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Spiritual Believers Don’t Understand Science – Part 6: Knowledge v Speculation

November 23, 2014

Scientists have two tendencies that confuse and infuriate believers in modern esoteric spirituality.

One is their apparently unshakable certainty about some matters.

The other is their tendency to suddenly declare I don’t know or We don’t know when challenged on some question.

The first horrifies believers because it looks like fanatical dogmatism. The only other people in history to appear so certain of their rightness were the inquisitors. The second looks like a pathetic back-down, making their initial show of certainty appear all the more laughable.

Scientist: Evolution is a fact. Humans evolved from earlier hominids.

Believer: Oh? Well how did life start?

Scientist: We don’t know exactly.

Believer: HA! Science doesn’t know everything. Well I do know how it started. You see, you are infinite consciousness that is embodied in the space-time continuum through a process of quantum entanglement and non-local events…

The spiritual believer thinks that the scientist’s hubris has been exposed by their dogged questioning. It’s even quite fashionable for academics to join in with this misunderstanding. They are, however, unaware that science involves some methodological steps that spiritual people are loath to even contemplate — namely, scientists clearly distinguish between established knowledge and speculation. 

But they don’t do this in a black and white manner. Rather they differentiate gradations on a kind of sliding scale of certainty.

fadeFact — quite certain —  probable  — quite likely —  possible — unknown

Good science places each fact, piece of data, and idea somewhere along this scale, ranging from strong certainty to unknown validity. Certainty is represented here as dark, implying the weight added by repeated verification. Nevertheless, the lighter, more speculative end is where the most interesting and important scientific work occurs. 

Scientific knowledge is not there for scientists to passively sit on while smugly dismissing people’s spiritual beliefs. Rather, it forms both the theoretical foundation and the conceptual tools for scientific research. It is the platform from which scientific advancement arises. It consists not merely of facts but also theoretical ideas that have been confirmed and verified so many times that it would simply be a waste of time to re-test them. There is no need, for example, to re-test the chemical composition of water, or whether it might perhaps flow uphill. One can simply get on with planning the irrigation program.

The Problem

Spiritual teachers really do not like that dark end of the scale at all. They don’t like the boundaries it sets. They don’t like the way that those who are ignorant of its contents can be excluded from scientific discourse. They don’t like it when scientists mention facts that conflict with spiritual teachings. All their teachings — all of them — belong way up in the light, speculative end of the scale. And that factual knowledge stuff down the dark end sets considerable limits and prerequisites for speculation. They don’t like it at all. It hurts their ego and is bad for business.

But they do like the instant credibility that science is granted, and they want a bit of it for themselves. So they imitate scientific language and method. They make up their own rigged but official looking studies, designed “to prove” their pet theories. They plunder the language of science with the same kind of rapacity with which they plunder Hindu philosophy and indigenous cultures, for fancy sounding words and exotic concepts to distort and filter through their marketing department.

Spiritual teachers are ignorant both of the content as well as the sheer quantity of knowledge is down the dark end of the scale. They don’t realize how often their own teachings replicate well establish scientific knowledge of phenomena that have long been explained, and processes that have long been mastered. When challenged, portray their superfluous or spurious ideas as legitimate speculation (“we’re just saying keep an open mind, give the new paradigm a chance”). But thanks to their ignorance (or blinkered ideology) their work does not build on any factual basis and is therefore rendered utterly useless.

Louise Hay, for example, behaves as if our knowledge of human physiology is still in the state it was during the time of Christ. She drags her readers down into believing that what goes on under the skin is a vast inexplicable and unexplored mystery, where the demons and angels of negative and positive thoughts prowl. In fact science today is well equipped to check all of her unsupported assertions. Don’t expect to hear this from her though.

Science has of course advanced spectacularly during the last few centuries. But the only advances in spirituality have been improvements in marketing and packaging. Spiritual teachers want scientific status, but they don’t want the trouble that honest inquiry, fact checking and criticism bring. All I can do is suggest to their fans that they underline the speculations in the literature that their favorite teacher produces, and then go back and run another line through it if the teacher presented it as fact. If anything is left over, insert the necessary qualifying terms — “perhaps”, “maybe”, “hypothetically”, etc — into the factual statements of their favorite teachers, and see how it sounds.

Previous posts in this series (I’ve altered the title a little since it started) can be found here.

Posted by Yakaru

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