I was on holiday last week so I gave myself permission to write something a bit different; to discuss a topic that’s close to my heart though it makes a lot of folk squirm. Let’s talk about spirituality.
I meditate regularly and have done so for nearly two decades. I have attended Buddhist events. I have read English translations of Buddhist texts. I don’t believe everything I read, not least because I think a lot of the language is very metaphorical. I find myself fascinated. Buddhism in particular (which Alan Watts often described as Hinduism stripped for export) seems to be a highly advanced unscientific psychology. I believe a lot of these traditional belief systems have survived thousands of years not just because they are mental viruses as Dawkins would have us believe, but because they touch upon some timeless human truths. They tell us things about ourselves—about how our minds and bodies work—which the average human wouldn’t discover in a single lifetime.
I’m also a scitifically minded psychologist. Our aims in psychology are the same as those above. We hope to discover knowledge about how humans tick, which might be rather difficult for a single person sitting in their arm chair to intuit in a single lifetime. I am thoroughly rooted in the Western empirical tradition. (If you’re interested, I’m am inclined toward functional contextualism. If that means nothing to you, shake your head to unstick your brain and pretend you never read it.)
I love the scientific method. I’m a skeptic. One of my favourite phrases is, “let’s see the evidence”. I know only too well how easy it is to draw entirely the wrong conclusions from our basic experiences of life. I used to have “the plural of anecdote is not data” printed on a poster on my office wall. Even highly skilled professionals can conclude that a client got better because of a technique employed whilst in fact it was other stuff that effected the change — maybe the client won the lottery. The human brain is set up to see agency and pattern and causality wherever it may be, and even when there is none. I’d rather have the evidence of a randomised control trial than ten years of clinical experience.
You might not be surprised then, that I’m asked regularly why I am so fascinated with meditation, and ideas like acceptance and empathy. How dare I, some folk would like to know, use phrases like “oneness with the universe”. Here’s the answer…
I don’t need to believe that the whole universe is intelligent to feel that I’m part of it. You see, the apple trees make apples. It apples—if we turn that noun into a verb. And just as the apple tree apples, the universe peoples. People and plants and animals are simply the sophisticated swirling patterns at the edge of what is a chaotic dance of matter and energy. You are the universe. The universe is you. (Thanks to Alan Watts for that expression.)
That sounds spiritual. And if you really take it on board, not just with your rational mind, but by meditation or some other technique, and really come to feel it with your gut, you’ll have some pretty remarkable experiences. You’ll feel all those lovely things we associate with hippies and Boulder Colorado, like being “at peace” and “at one” and feeling you’ve “come home”. And you might even become a nicer person. I’ve had these experiences myself several times through my life. I’d like to have them more.
And you know what, such a description of the universe fits perfectly with how physicists and chemists and biologists tell us it works. Swirling patterns of energy and matter coalesced into stars, and planets, and through billions of years of chaos, and randomness, and evolution, here we are. You aren’t a product of the universe because such a phrase suggests you have left it or that the connection is now broken. You are still inextricably connected to it. Even the merest change in circumstances, a bacterium or two in the wrong place when you were conceived and you wouldn’t be here, reading this blog. Life really is that delicate. One day very soon the molecules and atoms that currently make you will move on and make something else. A tiny bit of a gorilla, a chihuahua, or maybe a drinks can. Probably all three and much much more.
It’s more than that too. It’s not just the building blocks that continue to exist. It’s not like disassembling a lego house and finding that the bricks and windows later construct aeroplanes and fire engines. What you currently think of as “me” will one day cease to exist and, if you’re lucky, a number of friends and family will mark your passing, but you won’t simply cease to exist. You need not believe in the idea of an immortal soul, but it’s impossible to deny that there will be patterns at play in the universe which are causally linked to who you are now. You might leave behind a child, a building, a great work of literature or just a funny joke you told one night in the pub. Your influences on people around you are just as plentiful as their influences on you. And those influences continue. You stick around in the patterns you set into motion. The universe is what it is because you existed. And me. And that person three doors down you don’t get on with.
I engage with spiritual practices so as to become more empathic, more accepting, so as to feel that feeling of oneness with the universe. For me, this is simply an exercise in bringing my normal gut feelings about the world into better alignment with our current scientific understanding. It’s an attempt to be more rational, not less.
Of course if you get in to meditation, yoga, or any other spiritual practice you come up against spiritual language. Personally, I don’t even like the word “spiritual” because it suggests something other than matter and energy, something other than the normal physical universe. Just like the famous atheist, Sam Harris, I don’t have a better word to use.
If you choose to read about meditation, yoga, or indeed many types of self-help, you’ll doubtless find yourself frowning at words like spiritual, universal intelligence, and law of attraction. In my view there are two ways to interpret these phrases and the ideas they represent. Either you can take them completely literally, or you can think if them as a sort of poetry, a metaphorical description that orients the reader toward the truth. Perhaps these new-agey sounding words are often nothing more than what the Buddha might call a finger pointing to the moon.
Psychology (especially the more experimental kinds) can offer some seriously deep insights into where some of these meditative and spiritual experiences come from. These descriptions are modern, wholly scientific and thoroughly rooted in sound scientific principles. They also require a technical description so nuanced that the language becomes completely unintelligible to the uninitiated. If I gave you a detailed description of the breakdown that occurs in relational networks at the point in meditation when one seems to lose the sense of a separate self you’d probably not thank me. It would be like trying to use quantum mechanics to explain why you should press the break pedal of your car. The level of analysis is all wrong. Physicists know that Newtonian physics – the basic physics of friction and forces – is a mere approximation and that modern quantum mechanical theories are closer to the truth. But architects, and car designers and snooker players have a Newtonian model in their heads, not a quantum mechanical one. The latter would be too complicated and the former does a good job of predicting the movements of the physical world.
In psychology we need mid-level terms. Here is the one point where I disagree most strongly with with of my all-time greatest intellectual heros, B.F. Skinner. His mission was to remove mentalist language from psychology. He preferred that we not talk of people being attached, or outgoing, or neurotic but stuck instead to highly accurate technical terms like positive reinforcement. Skinner’s philosophical shift is a stroke of brilliance. His legacy is magnificent and the basis of some of the most promising psychological science to date but it also makes psychology inaccessible. Whilst removing normal language from psychology we also remove psychology from the sphere of understanding of normal people. We make it a technical language only accessible to those with years of training.
I argue that we need to maintain two levels of analysis, just as physicists do. We need the highly technical, as-accurate-as-we-can-make-it understanding akin to quantum mechanics and we need too the accessible, simple, memorable, and accurate-enough F=ma of Newtonian physics. And of course we need to ensure the latter reflects the former as much as possible within the limitations imposed by the need for comprehensibility.
For me, our ‘Newtonian’ psychology has room for some “spiritual” words. So long as we remember that they’re non-technical and metaphorical, so long as we don’t take them as a literal and perfect description of the world around us, we’ll do OK. After all, the whole world of human symbols — language, maths, science — is metaphorical. If making use of these symbols helps get us where we want to go, then they’re worth using.
Originally written in 2014. Edited mainly for length in 2022.