By Dr Steve Minett, Phd
In a recent online discussion on Consciousness I was struck by a description of reductive science (what I would call ‘Cart-Tonist’ or logical positive science) that was presented as being “…stuck in the sludge at the bottom”. This powerful metaphor poses two challenges for people like me who want to reform the ontology of science, in particular in connection with an abstract subject such as Consciousness.
The first challenge is, how can we liberate science from the sludge and enable it to rise to the sun-lit surface of the water? How, in other words, can we make the ship of theory buoyant enough not to sink back down into the sludge? The second challenge, as I see it, is to ensure that our ship of theory, now happily and productively sailing along the surface, is weighty and sturdy enough not to float off and disappear into the endless depths of mystical sky/space? In yet another metaphor, these problems resemble the dilemma of returning astronauts as they approach the earth’s atmosphere: they have to chart a trajectory which will avoid the twin disasters of a) cashing to destruction by re-entering too steeply and b) approaching at too shallow an angle, bouncing off the atmosphere and being lost for ever in deep space. (Please forgive my collection of extended metaphors, but it seems a good way in which to express such elusive ideas.) This paper is an attempt to answer these metaphorically posed questions.
In plainer language, I see these issues as problems of theory formation: how can we formulate scientific theories avoiding the two unproductive ‘dead-ends’ of logical positivist ‘sludge’ at one end of the spectrum, and elaborate mystical ‘waffle’ at the other? What I’m going to suggest is that the ‘sludge’ end of the theory formation spectrum is represented by the traditional scientific approach, known as ‘induction’. As we shall see, induction has been pretty thoroughly discredited, though still not as yet ‘officially’ superseded. The much greater danger for would-be reformers of science lies at the opposite extreme; namely, endless mystical ‘waffle’. Where, then, can we find the happy and productive mid-point? In other words (to slip back into ‘metaphor-speak’), what can keep our ship of theory happily and productively sailing along the sun-lit surface? My main answer here is; ‘publicly accessible understanding’. The rest of this paper will consist essentially of an unfolding of this conclusion.
The Problem of Induction
Let’s start with what’s become known as the ‘problem of induction’. According to the physicist David Deutsch, induction has essentially been the prevailing approach to theory formulation since the beginnings of modern science. Again, according to him: “In the inductivist theory of scientific knowledge, observations play two roles: first, in the discovery of scientific theories, and second, in their justification. A theory is said to be discovered by ‘extrapolating’ or ‘generalising’ the results of observations. Then, if large numbers of observations form to the theory, and none deviates from it, the theory is supposed to be justified – made more believable, probable or reliable.” (Deutsch, 97, p.59)
In the Twentieth Century the inductive approach was taken to its extreme by the logical positivist and behaviourist schools. These were explicitly against formulating theories, especially ‘grand theories’ or ontologies. In other words, they didn’t consider ‘understanding’ or ‘insight’ important for science. Rather their goal was to develop mathematical models which could generate successful predictions. This, in their view, was the true purpose of science because the ability to successfully predict events and behaviour provided the power to control them: it enhanced human mastery over the environment. The logical positivist approach to science maybe reached its heyday in the 1950s with the popular slogan, “Let the facts speak for themselves!”
So, what’s wrong with induction? The philosopher Bertrand Russell used a story about a chicken to illustrate this: “(To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me stress that this was a metaphorical, anthropomorphic chicken, representing a human being trying to understand the regularities of universe.) The chicken noticed that the farmer came every day to feed it. It predicted that the farmer would continue to bring food every day. Inductivists think that the chicken had ‘extrapolated’ its observations into a theory, and that each feeding time added justification to that theory… Then, one day the farmer came and wrung the chicken’s neck.” (Deutsch, ’97, p.60)
Deutsch comments on induction that perhaps its worst flaw; “… is the sheer non sequitur that a generalised prediction is tantamount to a new theory.” And he concludes that: “The inductive extrapolation of observations to form new theories is not possible! On the other hand, Deutsch argues that philosophers of science (and perhaps many scientists themselves) still yearn for the inductive justification of theory formation. He says about them that they no longer believe that induction can provide such a justification; “… yet they have an induction-shaped gap in their scheme of things, just as religious people who have lost their faith suffer from a ‘God-shaped gap’ in their scheme of things. But in my opinion there is little difference between having an X-shaped gap in one’s scheme of things and believing in X.” (Deutsch, 97, p.143) The philosopher Karl Popper claimed to have solved the problem of induction by asserting, essentially, that theories are generated by conjectures of the human imagination. Albert Einstein was, I think, saying much the same thing when he insisted that the important thing in science was to ask the ‘right’ questions. As he added, once a question has been asked, it’s fairly easy to calculate an answer. This position (which is in practise widely accepted) opens a theoretical space between induction and mysticism, which we’ll examine in detail below.
Understanding Reality Via Mystical Experience
But first let’s look at the other end of the spectrum of theory formation: mystical experience as a means of comprehending reality. Let me start by revealing that I regard myself as having had several episodes of mystical experience. These occurred mainly in breathwork sessions, between the mid-90s and the mid-2000s. So, I’m approaching the topic of mysticism not entirely from a theoretical point of view, but also on the basis of some personal experience. Given this, I have developed a particular, personal theory of mystical experience: I believe that it is intimately related to the marginal capacity of human beings to temporarily generate a ‘super-organism’. Explicitly, I believe that mystical experience is what ‘flips the switch’ between our egotistical ‘chimp’ nature and our ‘bee’, super-organism nature: The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we are 90% chimp and 10% bee; “… sometimes we really do transcend self-interest and devote ourselves to helping others, or our groups.” (Haidt, Jonathan, ‘The Righteous Mind’, 2012, Penguin, p.296/297) In order to promote the switch to (what O.N.Wilson called) our ‘eusocial’ mode, genuine mystical experience needs to induce a sense of self-transcendence, hyper-compassion and awe in the face of the wonders of nature. (I’d like to suggest that this ‘super-organism’ mode is what Karl Marx described as our ‘species being’.) What I’m suggesting here is that this ‘eusocial-inducing’ mode of mystical experience is not only an essential component of our human incarnation, but also has an evolutionary purpose.
On the other hand, I also believe that our capacity for mystical experience makes us vulnerable to self-deception and/or exploitation by others: I have myself encountered many ‘false gurus’ in the course of my life. As a specific example, I can identify Leonard Orr, who is generally recognised as the father of the ‘Rebirthing’ school of breathwork. For fifty years Orr promoted the doctrine of physical immortality, without providing any evidence of theory of why this would be possible. He simply claimed that he had ‘obtained’ this knowledge during mystical breathwork induced experiences. I attended one of his workshops during which he claimed that most forms of negative behaviour were motivated by the fear of death. During the question period, I asked him; “Isn’t the belief in physical immortality a manifestation of the fear of death?” I can’t remember the details of his answer, but it was definitely neither clear nor fact-based. But perhaps the definitive answer is that Orr himself is now dead. I can mention as another example of a false guru, Sai Baba. There is now a lot of convincing evidence that he was an active paedophile, preying on children, whilst convicting the parents of his extraordinary qualities by ‘manifesting’ watches out of thin air. At the extreme end of this exploitative, or ‘toxic’ mysticism, we can find dangerous cults which are often associated with overtly criminal behaviour: I also had indirect personal experience of the so called ‘Micmac’ cult, which left a trail of deception, fraud and abuse across Northern Europe in the 1990s. Their leader ‘Man’ stole the identity of a Canadian indigenous tribe, both to provide their name but also to claim that he had inherited their ancient wisdom that was known only to a few ‘chosen’ people. There’s also the more extreme example of David Koresh, who was largely responsible for the Waco massacre and, perhaps worst of all, the mass suicides engineered by Jim Jones.
Two Criteria to Constrain Mystical Theories
To return to our theme, in the wake of Popper’s work, I think we can safely leave aside induction as a viable methodology for theory formulation. So we are left with mysticism, at the other end of the theory formulation spectrum. Given the existence of ‘toxic mysticism’ and that mystical experience, it can be argued, is at the extreme end of Popper’s notion of imaginative conjecture as a basis for theory formulation, how can we assess the role of mystical experience in relation to the formulation of scientific theories? Let me suggest two criteria by means of which mystical theories can be constrained to remain within science:
- Congruence with the current empirical findings and observations of experimental science. This doesn’t mean a single or a few anomalous findings, but a significant accumulation of empirical findings and observations contrary to theory, paradigm or ontology: such positions are not to be abandoned lightly!
- ‘Publicly accessible understanding’ (see below for an exposition as to the meaning of this phrase)
So, firstly, let’s consider some examples of theories which are incongruent with the current empirical findings and observations of experimental science. This seems to be by far the easier criterion to clarify with examples. The most obvious examples here would be the miracles as described in the bible, if they can be described as ‘theories’. Perhaps collectively they might be called the Christian theory of miracles. A prominent example is the notion of the immaculate conception, i.e. the claim that Christ was conceived without Mary engaging in sexual intercourse (including ejaculation). Modern biological and medical science reject this proposition as impossible. Despite this, the immaculate conception is still part of the Catholic Creed, in which all Catholics are supposed to pledge unwavering belief. (A curious nuance here is that a Catholic theologian, presumably a Jesuit, tried to circumvent this scientific prohibition by suggesting that the arch-angle Gabriel had poured God’s sperm into Mary’s ear. Unfortunately for Catholicism, I think it fairly clear that according to modern medical science, even this unlikely tactic would not result in a success conception without the need for intercourse!) Similarly, the biblical miracles of ‘walking on water’ and ‘converting the water to wine’ can also be described as unscientific according to this criteria. On the other hand, Christ’s ‘healing miracles’ may not be so easily dismissed as unscientific, given what we are now learning about the power of the placebo effect.
A second large group of unscientific theories, according to this criteria, can be loosely described as ‘crack-pot’ ideas, such as anti-gravity devices and perpetual motion or energy machines.
What does ‘publicly accessible understanding’ mean?
So, let’s move on to consider exactly what the phrase, ‘publicly accessible understanding’ mean? This is a lot less obvious and straightforward than the first criteria and it will require a lot more theoretical ‘heavy-lifting’ to attempt to arrive at an answer. Given this, I’m going to use, as an example of mystical thinking, the views of a participant in an on-line discussion group on consciousness which I organised. When he initially approached the group, we exchanged lengthy emails expressing our respective points of view. It soon became clear to me that he based his theories on what he referred to as ‘mystical experiences’. Let me from the outset state that I regarded his mystical experience based views as violating the criteria ‘publicly accessible understanding’, and, therefore, impossible to classify as scientific theories. I will try to demonstrate how and why I arrived at this conclusion:
Firstly he introduced me to a concept which he called ‘data energy’. This both interested and disturbed me because in my ontology of consciousness I make a clear distinction between information processing and ‘energy processing’ in the brain. I’m positing a ubiquitous ‘feeling energy’ in the universe. Both Alfred North Whitehead and Nicholas Humphrey base their claims of two separate and distinct channels of perception, which I interpret as based on this distinction. When organisms process data from their environments into information, they use this to generate intelligent (but non-conscious) potential behaviour, via the organism’s internal algorithms. When (in my view) they process feeling energy, the result is subjective, qualic experience. In other words, consciousness, which the organisms can use to guide the algorithmically generated potential behaviour, thus providing flexibility of response. My question regarding the concept of ‘data energy’ was therefore; when organisms process this, what is the result? His seemingly wanted to merge data and energy, whereas my version, which keeps them distinct, provides enormous explanatory power regarding the functioning of organisms.
A second immediate issue between us was his definition of consciousness, which he expressed as “sensing Consciousness (with a capital C) as the Totality of Existence, embracing the totality of human experience, from the mystical to the mundane”. To me this was clearly a panpsychist theory. In my teaching of consciousness I’ve experience problems in trying to introduce; “… the concept of ‘panpsychism’ (actually Whitehead’s ‘pan-experientialism’). Someone always produces the standard objection to panpsychism; ‘so, you’re saying that a rock is as conscious as I am?!’ So for me, explaining this clearly requires a succinct definition of consciousness. To have a definition that is so comprehensive, amounting essentially to ‘consciousness is everything and everything is consciousness’, makes it very difficult to provide the distinctions necessary for understanding such a wide-ranging consciousness concept. For me the feeling energy (of which the entire universe is composed) is merely the ‘raw material’ of consciousness. In order to be transformed into sentient consciousness, it has to be processed by all organisms to various levels of complexity, human consciousness being the most complex, and in humans, consciousness is hugely elaborated by language and culture. In our discussion I asked for a brief, ideally single-sentence, definition of consciousness, which I was denied ‘since it wasn’t the right time’. (A comment I have heard before in similar situations in New Age groups).
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this man was a con man trying to start a dangerous cult, but I do regard mystical views as violating the criteria of ‘publicly accessible understanding’. To clarify what I mean by this, I’d like to invoke an analogy with modern politics: in Western democracies professional politicians have become masters of the evasive answer. Famously, they will never respond simply and clearly to a direct question. This pretty ubiquitous habit among our leaders has lead to a growing malaise, characterised by cynicism and a growing disillusionment with democratic institutions.
To return to the scientific context, this, of course, would be a matter of indifference to logical positivists; they don’t see any value in theories or ontologies which can lead to scientific understanding, because their don’t believe that scientific understanding is important. Consequently, effective dialogue, including the asking and transparent answering of direct questions, leading to ‘publicly accessible understanding’ is again a matter of indifference to them.
So, to conclude, once theory formulation in science has been expelled from the false security of induction, where does it stop on the perhaps inevitable tendency toward what can be described as the abyss of mystical waffle, expressed in a jumble of evasive and confusing words. (I would personally suggest that many theories in contemporary physics have already fallen into this abyss.) So my critique of the work I have exemplified above, is that it ignores the two criteria which define scientific theories, and therefore drifts over the border of science and into the hinterland of toxic mysticism. I’d also like to suggest that the toxicity of this position is reflected in its incongruence with what I call above our ‘biological’ capacity for mysticism: To make large claims of personal achievements in scientific theory, such as “… the creative power of Life has enabled me to solve the ultimate problem of human learning, known as the Theory of Everything”, as I was told in my online discussion group, is simply not enough. Instead I argue that genuine mystical experiences need to induce a sense of self-transcendence, [and] hyper-compassion …” To simply make bold statements of mystical theories in this expresses the opposite of these humanly eusocial characteristics. A more balanced approach is needed if we are to make the ship of theory buoyant enough not to sink down into the sludge of either side of these arguments.
Keywords; consciousness, mystical experiences, induction, science
Steve Minett is the author of Consciousness as Feeling. See more at https://consciousvm.wordpress.com/my-book-on-consciousness-theory/