On Science–The Dangers of Inappropriately Conflating Science and Spirituality

Mario Sikora
Mar 16, 2013

In my last blog post I wrote about spirituality, and before continuing that thread I feel the need to make some comments about science. 

There is a tendency among some in spiritual circles to crave the validation of science for their metaphysical views. The reasoning tends to go like this: 

“My spirituality is scientifically informed; science proves (a, b, and c)…” When it is pointed out that the existing science doesn’t actually prove (a, b, and c), the response is usually something along the lines of “Well, science as it is practiced in the mainstream is flawed. It should be changed in (x, y, z) ways. If it were practiced that way, it would prove (a, b, and c).”

It is hard to argue with such (il)logic, except to point out that 1. the person is unwittingly admitting that science doesn’t support their view and 2. the changes they are suggesting undermine the practice of science and lead to deepening illusion and ignorance.

This is on my mind for two reasons. First, CNN online recently published an article on the Enneagram being used in business. This should be good news, but my enthusiasm was deflated by the subtitle of the article, which referred it as a “quasi-mystical” system. I couldn’t help but think, when will the Enneagram advance to the point where it will be viewed as a valid, modern way of understanding people? How much longer will it relegated to the fringe? Second, right on top of reading the CNN piece, I saw a glaring example of the “scientifically informed spirituality” phenomenon I described above, and I realized yet again why it is so difficult for the Enneagram to shake the “quasi-mystical” label. 

I see this kind of reasoning over and over again, and at times it feels fruitless to try to combat it. Attempts often feel like I am trying to hold back the ocean with an old mop. Yet into the trenches I shall go yet again. I hope the reader will note, especially given my last blog, that I am not denigrating spirituality here. My hope is that people will feel less compelled to improperly conflate spirituality with science. Can people be both spiritual and science-minded? OF COURSE they can. But distorting science in the name of spirituality does a disservice to both.

Scrolling through the latest issue of The Enneagram Monthly my eye was caught by the section heading “An Unscientific Idea” in an article titled “The Integral Enneagram” by Susan Rhodes, so I stopped to read. Susan is a prolific author on the Enneagram and often writes about what she sees as the intersection of Ken Wilber’s work and the Enneagram. In the middle section of her article she points out what she sees as the flaws with the way science is practiced in the mainstream and how more-enlightened or sophisticated (my words, not hers) scientists show how teleology and purpose exist in the universe despite the protestations of closed-minded, dogmatic, and unsophisticated scientists. There are a number of flaws in Susan’s argument, and I believe these flaws undermine her conclusions. Worse than that, however, is her general attitude toward and misrepresentations of scientists (and by extension, science-minded people) who adhere to the consensus view of science rather than her fringe view. I would hate to see this attitude spread even further in the Enneagram community.

Let me start out by stating that there are multiple issues in Susan’s article that need to be addressed: the first is the conclusion–that there is purpose in the universe despite “materialistic” and “reductionist” scientists’ unwillingness to, according to her, even consider the question; the second is the chain of evidence and logic in reaching that conclusion; the third is her holding up of some fringe “scientists” as exemplars of how science should be done. I’d like to comment on the conclusion first and then other issues.

Let me state my personal perspective here on conscious non-local purpose or teleology so the reader can be clear on where I’m coming from. First, however, I have to explain some terms. 

A teleological perspective is the view that there is some ultimate purpose pulling development of the universe or some parts of it forward; that there is some purpose in the universe that all things are in some way striving to fulfill. Some take the view of an ultimately fixed purpose, created by a deity or other cause before the beginning of time (I think of this as the “Rick Warren view.” Others would assert that there is some kind of intelligent or conscious co-creation occurring in the universe (as far as I can tell, Ken Wilber’s “eros” falls into this latter category). Teleology was common for millennia in natural philosophy (what science used to be called) but it pretty much went into the background of scientific inquiry once Darwin explained why things may appear to be intentionally “designed” but actually take their shape through the twin mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. Ever since Darwin, some have tried to deny that natural selection (often derisively called “Darwinism” by the teleology-minded) is an adequate natural explanation. People holding this view range from the creationists who take a literalist view of their particular scriptures to people who view themselves as more sophisticated and advocate some version of intelligent design. All of these views have been roundly demonstrated to be flawed and the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology is the most successful theory in science, but teleologists simply can’t accept the evidence. (For a list of sources for more information on this topic, see the “Further Reading” list at the end of this article.)

The teleological view met two fundamental problems once Darwin solved the riddle of evolution: there is no evidence supporting the existence of purpose and there is no theoretical gap that purpose fills. Thus, having no evidence for it and no need that it satisfied, the vast majority of scientists (especially in biology) abandoned the idea and adopted the view of methodological materialism or methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism is basically the idea that one can believe whatever one wants when it comes to that which is beyond scientific explanation, but the rules of doing science require natural explanations and that filling in the gaps in one’s evidentiary chains with magical thinking, miracles, or supernatural explanations is not good science. The supernatural (i.e., those things that are not subject to the laws of nature) is not discounted from the practice of science because of a philosophical reason–there is simply no way to test whether or not they are true. How do you do a controlled experiment for a miracle or magic, after all? Thus, teleology is relegated to the domains of philosophy and religion, and generally kept out of science. (This is where the teleologically minded would bring up studies about ESP or NDE research, of course, but more on that later.)

There are some, of course, who are philosophical naturalists and take a philosophical position that the supernatural does not and cannot exist. Some are more vocal and adamant than others in this view, but even the most vocal, such as a Richard Dawkins, will admit that they can’t be 100% certain of anything and thus reserve a little room to be dissuaded from their assumptions. 

I am not willing to commit to philosophical naturalism, but do embrace methodological naturalism as a way of understanding the objective world. I align myself philosophically with David Hume, and believe that one should apportion one’s confidence in an assertion in accordance with the evidence, and that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If you tell me you have a pet dog, I will believe you unless I have a really good reason not to; if you tell me you have a pet unicorn, I want to see really good evidence.

So am I philosophically opposed to the idea that there is purpose to the universe? No, but I see no evidence of it. Claiming to prove the existence of purpose is an extraordinary claim, but the evidence offered by Susan and the authors she cites in her article are not only not extraordinary, it is deeply flawed. It is not Susan’s conclusion that I object to; I consider it nothing more than a faith statement and have no objection to faith statements when presented as such. It is when faith statements are asserted as fact based on flawed evidence that I take objection. 

Susan’s argument pretty much rests on a criticism of the mainstream practice of science and then an accusation of persecution by the “mainstream” science and media establishments of those who advocate the existence of purpose in the universe. There are numerous problems with this approach. 

Susan explains that she was a working scientist (entering into a PhD program in cognition and perception) and that her experience both thrilled and disillusioned (again, my word) her. She basically argues that because the practice of science is messier and less objective than the layperson realizes, the door is open for a closer relationship between spirituality and science. The flaw in this argument is that, for starters, her observation that the actual practice of science is messy and subject to the influence of subjectivity and bias is hardly a novel one. In fact, every scientist knows this and the whole idea behind the scientific method is that the thinking scientifically is not the natural human way of thinking, that systems and structures must be put into place to try to reduce bias and subjectivity, and when they are discovered attempts are made to mitigate them. The physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “You must be careful not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool” as a warning to young scientists about the dangers of sloppy science. Saying that the scientific method needs to be changed to include the spiritual or supernatural simply because the practice of the scientific method is often flawed makes no sense. Instead, it means that extra rigor should be applied, that results should be held lightly until the protocols are checked, results are duplicated, etc. That is how science works–it is purposely self-correcting over time, a process aimed at getting closer and closer to the truth but never being 100% sure. Results should be analyzed, challenged, and reevaluated. (Einstein famously said that “a thousand experiments can’t prove me right, but one can prove me wrong.)

Someone once said that the cure for the flaws of democracy is more democracy, and the same applies to the application of science. Rather than change the system, scientists just need to always try to do a better job at it, because it is the best way we have of understanding the objective world. When results of a study seem odd, good scientists dig deeper and try to find out what happened, they don’t throw up their hands and invoke the supernatural. (A great example of this was when the 2011 OPERA experiment seemed to show that some neutrinos traveled faster than light, a phenomenon that had always been assumed to be impossible. Faced with these extraordinary results, scientists dug deeper and found out that flawed equipment distorted the measurement. They did not simply take the initial results and then invoke the supernatural to explain the discrepancy.)

It is a false choice to imply that just because the practice of science is sometimes flawed, the invocation of spirituality or other kinds of supernaturalism as an explanatory mechanism is justified. (In rhetoric, this is called the false dilemma logical fallacy.)

Susan is also critical of what she calls the “materialists” and “reductionists”who, according to her, cower non-materialists into silence. It’s a common (and misleading) claim, and this, too, requires some unpacking…

First, materialist is a derogatory and inflammatory label often used by those advocating the co-mingling of science and spirituality. It is useful as an insult because it has overtones of consumerist materialism and spiritual shallowness. The appropriate term, as I’ve already pointed out would be “methodological materialist,” but again, this is the scientific norm and calling the view by its correct name takes some of the sting out of the slur. Reductionist is just as problematic and scornful label, but also as meaningless. Yes, the practice of all the sciences involves breaking things down into parts as small as possible (thus, for example, the search for the Higgs boson), but every scientist understands the concept of emergent properties, that the sum of the parts do not equal the whole. For example, everyone knows that you can break water down into hydrogen and oxygen, but that there are emergent properties that exist (such as “wetness”) that exist in H2O that do not exist in either hydrogen or oxygen. The “reductionist” label is, again, simply an irrelevant straw man.

From here, Susan gives examples of four “anti-reductionists” who “incurred the wrath of skeptics” for daring to have “anti-reductionist” views. She implies that these four–Anne Wilson Schaef, Rupert Sheldrake, Gary Schwartz, and Daryl Bem–were criticized simply for holding unpopular views, but does not give the true reasons for the criticisms, instead implying that they were unfounded attacks. I know a fair amount about two of these people–Sheldrake and Bem–and know that the reason for the mainstream criticism of them is based on their flawed science, not their courage or audacity to have different views. Just to give one vivid example of the criticisms of Sheldrake, the TED organization, hardly a bastion of intellectual rigor or anti-spirituality, took the unusual step of removing the video of Sheldrake’s TED talk due to significant factual errors. (You can read about that here and there is more on Sheldrake in the “Further Reading” section below.)

Susan points out that mainstream scientists sometimes mock these people, and perhaps that is a valid complaint and that mockery is a distraction from the flawed science, giving these people something to focus on other than, say, the evidence. I’ll admit that I find it difficult to avoid mockery of Sheldrake, for example; he did after all gain attention for his assertions about the psychic powers of dogs. However, the substance of the criticism of Sheldrake’s and Bem’s methodology and practice is nowhere addressed by Susan. Perhaps it is not right to mock; but this does not negate the validity of the robust technical criticism of these two. (Links to additional critiques are listed below.)  

Next, Susan invokes some interesting statistics about the high percentages of people who believe in things like angels, as if this somehow supported the opening of science to include assumptions about the existence of such things. Scientists are (justifiably) trained to treat such appeals to popularity with a resounding “so what?” Such appeals (argumentum ad populum), like false dilemmas and straw men, are informal logical fallacies and carry no weight as evidence (in fact, in serious philosophical or scientific circles they greatly undermine one’s argument). She points out the irrelevant fact that only 4% of people are affirmed atheists, again, as if that statistic supported the case for conscious purpose in the universe. Whether 4% or 94% of people believe anything is irrelevant to whether that thing is true of not; science is not a popularity contest. The list of things that people once believed but no longer do is so long I won’t even bother rebutting this line of reasoning any further. 

Finally (for the purposes of this blog at least–Susan’s article covers a lot of other ground), Susan lists eight “thoughtful, well-researched monographs by credible authors” that show that the growing “tolerance for forms of inquiry once considered almost entirely taboo.” I’ve tried to read three of them in the past–those by Charles Tart, Dean Radin, and Rupert Sheldrake–and the science and logic are so flawed that I put them down in disgust. Perhaps someday I’ll muster the courage to try to read the others, but I’ve grown so exhausted trying to find some substance in this line of thinkers (to which I would include people like Peter Russell, Amit Goswami, B. Alan Wallace et al) that I don’t know if I can bear it. It breaks my heart if, as Susan asserts, this is the face of science to come.

Actually, there is one more point: Susan invokes Ken Wilber and says that “any integrally-oriented approach to epistemology cannot rely on one single method because there is not one right view of truth but a plethora of views, each of which has something of value to offer.” While this may be true in some ways and particularly for “integrally oriented epistemology,” it can be a dangerous relativism in serious philosophical epistemology that undermines good science and can undermine good critical thinking in general. From a very practical perspective, I don’t want the engineers who are designing the airplanes I fly on to have a “plethora” of views on aerodynamics. Not all opinions are equal; in some things there are not multiple truths. Science addresses some domains but not others; the same applies to spirituality. Discrimination is required; reckless mixing creates a mess.

At one point in her article, Susan mentions the Dalai Lama, and I would agree that he is a good role model in the intersection of various “ways of knowing.” Rather than advocating the changing of science to accommodate spirituality, however, the Dalai Lama wrote and editorial for the New York Times titled “Our Faith in Science” in which he stated:
If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

Yes, in order to understand our world and the whole of human experience, we need to use many different methods. As the Dalai Lama goes on to say in the above-cited editorial, philosophy and ethics should inform the applications of science, and science should be used to replace outdated superstitions and misunderstandings of nature. But broad-sided swipes at straw men, ignoring inconvenient data, and slapping the label of “intimidation” on legitimate critiques of misguided factual assertions does not take us closer to truth; it simply furthers illusion. If this is what it means to be “integral,” you can keep it. (To be fair, I have met integral thinkers who do science well, so I am not suggesting that the integral approach is in itself flawed or invalid even if it’s not for me.)

The Enneagram community, which derives from a lineage of people who called themselves “seekers after truth,” have an obligation to embrace truth that is inconvenient and uncomfortable, not to try to distort truth to support our comforting subjective beliefs. We will only shake the marginalizing labels by earning the right to be rid of them, and this includes respecting science enough to change our beliefs when it conflicts with what we want to be true, rather than vice versa.

Further Reading

On the Philosophy of Science
 My favorite introduction to the philosophy of science is Massimo Pigliucci’s “Nonsense on Stilts.” Pigliucci explains how to sort through the messiness of science, how complicated it is to identify the line between good science and bad, and, as the subtitle says, “how to tell science from bunk.”

Scientific Criticisms of Daryl Bem
Claims of evidence of precognitive effects by Bem were famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) published in The Journal of Personality and Psychology. They caused much uproar and controversy and the Journal has unfortunately refused to publish failed attempts at replicating Bem’s claims. Scientists are generally skeptical of claims of ESP for a variety of reasons. The first reason is that no ESP researcher has ever offered a convincing plausible mechanism for the phenomenon. The lack of an explanation of how something could happen does not negate the phenomenon itself, of course, but in the absence of a plausible mechanism there must be really good evidence to support the phenomenon. ESP studies never pass the test (or at least have not yet). The studies are almost always found to be flawed, the evidence is in the range of statistic noise, or the studies are not replicable. This, too, was the case with Bem’s work, which was found to have many methodological flaws and has not been replicated despite many attempts. See the following links for more information:
The Power of Replication–Ben’s Psi Research
Precognition Studies and the Curse of the Failed Replications

Scientific Criticisms of Rupert Sheldrake
Years ago, when I was much more entranced by what I now consider to be woo, I was introduced to the work of Sheldrake. Even then, I found his work to be a bit odd. He was known for studies on the perception of being stared at and, as mentioned above, psychic dogs. Odd, does not necessarily mean wrong, of course, and you can read some of the many, many scientific science-based critiques of Sheldrake at the links below. There is one particularly interesting episode in Sheldrake-ian history in which John Maddox, then editor of the prestigious journal Nature,  became so incensed by the lack of scientific merit in Sheldrake’s first book, A New Science of Life, that he wrote an editorial called “A Book for Burning?” He referred to Sheldrake’s work as “heresy,” inelegantly making the point that Sheldrake’s suggested alterations to science would undermine any faith that people could have in the practice of science and rendering it unintelligible. His use of such strong and loaded religious language made people overlook that he was criticizing the quality of Sheldrake’s science rather than denying Sheldrake’s right to disagree. It also gave fuel to those who ignorantly claim that “science is just another form of religion” and launched Sheldrake’s fame in “alternative” circles.
This review of Sheldrake’s latest book in Philosophy Now magazine is, unfortunately, behind a pay wall, but PN is a bargain at the online price of $22 a year. This article is a rational and thorough explanation of the flaws in Sheldrake’s methodology and philosophical speculations, as well as exposing the apparent gaps in Sheldrake’s understanding of the scientific literature.
Scientific Delusions, or Delusions About Science? Rupert Sheldrake’s Ten Dogmas is found on a blog called Heterodoxology. It is a very thorough response to Sheldrake’s latest book.
Other blogs by scientists criticizing Sheldrake are found here, here, and here:

On Evolution and Intelligent Design
Those who would conflate science and spirituality often throw up stale and thoroughly refuted alleged criticisms of evolutionary theory and advocate the work of people like Michael Behe on intelligent design. Even Ken Wilber has made this mistake, showing a profound (and as far as I can tell, uncorrected) misunderstanding of basic evolutionary theory in “A Brief History of Everything” (see here and here)  and advocating Behe’s work. Behe’s colleagues at in the biology department at Lehigh University were so embarrassed Behe’s work that they took the dramatic step of publicly distancing themselves from him on the university website. The literature pointing out the flaws in Behe’s work are legion, including the judge’s decision in the Kitzmiller vs Dover intelligent design case a few years ago.

A correct understanding of the scientific theory of evolution is critical for every serious thinker or seeker after truth. Evolution influences everything about human nature; willfully distorting it to fit desired teleological assumptions is simply another form of self-delusion. Here are some of the best books on evolution: 
Why Darwin Matters by Michael Shermer is a great short introduction.
The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins thoroughly explains how blind, natural forces create the appearance of design in nature.
Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne is an excellent overview of the literature.
Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson introduces some ideas about group selection that are not accepted by everyone, but I think people should be aware of this book. Science allows for debate of unconventional ideas, and while the debate can get heated it is viewed as part of the process. Serious scientists engage in the debate and fight for their ideas; cranks whine about being persecuted.
Critical Thinking Skills
I find that the Enneagram community is filled with lovely, intelligent, and kind people, but many seekers have a tendency to latch onto something that feels true rather than think critically. If the Enneagram teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that we delude ourselves all the time into thinking that our view of the world, that which feels right to us, often clouds our vision of objective reality. I do not say this to minimize the importance of feelings, but to point to the danger of letting our heart do what our head should be doing. (The opposite is just as dangerous, of course, but that is another topic.) Developing good critical-thinking skills will serve seekers after truth well, and here are some of my favorite sources:
Carl Sagan is the patron saint for good science-based thinkers. Start with The Demon-Haunted World.
How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a great, great introduction into cognitive biases and there effects.

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