddha died. Our knowledge of the cosmos, while still extremely limited, is vastly different than it was even a hundred years ago. Until about 80 years ago we didn’t even know there were other galaxies in our universe. We now know that there are billions of other galaxies, mini universes in their own right, floating alongside our own Milky Way, some near but most incredibly far from us. Medical knowledge has vastly improved, as has average human life span. More generally, technology is the real proof in the pudding for the improvement of human knowledge. As one example, we now have access to the sum of knowledge of entire civilizations in the palm of our hand. Literally.

If our knowledge of the world around us has grown so much, isn’t it reasonable to think our knowledge of the realm of spirit has also grown?

Evolutionary Spirituality

There is an interesting debate between those traditions that believe final and complete knowledge has already been achieved by an individual or individuals, and those who believe that knowledge is always improving, evolving, accreting. For the first group, it is our task as spiritual seekers today to follow those teachers (whatever tradition it is that resonates) and to emulate their example in order to achieve their level of knowledge and spiritual attainment. There is no going beyond; there is no improving our collective knowledge of spiritual matters if all has been previously revealed by Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, as the case may be.

For the second group, all is process, improvement, including our knowledge of spirit. There is no endpoint or final knowledge, and we can all, each of us, advance our collective knowledge and attainment. Empirically, we can see that the second group is probably closer to the truth.

All spiritual traditions evolve, through insight, dialogue, schisms, conflicts, and so on. Looking first to our own history in the West, the Christian movement today is generally acknowledged to have four or five major denominations: Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Anglican. And there are dozens of sub-denominations within these major schools. These numerous denominations exist because each generation produced thinkers who didn’t agree entirely with previous thinkers — and, accordingly, they created their own denominations with the support of those they inspired. This process continues today, with Mormonism, a very recent branch of Christianity, gaining influence.

In the Eastern traditions, we see very similar evolutionary changes. Taking Buddhism as our example, we have the following major denominations: Theravada (Hinayana), Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is, however, often considered a Mahayana denomination even though it has become so prominent it’s often given its own category. There are dozens of other denominations in the Mahayana grouping, including Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren, Hua Yen, Tendai, and others. Again, these different schools of thought arose because new thinkers were dissatisfied at some level with the teachings handed down to them by previous thinkers.

There is a fairly new term for the idea that there is no endpoint or final knowledge: “evolutionary spirituality.” It is not just that this view of spirituality attempts to take evolutionary theory’s insights into account (in the Darwinian sense); rather, evolutionary spirituality recognizes that all is process, all is change, all things are evolving — including our knowledge of the universe and ourselves. If all is process, the future is unknown and necessarily so.

Carter Phipps’s Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea is a wonderful book on this movement. Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, has coined the term “evolutionary panentheism” for the modern movement that views all things as process and sees the universe we live in as an emanation of God or ground of being. (The link contains an excellent short article summarizing Murphy’s ideas.) This phrase is a mouthful, but it’s a great title for what is a comprehensive view of the universe and our place in it, shaped by many great thinkers, old and new, including Hegel, Schelling, Sri Aurobindo, Henry James, and Alfred North Whitehead.

So What’s the Big Deal?

The difference in these approaches comes down to one’s views of omniscience or at least the potential for omniscience. Can we or any being ever know everything? And what does it mean to know everything? This is a tough question with no certain answers. However, it seems to me that there are logical limits that transcend any current empirical limitations to what can be known. Is the universe deterministic or not? If it is, we may be able to know the future with certainty, at least in theory —and the past, as an extrapolation from present conditions. (Let’s set aside for now discussions about deterministic chaos.) If the universe is not deterministic, however, we can’t know the future with any certainty.

A big problem with the idea of a deterministic universe is that this view eliminates the possibility of free will. This is the case because if the future is entirely determined from present conditions and the laws of physics, and was equally determined from the Big Bang or whatever starting point we choose, then there is no room for human agency, for actions that aren’t determined by prior forces. There is no free will in a determined universe — despite the best efforts of compatibilists old and new.

If we, instead, recognize our immediate and deep-seated intuitions about the validity of our own free will, our own ability to make real decisions, we must reject the idea of a deterministic universe. We must recognize that the universe is wide open and that time, and the universe itself, is a process of creative unfolding. And we are part of that creative unfolding.

This second view is not just wishful thinking. The essay just linked to describes the work of Nobel prize–winning physicist Ilya Prigogine’s efforts to show that the universe is indeterministic and ultimately creative and free. Similarly, Alfred North Whitehead and other process thinkers have suggested that free will, agency, is built into the fabric of the universe at every level in some form. It is highly rudimentary in the vast majority of the universe, but where matter complexifies into biological forms, so free will and consciousness complexify.

The friendly disagreement between the evolutionary views of spirituality and the non-evolutionary views comes down to different models of reality. There are an infinite number of possible models of reality, but there seem to be two particular (simple) models or metaphors of reality that are relevant to the themes I’ve raised in this essay: Is the universe a perpetual cycle of suffering/dissatisfaction, or is the universe an upward spiral, always improving, creative and free?

Buddhism, in particular, has sometimes been criticized for its seemingly gloomy view of the universe. “Life is suffering” is often presented as the first Noble Truth, a foundation of almost all Buddhist schools of thought. Some modern translations prefer to translate the Pali word (the Buddha’s tongue) dukkha as “dissatisfaction” or “frustration” rather than “suffering.” (See my recent column endorsing key Buddhist ideas but suggesting ways in which Buddhism could evolve further).

Indeed, much of life is frustrating. And yet, in our modern era, it seems that many people, in ever increasing numbers, can reasonably expect to live a life that is generally satisfying, despite frustrations of various types. And we are on a civilizational trajectory (barring catastrophic events) to bring the majority of humanity to this new position over the coming decades and centuries.

However, even in this brighter future where the basic needs of all, or most of, humanity are met, human life will inevitably involve dissatisfaction and frustration, and suffering too. We can’t yet avoid illness, pain, or death. And even if we could conceivably avoid these inevitable features of life in the future, due to the marvels of technology, we will always suffer in various ways due to jealousy, rivalry, bias, unfairness, heartbreak, and so on.

Maybe, just maybe, we will, as we progress in both our scientific and our spiritual knowledge, achieve societies in which people not only have their physical needs met without great striving but also reach a state where we can en masse truly focus on unleashing our own creativity, our own search for beauty in all aspects of life. If this kind of future is possible, the prevailing Buddhist and Christian notion of escaping this human level of existence becomes far less pressing and a new objective becomes more relevant: a co-evolution of higher spirituality in our present realm. While we can recognize, as logically possible, the potential for different realms of existence (Nirvana in Buddhism, heaven in Christianity, etc.), the yearning for these other realms becomes less important. And we can focus on creating heaven on earth, nirvana in our time.

But I am personally torn on these ideas. We can never know, under the principles I have suggested here, what is the true shape of the universe, the fate of the universe, our own fate. So the debate will surely go on.

What Is the Shape of the Universe?

A final thought: It does seem that the Eastern spiritual tradition lacks any substantial thinking on how things came to be as they are in our universe, as is the case too with the Western Christian tradition, which is in most of its forms highly opposed to evolutionary thinking. There is a general attitude in both traditions toward trying to understand how things are, and to live our lives accordingly, rather than to understand how things came to be. The difference is the same as the difference between viewing a snapshot versus a movie. Which is more revealing?

I would suggest that understanding how things came to be as they are now is a major step in living a better life and achieving more complete spiritual understanding. Just as a doctor wouldn’t dream of prescribing medication without at least trying to understand how the patient became ill, we should, as spiritual seekers, do our best to understand how we came to be in our current condition — and this requires that we also do our best to understand how the universe as a whole came to be, because we are an inextricable part of the universe.

In the last analysis, we may certainly pursue a productive spiritual path, whatever path that entails, without a full understanding of how we came to be in our current predicament. Indeed, a key point of my essay is that we will never have such a complete understanding. But, by the same token, we should always continue our search for better answers because any spiritual path we follow will have an implicit model of reality, of the universe — and how our universe came to be — within it. If the model of the universe implicit in our preferred spiritual practice is lacking, it may have negative repercussions on our spiritual practice.

Tam Hunt is trained as a lawyer and biologist and has studied philosophy for decades. He is a renewable energy consultant and lawyer by day, and avid reader by night. He also teaches part-time at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. He lives in Santa Barbara, plays tennis, and strums a guitar occasionally.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

"If our knowledge of the world around us has grown so much, isn’t it reasonable to think our knowledge of the realm of spirit has also grown?"

No, of course not. If I learn how to drive my car better it does not follow that my harpsichord skills have also improved. The rest fails because the premise fails.

SezMe (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2013 at 1:26 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Human nature will never be tamed by knowledge.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2013 at 3:39 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"There is thinking here, and we can conclude from the very act of thinking that there is a thinker." No.

See in particular the Criticism section of, also objections in Ayer and elsewhere.

pk (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2013 at 5:24 p.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, I really don't see how you can disagree with my statement. How on earth can you not conclude from the mere act of thinking that there is a thinker? Who or what is doing the thinking?

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2013 at 10:52 a.m. (Suggest removal)

pk (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2013 at 12:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks for the link. I agree entirely with Russell's statement (1927):

"What, from [Descartes’] own point of view, he should profess to know is not ‘I think,’ but ‘there is thinking’.... I think we ought to admit that Descartes was justified in feeling sure that there was a certain occurrence, concerning which doubt was impossible; but he was not justified in bringing in the word ‘I’ in describing this occurrence."

So if you agree with this too then we're on the same page. The sheer fact of experience leads us to conclude necessarily that there is an experiencer. This isn't necessarily any kind of permanent self or soul. Here's my earlier piece on these issues:

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2013 at 5:45 p.m. (Suggest removal)

No, we aren't on the same page. I’m on the page with Russell's full account, in which, according to the author of the article, Russell denied “that thinking, or thoughts, entail a thinker, and he [Russell] explained the temptation of inferring a thinker from the occurrence of thoughts by appealing to what he regarded as the questionable metaphysical commitments of ordinary language. Again in his own words:
‘Descartes believed in “substance,” both in the mental and in the material world. He thought that there could not be motion unless something moved, nor thinking unless someone thought. No doubt most people would still hold this view; but in fact it springs from a notion – usually unconscious – that the categories of grammar are the categories of reality.’”

And with Nietzsche in The Will to Power: “‘There is thinking: therefore there is something that thinks’: this is the upshot of all Descartes’ argumentation. But that means positing as ‘true a priori’ our belief in the concept of substance – that when there is thought there has to be something ‘that thinks’ is simply a formulation of our grammatical custom that adds a doer to every deed. In short, this is not merely the substantiation of a fact but a logical-metaphysical postulate.”

pk (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2013 at 7:15 a.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, how can you argue, rationally, or even in such a way to pass the laugh test, that there can be experience without an experiencer. What is experience if not a quality that belongs to an experiencer? Russell's criticism of Descartes' substantialist views match well with what I've argued here, and echo what Whitehead's whole philosophy is about. (Keep in mind that Russell and Whitehead were partners for decades, at least on mathematical philosophy, if not on all points of their metaphysics; Russell made some statements that suggest he was sympathetic to panpsychism, as described in Skrbina's Panpsychism in the West).

Whitehead argued against substantialism in favor of a process view of reality. "Process and Reality" is the title of his magnum opus. And as you know from my columns, my work is inspired greatly by Whitehead's system of thought.

There are no substances in Whitehead's philosophy and no dualism. There is instead a neutral monism (as in Russell's system) and a balance between relations and things that he called process. All things are constantly in process, so no static entities exist. I am not here arguing the cogito in a way to support the notion of a mind or soul substance. Rather, I hope I've made it clear, I'm arguing for the sheer fact of experience, which is undeniable for each of us, as the primary and undeniable evidence of an experiencer existing in that moment that there is experience. This allows us to make the following arguments:

1. There is experience/subjectivity here now
2. There is an experiencer
3. There seems to be a world
4. That world seems to contain me as an experiencer
5. I can infer certain things about the world, based on rules of logic (inductive and deductive)
6. I can infer rules of evolutionary change that suggest how I came to be
7. The only thing I don't need to infer is the fact of my experience and my own existence as an experiencing being. All else is inferred.

I may re-think these points as I write my column(s) on deep science, but this gives you some grist for the mill.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2013 at 10:58 a.m. (Suggest removal)


The mill has sufficient grist already.

I'm sure you understand why I don't take your laugh test and the "I can't believe you believe that" objection very seriously. In particular, having read a fair amount in philosophy, theology, and the social sciences generally on such issues as subjectivity, self-hood, free will, etc., when I read what you say about quarks having an inner self and form of self-consciousness, I laugh in wonderment at how a very intelligent person could have ignored thousands of years of engagement with the subject as though it had no bearing on the meaning of his claims.

The sheer fact of experience is primary and undeniable evidence of experience. That's it. The rest is confusion between the categories of grammar and the categories of reality (Russell) and a formulation of grammatical custom based on logical-metaphysical assumptions about how the world supposedly must be (Nietzsche).

As for your take in some of your other comments:

You say that the Buddha taught that we should "not follow any particular set of views on authority or faith alone. We should test statements, test methods, and find our own path." You also point out that "Our worldly knowledge has undeniably improved vastly since the time of the Buddha."

Somehow you manage to construe these as showing that, "Based on his own teachings, if the Buddha were alive today, it is highly unlikely that he would wholeheartedly embrace Buddhism. Why? Because human knowledge has improved since the Buddha’s time, and because we have also become more humble in our approach to knowledge."

The Buddha's teachings were based on observations about, and insights into, the general human condition. What advances in the knowledge base since his day would lead him to pull back from those teachings? And in what sense are "we" more humble in our approach to knowledge than he was?

You describe Christianity and Buddhism in particular as resting on the notion that there is no improving our collective knowledge because all has been previously revealed. However, you then point our that such traditions do in fact "evolve, through insight, dialogue, schisms, conflicts, and so on." So even if a given believer or set of believers might claim that their understanding of the world is unchangeable, history of religions shows that a dynamic tension exists in these religions that leads to reevaluation as knowledge and historical conditions change.

I must admit that I'm not a "spiritual seeker," but perhaps I'll find your future columns on "deep science," about which I've already expressed my misgivings at length, as well as its relation to the process you mentioned elsewhere "of co-creating God as Summit," more coherent than what I've seen so far.

pk (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2013 at 4:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, as always, I appreciate your feedback and willingness to wade in on complex issues. However, I haven't ignored the literature at all on my broader claims about panpsychism, as you suggest. As you've read in my previous columns, I've addressed the emergentist/materialist and dualist views head on. I've pointed out in some detail where they come up short, acknowledging that these matters are always debatable and no proof is possible.

I began my inquiries about 25 years ago by reading with great pleasure the works of Dennett, Hofstadter, Dawkins, etc. These are all committed materialists. I found their ideas entirely convincing as a teenager and during my twenties. But over time I came to realize I didn't agree with their ideas. And in my late thirties I began to formulate my own ideas and started to write in these areas. So my own views have evolved considerably, starting from what are generally considered to be mainstream views in philosophy and science and shifting over time to find the very long tradition of panpsychist thinking to be more convincing. Keep in mind that the panpsychist thread goes back at least two and a half thousand years ago, to Heraclitus in the Greek tradition.

Anyway, I realized that our debate on the matter at hand - what one can conclude from the sheer fact of experience, here now, in each of us - is not that relevant to my broader points I'm trying to make in this and my last column's discussion with you. We agree that there is experience, here now, and that this is our primary reality. We agree that all else is inferred. And that's my broad point about the need for today's science to accept these facts and approach the search for knowledge from a more humble position, and to recognize that there is no real dividing line between traditionally defined external and internal worlds.

Addressing your specific points, you write: "The Buddha's teachings were based on observations about, and insights into, the general human condition. What advances in the knowledge base since his day would lead him to pull back from those teachings? And in what sense are "we" more humble in our approach to knowledge than he was?"

On your first question, I would refer you to the new fields of neuroscience, cognitive science and psychology. Surely you'd agree we've learned a thing or two about how the mind works since the Buddha's time? And even in the same tradition that the Buddha followed (introspection and analysis), surely you'd agree that practitioners since Buddha's time have learned valuable insights? Nagarjuna is often considered to be the second most important Buddhist thinker other than Buddha himself. Surely you'd agree that Nagarjuna's insights are worthy additions to Buddha's insights?

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2013 at 1:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)


On your second question, we can compare the statements from both early scientists/philosophers and spiritual seekers with statements from todays' best scientists and philosophers of science. We can see quickly that today's approach to knowledge, when carefully framed, is far more humble about the certainty (or lack thereof) of our knowledge. As an example, Richard Feynman wrote: “[E]ven those ideas which have been held for a very long time and which have been very accurately verified might be wrong …. [W]e now have a much more humble point of view of our physical laws – everything can be wrong!” Whitehead wrote in Process and Reality: "Speculative boldness must be balanced by complete humility before logic and before fact. It is a disease of philosophy when it is neither bold nor humble..." Kuhn wrote: “Scientific theories, it must be remembered, attach to nature only here and there.”

You write: "You describe Christianity and Buddhism in particular as resting on the notion that there is no improving our collective knowledge because all has been previously revealed. However, you then point our that such traditions do in fact 'evolve, through insight, dialogue, schisms, conflicts, and so on.' So even if a given believer or set of believers might claim that their understanding of the world is unchangeable, history of religions shows that a dynamic tension exists in these religions that leads to reevaluation as knowledge and historical conditions change."

You're suggesting that I've contradicted myself or that my statements are not coherent, but that's not the case. My point was that for followers of Christ or Buddha, for example, there is a common view that these founders had ultimate knowledge and that we simply need to listen to what they've said, follow their example, and we will find realization. And this may indeed be the case for a lot of people. Schisms happen, of course, as I describe in my essay, but these schisms are generally a result of different interpretations of the founder of the tradition's teachings, and differences over administrative matters or, perhaps most often, control and power struggles. They're not generally the result of new teachers saying that they have gone beyond the founder's knowledge and thus a new denomination is required. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Mormonism, where the Book of Mormon is just that - an addition to the Bible, as revealed to Joseph Smith. But generally speaking, new denominations come about due to different interpretations and power struggles, not because of the new founder's ostensible going beyond the original teachings or insights.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2013 at 1:44 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Citing the supposed charms of pantheism and its proponents isn't enough, nor is simply repeating, as you have in the past, that quarks must have consciousness because you can't fathom a world in which humans do but quarks don't. Words like "self," "subjectivity," "will," "choice," and the like have meanings developed over many centuries by a variety of thinkers from Augustine to Locke, Hume, Kant, and beyond, including more modern and contemporary work on personhood from psychological, anthropological, and other perspectives. That's the literature you've ignored and need to address when you claim that such carefully elaborated terms can be applied to quarks.

We know more than the Buddha about how the brain works. Do we really know more than he did about how the mind works? What have we learned about the latter that you believe would cause him to change his views in any substantial way?

Your initial comments were not about the relative humility of a generality of earlier seekers compared to that of the "best" among the moderns (where by "best" you of course mean the ones you've chosen because their statements can support your thesis, as opposed to those among the moderns who might not). You were speaking of one ancient seeker in particular, the Buddha. To establish your point, you need to refer to statements where he claims to have certainty in worldly knowledge, in areas relevant to his teachings, where the moderns you cite are willing to admit they do not. His simply saying, in essence, "I think you should try doing this if you want to find comfort in life" doesn't strike me as throwing the humbleness meter all that much out of whack. Besides, the Buddha wasn't trying to elaborate a falsifiable scientific/philosophical worldview; he was offering a possible therapeutics for people to apply to their lives.

pk (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2013 at 3:09 p.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, you're mis-stating my positions, as I think you know. I think I've said all I can at this point on the concerns you've raised. You don't have to agree with me, but, as always, I enjoy the dialogue.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2013 at 3:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

For the record, I'm a supporter of panpsychist solutions to the mind/body probem (as opposed to materialist or dualist solutions) and a supporter of a panentheist (not pantheist) worldview when it comes to discussing matters of spirituality, meaning, and faith.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2013 at 3:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I find it odd, to put it mildly, that you think I would knowingly misstate your positions. It would be a nonsensical waste of my time to distort them simply for the supposed pleasure of describing as inadequate or poorly posed things that you didn't in fact claim.

pk (anonymous profile)
August 25, 2013 at 7:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, your last post mis-stated my views and my previous arguments pretty seriously. Since you've read and commented on my columns pretty consistently over the last few years, I'm surprised that you would have mis-read my views that substantially. Most likely, it was just shorthand, but regardless we've been over this ground before in terms of why I think materialist and dualist views of consciousness come up short. The only other options are idealism and panpsychism. Idealism, I feel, makes a similar but opposite mistake as materialism in that it doesn't seem to adequately explain matter and its relationship to mind. Panpsychism, therefore, rises to the fore.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
August 25, 2013 at 9:16 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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