Friday, September 14, 2012

Absence of Knowledge is Not Presence of Truth

There was a time in human existence when the world was thought to be flat, when psychosis was believed to be demoniac possession, when illness was considered a mis-alignment of bodily humours, and human beings were looked upon as having been instantly and completely created creatures from the breath of deity. We now have the knowledge of planetary bodies as spheroidal, a comprehensive and growing understanding of the neural connections underlying psychosis, germ theory and evolutionary biological theory. Before these scientific and imaginative creations of human cognitive achievement, there were as seen above, many notions about the facts of existence, many hypotheses concerning the everyday occurrences of life, but it was all based on a lack of knowledge, a lack incapable of being known because nobody had begun asking the right questions. These suppositions, superstitious and supernatural that they were, contained a certain truth, a fact of human existence that in the social creation of understanding experience, we will go only so far as the collective knowledge base allows. While throughout history there have been individuals who have stood up and proclaimed a more thorough understanding, these were often looked upon as fools or ignored altogether. Being that as shifts in understanding often shake the foundation of established authority structures, there is little wonder that those in power play a key role in keeping collective truth from changing. As Bertrand Russell was quoted in the previous entry, thought is inimical to power and thwarts the powerful. Individual lives are not the only ones thrust into turmoil at consciousness being raised.

Fascinatingly, all the aforementioned notions subsequently proven unwarranted, existed in the near-history, in the midst of technological and scientific achievement that brought the world closer in ways thought magical merely a couple generations before. Despite these testable and verifiable examples of the veracity of scientific methodology, there persisted and indeed still exists in some groups, beliefs that are wholly absent of current knowledge but parade as truth of experience. They rely on the continued presence of a pre-civilized brain that seeks only the simple or basic answers, that rests upon traditional answers and judges as legitimate the supposed inherent power hierarchies of society. The cornerstone of this mentality is an adherence to a practice I call “gap-filling.” Here is where a person notes that some way of knowing, most often a simplified and lacking in nuance portrayal of science, has not answered x point and therefore they absence as evidence for their answer being accurate. This practice is often exemplified within spiritually-minded or mystical thinkers, who point to some particular aspect of reality, often biological, that science supposedly hasn’t answered and then declare that gap as being supportive of their particular spiritual interpretation of reality. Consciousness is a current favorite. Certainly there is no consensus in scientific communities as to just what exactly the subjective feeling of x is (this being usually what consciousness is described as), but this is not only merely one aspect of what constitutes conscious experience but is not a free pass to note the presence of the ineffable and then declare the answer to be found in some mystical philosophy. Another example is biology, where I witnessed a recent situation of declaring science didn’t know how life itself arose, only the mechanics once it had, therefore life must be synonymous with a spiritual force within the realm of the nebulous and ineffable.

Two issues come up when this practice is played out. First, there is the problem of one’s declaration being factually inaccurate, which in the above case concerning life occurred. There are indeed theories in place as to how the basic building blocks of life arose through impersonal and chemically more basic natural phenomena. While none to my knowledge are as of yet firmly established, they do take into account a great deal of known information and are plausible suppositions. Even if none such existed there would still not be room for an infusion of the rationally incomprehensible. There is a constant influx of information gleaned from testing and analysis, the amount of which requires an educational specialization for even the smallest of academic pursuits to come close to holding it all. History is replete with examples of theorizing by the ignorant resulting in embarrassment when further information is gathered. The world is flat, most assuredly, that is until it was proven otherwise. The error here not only is a disservice to the pursuit of real understanding of human experience but undermines the qualities that spiritual philosophy can provide.

Two, as just noted, it does a disservice to spiritual understanding and practice. The disservice of which I speak is of having the spiritual enterprise be more than it is, an interpretation of factual experience but not the experience itself. In other words, spiritual understanding should remain within the realm of contemplating the subjective and often transcendental feel of an experience, providing a descriptive narrative that can be shared, but not one that is supplying any further truth than a declaration of one’s personal mental status. As an example for clarification, Daniel Siegel describes mind as a descriptive term for the process of energy and information flow within and between people. It is a descriptive term only , not a thing in itself. Discussing mind as if it is an actual thing is missing the point of the term’s usage and moves contemplation away from what actually is known. So with the spiritual enterprise, it serves as an interpretive or descriptive system containing a way of talking about an experience that while does not point to anything in itself beyond the subjective feel of a situation, still has purpose as a means of providing the foundation for inter-personal communication about that subjective feel. At no time does however should it be used to fill in gaps that are more properly under the purview of rational/scientific analysis and testing.

When faced with the splendor of a rising sun or the visceral energy of a storm, one can speak in transcendent even spiritual terms in an attempt to describe the feelings and internal experience being generated, but we do ourselves and our ability to progress as a species a great harm in then taking those musings and declaring them to describe what the sun or the storm actually is. For that we have science and the continued progress afforded us by that enterprise in no way necessitates a diminishing of the quality of the spiritual experience, rather adding to the mental toolbox to broaden and deepen our spiritual pondering.