A Skeptic Grapples With the Enneagram

Mario Sikora
Jul 15, 2013

Yes, I am the skeptic in the title, which, in fact, is a bit misleading; I’m not grappling with “the Enneagram,” I’m grappling with the sloppy philosophy and new age bunk often associated with it. I’m grappling with some of the shocking claims and assertions I see, and some of the … questionable … practices that get lumped in with the Enneagram.

I grapple with the claims that the Enneagram is an “ancient system;” despite the lack of supporting evidence for the claim, and despite assertions by people like Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo that they made up the system of Ennea-types within the last half century. (Before one objects and mentions Plotinus or Evagrius, saying the Enneagram of personality is an ancient system because it has intellectual roots in ancient wisdom traditions is like saying quantum physics is an ancient system because it has intellectual roots in Pythagorus. Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, et al might disagree.)

Speaking of which, when someone starts blathering on about the (actually non-existent) link between quantum physics and consciousness; I want to run screaming from the room. (Okay, I’ll give Roger Penrose a bye on this one; he’s earned it, but only just. But, dare to wave Ervin LaszloAmit Goswami, or Fred Alan Wolfe in my face and you have earned my enmity.)

I despair when an Enneagram teacher starts talking about auric structures of the various Ennea-types, right after talking about how scientific and empirical he is.

I grieve when a prolific writer about the Enneagram starts attempting to undermine real science that undermines her metaphysics and sing the praises of deservedly fringe thinkers such Rupert Sheldrake, Dean Radin, and Charles Tart as the vanguard of a new face of science.

I feel a kinship to Ishmael and on occasion need to drive off the spleen and regulate the circulation. Bear with me; I need to get it out.

Yes, I am a skeptic. I am the annoying person at the dinner party who says, “Well, actually, ….” and then deflates the balloon by pointing out false claims, faulty logic, and misplaced trust (in everyone except myself, of course…). I worship at the altar of St. David (Hume) and firmly embrace his dictum that a person should apportion belief in any proposition in accordance with the evidence (or as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”) I embrace the label “skeptic” because skepticism is being open-minded to new ideas but expecting evidence to fit the claim. To again quote Sagan, we must be open-minded, but not so openminded that our brains fall out.

I agree with Hume that we can never know anything for certain. I agree with Karl Popper that we get closer to truth by slowly and methodically peeling away untruths; that is, outside of mathematics, you really can’t prove something to be true, you can only falsify a hypothesis. However, if a hypothesis survives enough attempts to disprove it, reasonable people are justified in holding it to be provisionally true; that is, true until evidence to the contrary is found. When it comes to matters of fact, I value science, logic, and reason above all else.

This does not mean, of course, that other ways of experiencing and interpreting the world are not useful. I was a humanities major, after all. While science tells us how the world works, philosophy and the arts help us make sense of it. Some things can only be felt to be understood–the way I feel about my children; my reaction to the sound of Mile’s horn; the joy of seeing the sun stream through the Chagall stained glass windows in Zurich’s Fraumunster Church. Perhaps science could explain why I feel the way I do about each of those things, but any such explanation would be a pale substitute for the feeling itself.

As a skeptic, I can appreciate other people’s opinions about subjective matters, but I am vehement in drawing a demarcation between matters of fact and matters of opinion. I cringe when someone tells me “I have my truth and you have yours,” as if truth and opinion where synonyms. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”

Now, as most people know, the Enneagram is not the most science-based system in the world. This presents a credibility problem in some environments. As a consultant going into organizations, I run into two challenges:
   1) Some HR/OD types are very focused on validity, psychometrics, and the acceptance within the broader organizational psychology community. Here, the Enneagram still faces problems.
   2) Some curious executive coaching clients will google “Enneagram” and find woo-laced nonsense that sends them running for cover. Usually, I have come to them based on the recommendation of someone they trust so we are able to get past this. But I’ll never forget one client years ago who said “I did a search on ‘Enneagram’ and it seems like you have to walk around in a purple robe with candles when you study it.”

This aversion is not because my clients are anti-spirituality; they cross the spectrum of spirituality from fundamentalist Christians to occasional church-goers to “spiritual but not religious” to atheist. They are, however, generally anti-woo. This is because, in the business world, there are consequences to fuzzy thinking because it produces inferior products and poor business decisions. These, in turn, mean that people lose their jobs and their livelihoods. Unlike the psycho-spiritual world, there are tangible and measurable outcomes of intellectual laxity.

Thus, I have a fiduciary responsibility to my clients to have the same mindset–to rigorously challenge and test ideas and concepts. I believe that anyone who positions themselves as a teacher, counselor, or consultant of any kind has an ethical responsibility to do the same. Those who would seek to deliver advice should be skeptics first.

When it comes to our Enneagram theory, this means that we should be able to provide evidentiary support for any extraordinary claims. This support need not be “scientific” evidence in all or most cases–the Enneagram is a model, not a matter of fact. For models, support can be things like internal and external coherence (the model isn’t self-contradictory and it doesn’t contradict the reality that it proposes to model). Sufficient phenomenological evidence is good enough until more research is done. The danger is when we make claims about matters of fact. In these cases, we have to be sure that the claim meets standards of evidence. We also have to clearly differentiate between beliefs, faith statements, or opinions and assertions of fact. In other words, it is perfectly fine to say, “I believe that each type as a particular aura structure…” or “The idea of auras are good metaphors for helping to understand the types.” If you claim, however, that we literally have auras and they are actually correlated to the Ennea-types, you got some ‘splainin’ to do, Lucy. (By the way, looks like Ricky never actually said those oft-quoted words….)

Now, here’s the challenge: we all think we are good critical thinkers and that we see clearly, but we do not. Every wisdom tradition tells us that we have scales over our eyes. Modern science has provided a library full of evidence for why we have to be very cautious about trusting our memories, our logic, our reasoning, our interpretations. Everyone who studies the Enneagram is aware of this to some extent; but we all think it applies to others. We know that we can’t trust our perceptions, but then we trust ours. I remember sitting gobsmacked listening to a teacher talk about what was an obvious hallucination while undergoing medical treatment and claim an unbelievable story was true because “I know my own reality!” It brought to mind Mickey Rourke’s breakdown at the end of “Angel Heart;” I know how I am, indeed. More chilling words were never spoken.

Objections pop up here when I have written about these things in the past–“but there are other ways of knowing besides science,” comes the indignant shout. Yes, there are; I’ve already said so myself. That is not the point. The point is to make sure that we are using the right way of knowing at the right time, not confusing matters of fact with matters of opinion, and ensuring that when we make fact claims the evidence supports the claim.

In the August 2013 issue of Esquire magazine there is a delightful retelling of the Dalai Lama’s smackdown of the bow-tied affront to reason, Eben Alexander, who had just finished retelling his tale about having died, gone to heaven, and returned. HHDL explains that Buddhists categorize phenomena in three ways:

The first category are “evident phenomena,” which can be observed and measured empirically and directly. The second category are “hidden phenomena,” such as gravity, phenomena that can’t be seen or touched but can be inferred to exist on the basis of the first category of phenomena. The third category, he says, are “extremely hidden phenomena,” which cannot be measured at all, directly or indirectly. The only access we can ever have to that third category of phenomena is through our own first-person experience, or through the first-person testimony of others.

Pointing to Alexander, the author writes, the Dalai Lama continues:

“For that also, we must investigate,” the Dalai Lama says. “Through investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable.” He wags a finger in Alexander’s direction. When a man makes extraordinary claims, a “thorough investigation” is required, to ensure “that person is reliable, never telling lie,” and has “no reason to lie.”

Ouch. Take that, Sparky…

Of course, the Dalai Lama is well-enough aware of both modern science and ancient traditions to know that not all those who tell such tales are liars; many are honestly deluded or simply mistaken. Shortly, I’ll provide some tools that can help us avoid this.

But first, one might ask why I bother. The ocean of woo comes in relentless and overwhelming waves. There are many fine critical thinkers in the Enneagram community, but they can be hard to find in the tsunami of bunk. Why keep pushing and harping and ranting?

I keep doing it because, despite some of the questionable associations or assumptions, the Enneagram is a profound jewel. I have found no better map of the psyche and discriminator of people. For me, no other system of personality comes close in explanatory or remedial power. I’m a pragmatist; if something works, if it is phenomenologically supported, if I am unable to falsify it, I will continue to use it. The Enneagram has been useful in helping me understand my clients and for them in understanding themselves. Until something better comes along I will use it. St. David wrote that “truth springs from argument amongst friends,” so I will continue to pull and push and prod because that is what skeptics do. It is also what would-be “seekers after truth” should do.

Becoming More Skeptical

Physicist Richard Feynman said that “The most important thing is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” The ancient wisdom teachings tell us much the same thing. We are all, each one of us, easy to fool and we should all, each one of us, hold our assumptions lightly and test them rigorously. Carl Sagan, in “Demon-Haunted World,” urged everyone to develop a baloney-detection kit.

Here are some tools for such a kit that I recommend:

1) Think “falsify.” It is easy to find confirmation for your views; you are better served seeking to falsify, or disprove, your hypotheses. If your hypothesis is found to be false, you are not wrong, you are closer to the truth. The more attempts at falsification your hypothesis passes, the closer you are to the truth. (Note: Avoid anyone who claims that what they offer is “scientifically proven;” that phrase is the property of naifs and frauds. Science doesn’t prove anything; rather, it disproves or provisionally supports hypotheses.) Related to this–don’t be attached to your ideas. You must be willing to kill your babies. And, don’t personalize criticism; an indictment of your ideas is not an indictment of you.

2) Learn about cognitive biases, the flaws of memory, and how to distinguish naive intuition from expert intuition. Read Kahneman, Trivers, Schacter, Tavris and Aronson, Gilovich, and Klein.

3) Study logical fallacies and learn to spot their use. Most arguments are filled with logical fallacies and flawed reasoning; don’t fall for them. This, this, and this are good sites.

4) Be an epistemologist. Epistemology is “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity,” according to http://www.merriam-webster.com. It is how we tell good thinking from bad thinking. All “facts,” interpretations, and opinions are not created equal; all views are not valid, despite what people learn in California grad schools. When someone says to you, “you have your truth, I have my truth,” they are really saying “I refuse to let go of my ill-formed opinion and refuse to listen to facts, reason, and logic.” Walk away from this person immediately. Read Pigliucci and Baillargeon.

5) Also walk away from anyone who starts talking about quantum physics and consciousness. The misleadingly named observer effect does not require an observer; the quantum decoherence caused thereby only requires the interaction of particles. Quantum physics is named thusly because it applies to “quanta” (“small packets”). It does not apply to consciousness. It does not apply to organizations or interpersonal dynamics. It does not apply to anything besides quanta. If it did, it would simply be called “physics.” Read Stenger.

6) Don’t wheel out the Straw Vulcan. A “straw man” is an informal logical fallacy in which one misrepresents an opponent’s argument and then attacks the misrepresentation rather than the actual argument itself. The “straw Vulcan” is the misrepresentation of anyone who attempts to be rational and logical by claiming they are too left-brain, unfeeling, and “Spock-like;” it’s as if illogic is better because it somehow uses emotion as well as logic. That is nonsense. You feel with our emotions, you think with your brain. The two are interwoven in many ways, but just because I am being logical does not mean I am Mr Spock or ignoring the “right brain.” Vulcans are fictional characters and the vast majority of people are not Sheldon Cooper.  

7) Study Philosophy and Science. Good philosophy and science. Start with Philosophy Bites and Natalie Angier.

8) Visit http://www.skeptic.com, www.skeptoid.com, and www.theskepticsguide.org.

Why It Matters

Skepticism has value beyond Enneagram theory. While we all, each one of us, falls victim to our cognitive biases and failures of logic, developing these skills will provide us with some protection from bunk.

Some people think that skepticism is the same as pessimism and excessive cynicism, but it is not. I find skeptical people to be as optimistic and content with life as anyone else. And while it is tempting to think that there is no harm in not being skeptical, it is skepticism that helps us make good decisions about our life and keeps us from being taken advantage of by hucksters. It can also save our lives in a very real way. (Steve Jobs is a good example of someone who fell victim to illogic and sought fantastical health treatment rather than treatment that could have saved him while it was still early enough. Read a long list of similar horror stories here.)

Finally, the effort to seek truth is noble in its own right. Yes, this is my opinion, and you are welcome to disagree. But it is simply better to truly see than to be hoodwinked or deluded. Life is more interesting when you see it more clearly. Skepticism will help you do that.

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