"Transcend and include... this is the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos—to go beyond what went before and yet include what went before... to open into the very heart of Spirit-in-action." Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if a group of people somewhere were for something and against nothing?" Ernest Holmes

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Shocking Epistemology

experimentreasonauthorityrevelationall other forms of experience
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.
Several things about this formulation shocked me.

  1. It lumps together my least trusted source, authority, with what I've been working to develop as my most trusted, intuition.
  2. 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?
  3. 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!)
  4. 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 I stopped laughing, I thought it was pretty cool. I didn't like how things were grouped, but I saw the logic, and I liked that it covered everything.

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.

The problem I was experiencing in my spiritual community was that occasional lip service was given to weighing "intuition" against reason. But those who actually tried to do so were often gently reminded of the need to "let go of reason." Dr. Ahmad puts it this way in his book, "Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer's Perspective on Religion and Science."

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.

experimentreasonauthorityrevelationall other forms of experience
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.


Karl Higley said...

Great post! I like how you've differentiated internal authorities from external authorities.

To me, the natural next questions are:

What makes a trustworthy authority?
How do we square that with the truths of postmodernism?

I think those questions are answerable, but I don't have the answers. I'll have to think more about them.

Teri Murphy said...

"What makes a trustworthy authority?" Excellent question.

With individuals, it's a personal thing. If I have seen someone behave in a way that conveys integrity to me, I am more likely to trust his/her view, even when I do not share it. There's no getting around the subjectivity of my judgment in this.

But what about the entire cumulative wisdom of the human race expressed by those who have most deeply contemplated big questions over thousands of years?

That wisdom, as recorded in the world's spiritual traditions, merits my attention. Yes, Karl is right to cite Derrida that all such claims merit skepticism for their subjectivity as well. But when all of those reports share something in common, (and especially when that something is reported not as an interpretation but as an experience "as direct as touching a hot stove") then I had better pay attention.

That's why I love Ken Wilber's list of the seven things held in common by all world religions.

Could they all be wrong? You bet' cha. And it will be easy for me to come to that conclusion if I have never shared the "hot stove" experience. But I'd better be darn careful about that conclusion, because if there is anything to the seven commonalities, they chart a clear path to a better world.