Archive for March, 2015

Spirituality and its discontents – Part 1

Spirituality has become a fashionable word lately. In these days of stressful jobs, and with people living under social and economic conditions with fast-track routes to become Wealthy Peasants, the space for personal quest and purpose of life is leading many into the New-age paths of Spirituality. These practices consume good amount of money, much valuable time, and cognition (or rather, lack of cognition) and so Spirituality is a strenuous activity. Hence, it is worth considering to inquire if Spirituality can add any value for the practitioner, worthy of all these costs involved.

Since definitions are important, and are of great importance when dealing with Spirituality (though it largely has a lack of respect for definitions), let me say what Spirituality means in various contexts:

In a very general and unremarkable sense, Spirituality is a person’s focus on her ‘inner‘ world, or the essence of her being. This is more about understanding one’s purpose and meaning of life with an emotional and intellectual exploration without necessarily believing in a god or professing religious faith. This sense of the word rarely is magical and also very banal and hence cannot be marketed to people.

The second sense of the word, however is of importance to us. This is where, Spirituality is seen as something larger than human understanding and not bound by logic and rationality. By going through such a practice, practitioners can unlock the mysteries of universe, life, brain and so. This type of Spirituality professes obtainment of knowledge and makes far-fetched claims about the nature of reality that can apparently be realized only subjectively. Such Spirituality categorizes its practices into levels from beginner to esoteric and also encourages the practitioners to develop some cockiness and smugness based on the level of woo they are into.

I am going to use the word Spirituality in this second sense in this analysis. I am also using the word Magic in the sense that something that cannot be understood or measured by an experiment involving cause and effect.

I broadly find two problems with Spirituality – Scientific and Ethical. Let’s discuss the scientific issues with Spirituality in this post and see if they bring any value-addition to us.


1. Spirituality butchers Scientific jargon

One overly common observation of Spiritual practices is that, they working methods involve using some sort of Inner-Energy. Now, the word Energy actually is from Physics.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Energy means “Capacity of doing Work”. Unsurprisingly, the eighth standard Physics textbook also has the same definition for the word. Now, Work is something physical, not magical, right? And since Energy is the capacity of a body or a system to perform some Work, Energy is also physical and not magical. Hence, we should be able to measure this Energy.

Lucky for us, we have a lot of instruments to measure Energy, like Calorimeter to measure heat, Bolometer to measure electromagnetic radiation, and so on. We also have a unit to measure Energy, called the Joule (named after James Prescott Joule, the English physicist whose work in the nature of Heat led to the development of the law of Conservation of Energy and subsequently the First law of Thermodynamics). Here’s a list of different forms of Energy existing in nature.

Enough with history of Science, now, what’s the problem when Spiritualists use the word Inner-Energy in their discourses?

It’s simple – If you followed that link above, you would see that whoever came up with a form of Energy, they also came up with a way to measure it, and that which type of Work this Energy performs. So, the question arises “How do you measure this Inner-Energy, and what type of Work of Heat does this Energy generate?”

If you ask this question to a Spiritualist, you will get an answer. But it’s something like this, with more Science jargon, used in no sense whatsoever in the actual definition of the word. So, it leads to more questions, and spiritualists always have answers with more science jargon. If they run out of their vocabulary of Science jargon, they start abusing Philosophy jargon with words like Consciousness, Knowledge and such.

Fun fact #1: Deepak Chopra, spiritual sibling of our beloved Sri Sri Ravishankar, both of whom did tutelage under Maharshi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation (TM) fame, abuses the words ‘Quantum’ and ‘Consciousness’ so much that the Physics-understanding world came up with this automated online tool to generate his quotes, which surely sound very deep and profound.

Needless to say, this abuse of Science and Philosophy, and this answer-seeking is a never ending process. And to end this process, the Spiritualists ask you to practice for yourselves to understand, which brings us to….


2. Spirituality has the worst form of Knowledge-seeking

Someone told me that the way (rather, the only way) to seek Spiritual knowledge is by “The Subject becoming The Object“. I don’t have the slightest idea what it means. I know that it is a grammatically correct sentence with a couple of nouns and a verb, but I don’t know what it actually means.

Fun fact #2: In the field of Philosophy, knowledge-seeking has a proper word, Epistemology. You may throw this word around to sound intellectual in your social circles.

Anyway, coming to seeking answers to these questions containing heavily abused science jargon, the idea is to undergo the process in your choice of Spirituality and realize it for yourself on a lucky day when it hits you. So, this is a subjective answer which is shaped by personal opinions or feelings instead of outside influences.

There are two problems with such an answer –

Firstly, if you claim such an answer provides Knowledge, you should be able to demonstrate it to others as well. This is because, Knowledge is something which is part of truth, or justified belief at least, and so it is essential for Knowledge to be demonstrated by logic.

Secondly, On the contrary, if you don’t think that such an answer provides knowledge, but it’s merely an experience, then what’s the value for it? The goal of answering is to know something, i.e., obtain or provide knowledge, and not to have an experience of asking the question.

This convoluted way of seeking answer is very unproductive and a waste of time. Additionally it can turn out to be disastrous, which brings us to….


3. Spirituality is all about Magical Thinking

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Spiritualists’ explanations have some sort of hidden meaning in them, and that the Science jargon is not enough (or good enough) for articulation. This leads us to say that these explanations are valid and they lead us to some Knowledge. This knowledge may not be demonstrative now, but may be later when we invent words to do so.

There are again two problems with such a premise (that these explanations are meaningful) –

Firstly, any model that claims to explain reality should be able to adhere to Causality, which is the law of cause and effect (Don’t confuse this with Karma. Causality is about an observable physical effect). This is because the principle of Causality is self-evident in the world around us and so, any model of reality should explain the cause and the effect obtained from it. And, it should also provide observations or arguments that validate such a model. Additionally, it should also provide observations or arguments that would invalidate the model itself. This is called falsifiability. Unless a model of reality has these two, it’s not worth for consideration, unless it predicts something that’s inexplicable by other models.

Secondly, Knowledge needs to be consistent. If some new information is obtained from a model, it needs to fit it with the existing body of knowledge. The least it should be capable is not to contradict the existing body of knowledge.

Spirituality and Spiritualists fail on both these grounds. Their explanations make no sense, don’t predict anything, aren’t falsifiable and their knowledge is fundamentally opposite of what we can demonstrate currently.

Due to this and in order to market their practice to people, Spiritualists encourage practitioners to abandon their thinking caps, rely on Magical Thinking and accept their nonsense at face-value. They even give themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card by claiming that their explanations are beyond Reality (Philosophy jargon abused again), and cannot be validated by any method of Critical Inquiry.

But then, what is the problem in magical and wishful thinking? This leads us to the Ethical issues with Spirituality which I will explain in my next post..

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