Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty
What is spirituality? And what is intellectual honesty?
This is a presentation given by Thomas Metzinger at the KFA May Gathering in 2017. He asks if the opposite of religion is not science but spirituality, and if, in the purest form, the scientific and the spiritual stance actually emerge from the same value, from the same normative idea.
You can watch the full talk above. Excerpts from the presentation:
Spirituality is noncognitive. It has nothing to do with high-level symbolic thoughts or concepts… So, it’s defined as something that you cannot communicate through language.
What it is is a specific form of self-knowledge. But not just any form of self-knowledge. It seems to be an existential kind of self-knowledge that the spiritual person seeks, and it also has a normative component of becoming whole, becoming complete.
By the standards of academic philosophy, this is almost no definition of spirituality. We know very little about it, and we only know what it is not.
It is completely unclear whether something like a method of the spiritual stance exists as well. As you know, this is a debate that’s been going on for many centuries. There are practices, paths, masters. And there are other people who say it is none of these; there’s nothing that can be practiced, nothing that can be transmitted, nothing that can be taught; it can only happen in an instant; it’s not a question of time; the first step is the last step. And, maybe, these are even both true at the same time.
Reason and Love
There is a more interesting look at spirituality from Krishnamurti:
For I maintain, that the only spirituality is the incorruptibility of the self which is eternal, is the harmony between reason and love.
This is the notion I’m interested in today. This is a truly interesting and philosophical notion of what spirituality could be: the harmony between reason and love.
What Is Intellectual Honesty?
I think most of you have thought about spirituality a lot in your lives, and maybe intellectual honesty is a new word for you. Let’s start with a very simple working definition: to refuse to lie to yourself, no matter what happens, on the level of thinking, on the level of intellectual activity.
So, intellectual honesty is an ethical stance. It has to do with the ethics of the inner life because it relates to inner actions, towards what one thinks. Probably most of you have thought about what ethical action is –eating meat or not, etc.– but could there be an ethics for what you do with your mind as well? Is there an ethical point there about what to believe and what not to believe?
So, intellectual honesty is about seeking a specific form of moral integrity, but not on the level of outer actions, but on the level of your own mind.
An idealist is dishonest. The man who follows a principle is a dishonest man. When a man is practising something which he is not, then he is dishonest. But when he acknowledges what he is, then he is very honest.
How do you go about what you will believe and what you will not believe in your life? Will you accept only rational arguments and evidence, for instance? But intellectual honesty also aims at making what you know and what you believe coherent.
Normal ethics have an ideal of moral integrity, where you try to make sure your actions are coherent with your values. That’s the normal idea of moral integrity. In regards to intellectual honesty, we would think that you basically shouldn’t believe anything that you don’t know, and what you know is very little.
So intellectual honesty has to do with having only evidence-based “beliefs.” And, most of all, that the process of inquiry, the process of thinking logically, the process of investigating, does not serve your emotional needs. You do not do all of these things because you want to achieve a form of emotional security, for instance, or positive feelings. Intellectual honesty has nothing to do with that.
Out of suffering is born the urge to seek truth; in suffering lies the cause of the insistent inquiry, the search for truth. Yet when you suffer – as every one does suffer – you seek an immediate remedy and comfort. When you feel momentary physical pain, you obtain a palliative at the nearest drug store to lessen your suffering. So also, when you experience momentary mental or emotional anguish, you seek consolation, and you imagine that trying to find relief from pain is the search for truth. In that way you are continually seeking a compensation for your pains, a compensation for the effort you are thus forced to make. You evade the main cause of suffering and thereby live an illusory life.
So those people who are always proclaiming that they are searching for truth are in reality missing it. They have found their lives to be insufficient, incomplete, lacking in love, and think that by trying to seek truth they will find satisfaction and comfort. If you frankly say to yourself that you are seeking only consolation and compensation for the difficulties of life, you will be able to grapple with the problem intelligently.
Imagine you are a politician and you have to lie to thousands of people all of the time. We human beings are very good lie detectors because we lie to each other all the time. So, when this politician gives a talk and thousands of people watch him, everybody’s looking for body language, for subtle signs that this guy is a fraud. The only thing that works is if a speaker, a demagogue, a religious leader, goes into a full state of delusion while he speaks. Because, then, he will give off no signs –no subliminal signs– and it would be really convincing. That’s one of the ideas.
Robert Trivers says, “the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution.” Mental evolution created self-deception. The simplest example is: if you measure it, all parents directly perceive their own children as more intelligent and cute than other children. It’s built into our hardware.
New research shows that, in many cases, there was an evolution of systematically, falsely representing reality, which is clearly an evolution of self-deception. Animals have that too, for instance, in courtship behavior and in threatening each other. And we found that, in many cases, positive illusions, mechanisms of denial and repression, and delusional models of reality enhanced the reproductive success of our ancestors.
Delusional Systems and Emotional Profit
I would argue that religion is a cultivation of a delusional system. There is this technical concept of fideism in theology and philosophy, which is the point of view of pure faith. If you’re a fideist, you reserve the right to believe whatever you want to believe in the face of contradicting evidence. One could argue that actually all forms of religion are fundamentalist in this sense. Spirituality is just the opposite. It aims at insight and not at delusion.
Religion maximizes emotional profit. It’s about feeling good. It’s about stabilizing your self-esteem in the face of a horrible discovery: that you will die. Spirituality searches for direct experiences but not for emotional profit. Nobody ever said that self-discovery of the spiritual kind leads to emotionally attractive results. I know that some people in California like to make people believe it is, but would you also be interested in self-discovery if the emotional results were very unattractive?
So, religion sacrifices rationality for making the self-model in your brain coherent. You self-deceive. You delete rational argument. You sacrifice your own rationality for good feelings. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a process in which the self ends. Maybe it’s not even a process; maybe it’s something that cannot be a process because it can only be at this instant.
What do we mean by religion? As we know it, it is organized belief, dogma, action according to a particular pattern, is it not? Organized belief is the experience of someone else arranged according to a pattern of yesterday, and you are conditioned by that belief. Is that religion? The pattern may be of the left, of the right, or of the centre; or it may be a so-called divine plan – there is not much difference between them; all have their ideals, all have their Utopia or heaven, so all may be called religion, each perpetuating exploitation. Now, is that religion? Obviously, belief, with its authority and dogmas, with its pageantry and sensation, is not religion. So, what is religion? That is our question.
Dogmatism is a philosophical thesis that you are entitled to believe, to hold on to a belief for the sole reason that you already have it. It’s an old human way of looking at things, and that’s intellectually dishonest, whereas spirituality subscribes more to the ideal of truthfulness.
Dogmatic movements organize themselves. Typically, spirituality is a radically individual thing. It starts with the insight that you’re completely alone and that nobody really can help you. There may be signposts, but it starts with the insight that this whole teacher-disciple relationship is itself part of the problem.
Dogmatic people evangelize. Spiritual people are typically quiet.
We create such distinctions between the physical and superphysical because the physical is so intolerable, so ugly. We want to run away, and anyone that can lead you to the superphysical, you follow, and you call that spiritual; but it is nothing else but another form of real, gross materialism. Whereas, true spirituality consists in living harmoniously, with perfect unity in your heart and mind, because there is understanding, and in that understanding, there is the delight of living.
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