Why should you care about this post? Because it provides a grounding for conversations that dissolve into "You're irrational!" or "You're a blind materialist!"
How do we know?
Have you ever been exposed to an idea that made you stomp your foot, throw the book across the room, and shout "No way!"
I've found those experiences usually mean I'm about to adopt the idea in question. I had one of those after I'd spent years in a spiritual community that celebrates intuition in line with the famous charge of Emerson,
We lie in the lap of immense intelligence which, by any other name, is Spirit... A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within more than the wisdom of all the bards and sages.The limits of intution
Yes, yes, yes! But, how do we know we are perceiving that intelligence correctly? I kept asking. Seeking an answer led me to a Muslim imam, a meditating postmodern philosopher, and a two-year stint living among Christian fundamentalists. Their answers dovetailed beautifully, and now I know how I can know—even though I may not actually know much.
Pre-rational vs. transrational
First it was philosopher Ken Wilber who put words to my feeling that just because I accepted the validity of "transrational" knowledge from the Divine, didn't mean I couldn't easily be confused with pre-rational errors.
An outside standard
Then during the two years debating my favorite fundamentalist (as chronicled in our book) I finally accepted the need for an outside standard against which "divine" guidance must be weighed--and the fact that the world's religions carry a wealth of such standards.
Resting on a three-legged stool
And finally, it took a Muslim scholar and imam to give me the tool for integrating all appropriate outside standards with my internal guidance. I took a class from Dr. Dean Ahmad at the University of Maryland the week after 9/11. The class compressed a year's worth of college debate about religion, science, and epistomology (the study of how we know things) into an easily remembered image of a footstool. YES, as Karl over at My Integral Estimation has been arguing, we can never know anything for sure. But Dr. Ahmad taught me that the closest we can come is to rely on all three legs of the stool.
Dr Ahmad explained that Muslim philosopher Al-Ghazali took issue in 1100 AD with Aristotle's faith in reason. Reason alone is never enough, Al-Ghazali wrote. Rather knowledge rests on three legs, like a stool.
There are, however, at least two ways to count the legs. In al-Ghazali's formulation, the three legs are reason, authority, and experiment—as in the chart below.
- It lumps together my least trusted source, authority, with what I've been working to develop as my most trusted, intuition.
- It attributes my feelings, instincts, intuitions, and perceived divine revelations to an authority--me! And then it asks how reliable that authority is. Drunk, crazy, gullible?
- It places God as a trusted authority--but one whose wisdom can only be gleaned via persons or books duly proven to be reliable (including myself!)
- It attributes most scientific knowledge to "trusted authority" because most of it is handed down via books and journals. I.e., Most of us don't test the speed of a falling object for ourselves, we trust that scientific literature on the topic has been developed in full compliance with the scientific method.
When the leg of mystical revelation is too long
The al-Ghazali system gave a place for personal experience, although a limited one with very little trust that any individual has a direct line to Truth. Among my self-actualized, postmodern, and mystically inclined peers, on the other hand, the opposite is true: our personal experience of feelings, instinct, intuition is the most highly trusted source. I now saw our epistemology had the same legs, but grouped differently--personal experience devalues personal experiment: Just because I tried it and it failed the last six times doesn't mean the same approach won't' succeed this time. (The fact that others tried it and failed is even less relevant.) And thus our mystical/romantic system downplays everything external to ourselves and elevates every "feeling" as equal to divine revelation, as shown below.
Belief in a revelation falls under my negative meaning of 'mysticism' only if it is accepted in the face of contradictory knowledge of equal or superior standing, or if the claimant to revelation (or the chain of transmission) is not known to be reliable.My own personal epistemology
For myself, I've decided to meld the two systems. My stool has a separate leg for personal experience, just like those of my romantic and mystic brethren. But that leg must now be weighed against three others.Most radically for me, respected authority now gets a full hearing, and that includes the ancient wisdom traditions of world religions.
Balancing the legs
Of course, all of these "stools" present the same problem of how to balance the various legs against each other. I worked through that in our book, coming to believe it is the work of a lifetime to develop the skill to "detect and watch that gleam of light from within." So for here I'll simply note that the person who sincerely attempts to integrate all sources of knowing is more likely to find his way home in the woods—or to truth, beauty, and goodness—than the person who overvalues one leg.
P.S., I'm showing five images instead of four to honor those who prefer to see "the gleam from within" as "the heart"—or those who have trouble telling the difference, like me.