Science and Spirituality – a Shared Ideal Value – Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, part 6/6

photo by David Martin Castan

What does it mean to say that science and the spiritual stance developed from the same basic normative idea, from a shared ideal value? This was my third thesis at the beginning of this essay. We can now see that there are two aspects of this shared basic normative stance: first, the unconditional desire for truth—for insight, and not belief—and second, the normative ideal of absolute truthfulness towards oneself. The second originates in religion, in the ideal of unconditional truthfulness towards God and then in its reflexive turn towards the inside, in which the desire for truth is turned onto itself, to ourselves. Do you remember the beautiful classical concept of conscientia, as the higher-order inner knowledge that in Western philosophy is the origin of consciousness as well as of the moral conscience? Awareness is the moment at which the process of insight itself becomes reflexive. In this inner turn towards the process of the will for knowledge and the search for insight itself, spirituality and the spiritual stance emerge, and out of them intellectual honesty—and this then is the essential ingredient of scientific method, of self-critical rationalism. But there is not just a purely conceptual connection between spirituality and science, but also a psychological one. Interestingly, it is something that can never be feigned, forced, or organized. It is what Immanuel Kant, in his work “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings” called the sincerity of the intention of being honest towards oneself, and what he also called the „idea of the moral good in its absolute purity.“

Still: Even if all of this is true and there are no rational arguments and no empirical evidence for the existence of God or life after death, and if we are truly honest towards ourselves and admit that none of us really knows whether anything like “enlightenment” really exists—what is left? Can the ideal of salvation that connects different spiritual traditions really be secularized in a second phase of enlightenment? Isn’t the project of “Enlightenment 2.0” itself just a romantic illusion, doesn’t it amount, in the end, to a new form of death denial? We can go ahead and calmly admit it: Given the current state of affairs in the history of science and philosophy, in the age of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and especially given the threat of climate change, it is not at all easy, on an emotional level, to face the facts. Clearly, intellectual honesty comes at a price, it is not easily attained. What can one still do in this situation? I think the answer is obvious: insofar as the project of self-knowledge is concerned, our future is open—and this is another fact that should not be ignored—and we simply do not know where the inner and outer process of gaining knowledge will lead us. An ethical stance does not strictly depend on the promise of one’s own actions being successful. Even if the developments in the outer world should turn out to increasingly elude our control, we should hold on to what I call the “principle of self-respect”: The desire for more knowledge is the only option we have if we do not want to give up our dignity and our respect for each other and, in particular, ourselves. Self-respect does not only mean respecting ourselves as vulnerable subjects who are capable of suffering, of making inner commitments and taking moral responsibility, of being rational. The refusal to give up on the principle of self-respect in a dangerous transitional phase in history also means valuing the fact that we are knowledge-creating beings, who are capable of generating ever-new insights about the world and ourselves. This is why one has to hold onto epistemic action, but on two levels at the same time and not only on one level or the other.

Finally, I would like to ask: What is left if the picture I have sketched so far is correct? Could there really be something like a contemporary spiritual self-understanding that respects the changed conditions and can be reconciled with the desire for intellectual honesty? There is nothing to proclaim and no ready-made take-home message, no final answer. But maybe we now have a better understanding of the historical process into which we have entered and of the actual, deeper challenge posed by the multi-faceted turn in the image of humankind. It is now clear that there are several bridges connecting spirituality with science. Most bridges can also be crossed in both directions. For this reason, I certainly do not want to exclude that, in the future, we might discover completely new paths, leading from scientific research on the human mind to more refined, more effective, or even deeper forms of spiritual practice. In the past, the latter originated in the former, because both are forms of epistemic action, of acting for the sake of knowledge. The shared goal is the project of enlightenment, of a systematic enhancement of one’s own mental autonomy. There are two fundamental forms of epistemic action: subsymbolic and cognitive, in silence and in thought—involving a specific form of effortless attention (perhaps paradigmatically exemplified in the classical tradition of mindfulness meditation) and, on the level of critical, rational thought, scientific rationality. But must we really decide between these two forms of knowledge? I think that the opposite is true: they can only be realized together in the first place. There is one ethics of inner action, one basic normative idea that lies at the basis of both a secularized spiritual practice and the scientific ideal of intellectual honesty. We have already seen that meditation cultivates the inner preconditions for critical, rational thought. It is particularly interesting to note that both stances also aim at improving the standards of civilization, as a social practice refined by the right form of inner action. Today, this inner connection could be investigated in much more detail with the means of modern cognitive and neuroscience, thus realizing the philosophical ideal of self-knowledge in a new guise, on a completely new level of precision and in fine-grained conceptual detail. But it can also be formulated in more traditional terms. There is, once again, an old-fashioned philosophical word for the ability and the inner stance that allows one to do what one has recognized to be good not just successfully, but perhaps even with inner affection and joy. This old-fashioned concept is “virtue”. So one can also say: Honesty in the relevant sense is an intellectual virtue that can be cultivated over time, just as the inner virtues of precise and gentle mindfulness or of compassion are mental abilities that can be actively acquired and continually developed. Therefore, all of this might not be about a new synthesis of spirituality and intellectual honesty at all. Instead, it might be about seeing what is already there: the inner unity of the mental virtues.

extract 6 from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (see part 1 of the 6 part series)

the entire Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty


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