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Spirituality and its discontents – Part 2

Note: I will be using the word ‘Spirituality’ in the sense that is explained in the first post.

Previously, we looked at the causal problems with Spirituality, on how it doesn’t come close to providing a honest path to establish knowledge, and in turn encourages magical thinking on the followers. Now, let us look at the Moral issues with Spirituality, mainly the general consequences of following such practice that is not rooted in a realistic idea of the world.

 

1. Magical thinking = false hope

One of the prerequisites to become a practitioner is to accept your guru, or the method. It means that, you take off your thinking cap, and take at face-value whatever the Spiritualist tells you. People ask others to do this whenever their claims are expected to be taken with disbelief. So, essentially the guru asks you to take such things at face-value about which you would otherwise be skeptical.

With this style of magical thinking, Spirituality claims to offer a lot on your plate – worldly and otherworldly. Worldly offers include building confidence, relationships, making friends, influencing people, overcoming stress, enjoying sex or abstain from sex (depending on your religious beliefs), and so on. Otherworldly offers go into ideas like interpreting your dreams, becoming one with the universe or finding your place in it, understanding your previous births, building up good karma for your next birth, talk to deceased friends and family, and so on.

Even if you confine yourselves to the worldly benefits spirituality offers, the road to acquiring these is paved with the quackery your guru preaches, and the only reason it should work is because your guru says so. Any belief in your guru comes only when you have a hope in what’s being told to you. This hope doesn’t come out of reason and logic, but on the mere words of the guru which you should take at face value, even if your thinking cap says otherwise. And this hope should extend to all the benefits from confidence building to becoming one with the universe. If this is not false hope, then what else do you think constitutes false hope?

 

2. Spirituality makes ignorance a virtue

Another hallmark of spiritual practice is willful obscurantism. Spirituality is probably the only system which, on one hand claiming to provide knowledge, encourages the seeker to restrict her knowledge and stop using logic, on the other. And gurus preach this as some sort of virtue, to worship the mysterious things in the world, and provide an explanation that’s even more mysterious.

The problem with this is that, ignorance is not really universal, i.e., just because you feel something is mysterious doesn’t mean it remains mysterious and cannot be understood. In other words, reality is out there, and whether we are aware of it or not reflects our ignorance or knowledge, and our understanding of things don’t affect reality in any way.

In the words of physicist ET Jaynes,

If you were ignorant about a phenomenon, that was a fact about your own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself; that your uncertainty was a fact about you, not a fact about whatever you were uncertain about; that ignorance existed in the mind, not in reality; that a blank map did not correspond to a blank territory. There were mysterious questions, but a mysterious answer was a contradiction in terms. A phenomenon could be mysterious to some particular person, but there could be no phenomena mysterious of themselves. To worship a sacred mystery was just to worship your own ignorance.

One should always be wary of reality, with a fear of the idea that their beliefs may contradict with it, and make sure they have decreasingly fewer wrong beliefs and increasingly correct beliefs.

So, ignorance is not a virtue as generally preached in spirituality. It’s something that one needs to get rid of, on a priority basis. In my opinion, this is the most dangerous feature in spirituality, which affects everyone.

 

3. Spirituality peddles pseudoscience

Almost all spiritual practices are framed as science, and if your guru can dare, better than science. Practitioners typically claim they were skeptical about the tradition but were convinced by evidence and experience. And you’re encouraged to follow it based on their anecdotal evidence and experience. Well, the only thing lacking here is credibility. As we observed in the previous post, almost every spiritual practice relies on the ‘Inner-Energy’ humans possess, for no apparent reason, which cannot be detected by anything or anyone except for your guru. And to boost this ‘energy’, your guru may ask you to buy beads, exotic rudraskhas, japamalas, crystal balls and other new-age merchandise. Or you may be presented with alternative health-style products like food additives, ayurvedic ‘medicines’, body lotions, soaps and shampoos. Some gurus also offer healing services with their unquestionable authority and wisdom.

This is all done with a spiteful attitude towards science and reason, and is a wasteful expenditure of your time, money and energy (the measurable energy, not the one your guru talks about)

 

Conclusion

It is uncontroversial to say that as humans, we look to feel a sense of awe, wonder and inspiration around us. We find them in nature, society and everyday experience. On the other hand, we also seek patterns everywhere, and convince ourselves of them where they may be none. We are mystified by the stars, sun and moon and try to bring them into our stories making them our companions. Our sense of creativity goes to the extent of assigning purposes to the most random events happening, to fit our satisfaction.

However, humans are also predisposed with a capacity to think, and to think rationally when it is done slowly and methodically. We have advanced from the dark and middle ages and are reaching beyond earth in our presence. A touch of reality will make our sense of awe, wonder and inspiration much more meaningful and less harmful to us and others around us.

Measurable energy is more interesting than inner-energy, and workout plans are more goal-oriented than yoga. Understanding psychology is more useful to understand people than dogmatic meditation practices and rational decision-making is any day better than relying on karma.

Reality provides a profound source of understanding one’s purpose and meaning of life with an emotional and intellectual exploration, and wishful thinking prohibits it in its very sense of purpose and utility.

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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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