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The Bible and Suicide

The Marriage of Sense and Soul (book review)

Dateline: September 16, 1998

People have expressed an interest in integrating science with more traditional/religious ideologies ever since science first developed out of the Renaissance in Europe about 400 years ago. Sometimes this has been accompanied by the threat of force and violence, as individuals like Galileo discovered all too well. Other efforts have been more intellectual, but ultimately no more successful, in nature. Whatever their form, their goal has been much the same: find some means, any means, of preserving someone's traditional religious and/or political beliefs in the face of the onslaught of rigorous scientific thinking.

Daniel Dennett has called the idea of evolution a 'universal solvent' - something which effectively cuts through all existing ideologies in favor of something simpler, more elegant, and more universal. Much the same could be said of rigorous scientific thinking, as well. Science has acted as a solvent through history, cutting through ancient religious and political ideologies, allowing for the creation of new ways of living and thinking.

So, is there any real place for the older ideologies? Should anyone bother to try and resurrect/preserve them? Ken Wilber certainly thinks so, and in pursuit of that elusive goal he has written The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.

As is already indicated from the title, Wilber has no intention of fundamentally destroying either science or religion - instead, he is looking for some way of "integrating" the two such that they might coexist harmoniously and in a way that benefits all concerned. He is quite admirable in his attitude, specifically stating that he wants to bring the two together without "cheating," without "stretching and deforming either religion or science to a point where they do not recognize themselves." This is indeed admirable - too many others bent on achieving a harmony between the two freely warp and deform one such that it meets the criteria of the other, an ultimately useless enterprise.

It would have been nice had Wilber succeeded where others failed, but despite his intentions, he has not. Although he seems to have avoided deforming one in order to fit it into a box created by the other, in his efforts to define both he has so mangled what both religion and science are that they aren't very recognizable any more. Of course, once having done so, integration probably didn't seem too difficult - but since he did not manage to integrate what science and religion really are in the real world, I'm afraid he didn't achieve much of relevance.


Misunderstanding Religion

Now, what did he have to say about religion? It's tough to pin him down to specifics, but early on he focuses on what he calls "The Great Chain of Being." Or maybe it's "The Great Nest of Being." I'm not really sure - sometimes he uses one term, sometimes he uses the other and I can't tell if he really means different things or is actually confused himself. At any rate, this chain or nest is supposed to describe the pre-scientific/pre-modern world where one level of knowledge envelops previous levels of knowledge, in the same way astophysics is a part of physics. The problem he finds in modernity is that this chain/nest was abandoned and he hopes to bring it back into use.

What was that? What happened to religion? True, this book is supposed to be about uniting science with religion, not science with chains/nests. The fact is, he thinks that this chain/nest is representative of religion as a whole. He is quite correct in realizing that his goal cannot be achieved simply by uniting science with Christian theology or Hindu theology - instead, he has to unite science with something essential and necessary to all religion. Does he? I don't think so - this chain/nest idea might represent something essential to most Eastern religions (whose ideas have long been a major influence on his work), but I don't see how it represents something essential to religions like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

In fact, I think that the average Christian would look at his essentialist description and fail to find anything of significance. For a Christian, the essence of Christianity lies in God taking upon Himself the sins of humanity and sacrificing Himself to pay for those sins, but nevertheless rising from the dead and showing humanity that those with faith will, in the end, triumph over even an ignominious death. I don't think that Wilber would accept this - for him, it would not represent "authentic spirituality." Although I would agree with Wilber that such stories simply represent ancient mythology which should not be read literally, I still find it incredibly arrogant for someone to go around claiming that one person's religiosity is less "authentically spiritual" than another person's religiosity.

At any rate, that attitude represents a failure on the part of Wilber: a failure to adequately incorporate important strands of major religions in his calculations. The result is that science does not become united with the essentials of religions like Christianity, and his project fails. I should caution, however, that I do not think he is at fault for this - I'm not convinced that there is any such "essential commonality" among all religious traditions in the world which would allow for the uniting of science with "religion in general." Any attempt to find such essentially will, I think, cause the presumptuous picking of choosing of what "really counts" as religion just as Wilber has done, and that is wrong.



One thing other matter pertaining to religion which regularly comes up is the concept of "Spirit." He uses this term much more often than his chain/nest idea, and it can be presumed that here, too, he is speaking of some sort of minimal essence common to all religions. Unfortunately, I cannot quite be sure because he never defines what Spirit is. Does he mean God? Soul? Elves? This is incredibly bizarre - especially considering that he goes to great length to explain/define other concepts he brings up. It is also bizarre considering the fact that he wishes to create a "genuine spiritual science." One of the first lessons any scientist is supposed to learn is that you are supposed to explain your key terms/concepts. Unless Wilber does that, he can just forget any prospects at a "spiritual science." Ambiguity is an essential component of theology, not science - and Wilber is going to have to make a decision about which he wishes to pursue.

Another important lesson which each scientist must learn is the necessity of evidence - and even Wilber recognizes this, explaining that one of the primary values of evidence is that it prevent a person from attempting to impose their own personality upon the universe, requiring them instead to validate their claims. Unfortunately, Wilber never really follows these principles in relation to "Spirit." At no point does he ever offer evidence or justification for the assumption that such a thing exists. Perhaps he hopes that such justification will be forthcoming in his vision of a "mystical science" of the future, but I think that may be putting the cart before the horse. Without sound and solid evidence of the existence of this "Spirit" thing, what could there possibly be to constitute a target for research?

Quote of the week:

From a scientific point of view, we can make no distinction between the man who eats little and sees heaven and the man who drinks much and sees snakes. Each is in an abnormal physical condition, and therefore has abnormal perceptions

Bertrand Russell.

(Quoted from: Walter Kaufmann,
Critique of Religion and Philosophy p. 314-15.]
Besides, current evidence does not suggest that any sort of "mystical science" will provide us with clear evidence of anything in particular. There are a number of similarities among the various mystical traditions which have existed, but those similarities are also shared by purely mundane activities like drug use. Further reports from mystics vary wildly, from Christian reports of meeting an external Father-God to Hindu reports of experiencing the fact that not even two things exist in the universe, that everthing is really a part of the impersonal Brahman.

Aside from the fact that none of these fundamentals can really be integrated, one comonality is ironically the idea of "ineffability." Mystics are forever exclaiming that their experiences are "ineffable" and cannot be described, even as they are providing us with the details. Assuming that they are fundamentally ineffable despite the descriptions, then it would be impossible to develop any sort of "mystical science." Science relies upon observation, research, and the comparison/testing of reports. But if there is nothing which can reliably be reported, then there can be no testing or validation of others' experiences.


Misunderstanding Science

Wilber does not appear to do much better with describing science than he does with religion. He tends to identify modern science with empiricism (based on the senses and what he calls "the eye of flesh"). Because of this, he repeatedly asserts that science is "monological." This position of his is not tenable. Modern science can equally be identified with theory (based upon abstracted concepts and what he calls "the eye of mind"). As Edward O. Wilson puts it in his work Consilience, science is "...the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles." Key to this is the development of "theory" - ideas which are based upon observation but which have not been proven. The "scientism" and "reductionism" which Wilber and others complain about are key components of the scientific enterprise, but they are not all that science is about. They are the ways in which can gain entry to otherwise impossibly complex systems - afterwards, science engages in synthesis and integration. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Evolution are all vibrant, living examples of the power of theory which are based upon, but not entirely reducible to Wilber's "monological eye of the flesh."

Wilber hopes to gain a place for his undefined idea of "Spirit" alongside empirical science by relying on the existence of scientific tools which are themselves "nonempirical" and which exist "...in nonempirical and nonsensory spaces." Among these he includes things like logic and all forms of mathematics. Wilber argues that if science denies some "nonempirical interiors" like mysticism and "Spirit," then it must also deny the reality and validity of other "nonempirical interiors" like math and logic or argue that some interiors can be denied with others accepted.


Math and Logic

As we already know, Wilber's contention that science is wholly empirical is incorrect - and, thus, the primary basis of his argument fails. Science is more than raw empiricism, it is also creativity and theory. Indeed, some of history's greatest scientists like Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin illustrate the power of the conceptual approach to science. Moreover, "Superstring Theory" which is at the cutting edge of contemporary physics is almost entirely a mathematical theory of reality. Clearly modern science involves much more than empiricism (and Wilber's "eye of flesh"). It equally involves abstract concepts and theory (Wilber's "eye of mind"). These two aspects are very closely related, rendering Ken Wilber's polarized portrayal of science one-sided and misleading.

But Wilber's mistake goes farther than this. The other pillar of his argument is that primary conceptual tools of science like math and logic lack any empirical, exterior validity or reality. This involves serious misunderstanding on Wilber's part. Math, for example, has a tremendous amount of empirical, exterior validity and reality - it wouldn't work if it didn't. Math, in its purest form, is an abstraction of empirical reality. Two plus two equaling four is an abstraction of what humans - including our children at school - learned first, namely that two apples plus two apples equals four apples. Even imaginary numbers have empirical validity in electricity and voltages, as I have been informed by people knowledgeable in Electrical Engineering.

It has been pointed out that Wilber's error could be thought of as a grammar mistake. In the above example, the number two and four in the equation function like adjectives, modifying the noun "apples." When they are abstracted out, they look like nouns, but aren't really. "Two" is not meant to refer to a real thing like "apple." It's an abstraction of an adjective, and could be thought of as something akin to an adjective, like "green." Green isn't an object, but refers to some part of the nature of genuine objects. Two isn't an object, but is an abstraction which can refer to some part of the reality of other objects. Logic works similarly - the "laws of logic" which we use are abstractions of the very nature of the reality we live in.


Misunderstanding Sciences

Wilber's problems with science do not end with generalities but instead extend to specific disciplines. At times, he displays a very regrettable lack of understanding of some key aspects of science. One is the nature of the Big Bang, which is key to him since it allows him to introduce his amorphous idea of "Spirit" into science. He claims that the early plasma seems to have obeyed mathematical laws which themselves did not come into existence with the Big Bang and which must have existed previously in the mind of some "eternal Spirit." He further claims that "These laws, all agree, existed prior to space and time." All who? I'd really like to know who this "all" is since none of his claims correlate with any of the current understandings of the Big Bang which I have recently read. Wilber might want to read up on it a bit with Stephen Hawking or even Timothy Ferris and get back to us on this.

Another area of science which Wilber needs to learn more about is sociobiology. It is one of his core contentions that science only studies (and is only capable of studying) of those things which have "simple location" and which "...you can actually or figuratively put your finger on them, you can see them with your senses (or their extensions." But since we cannot put our finger on things like compassion, honor, love, mercy, morals, or a thousand other matters of "internal dimensions," science denies them any substantial or irreducible reality. Unfortunately, none of that is really accurate. Science deals with a wide range of "objects" varying from the sensible to the (totally) abstract. Sociobiology is one discipline devoted to the detailed study of just those aforementioned issues - granting them substantial reality in our cultural, biological, and evolutionary history. Sociobiology does not reduce them, but instead elevates them.


Meaning and Values

All of this, I think, stems from an even more fundamental misunderstanding of science - one which I suspect is an un-admitted core of his whole critique. A little less than half-way through the book, he states that the scientific endeavor erases all "sense and significance" to our world, eliminating values, intentions, depth, and meaning. As any humanist will gladly tell you, that kind of talk is complete and total balderdash. Wilber's railing against adequacy of using science to provide a complete and total picture of the world may indeed stem from his own, personal inability to find meaning in his life without mysticism, but he shouldn't presume to argue that his own inadequacies are representative of the limitations of others.

The simple fact of the matter is that science does not in any way prevent the development of meaning and values in our lives. On the contrary, greater depth of understanding about the way both our world and we ourselves work can in fact allow a broader and more varied system of meanings in a person's life. Wilber's goal is more than simpling integrating science and religion, as he claims. A thread running throughout his book indicates that he is looking to integrate "externalities" like empirical science with "internalities" like meaning, value, and "Spirit." He isn't the only one to attempt this - others look to integrate the diverse bodies of knowledge, and some achieve many of the fundamentals better than Wilber has. One is Wilson's aforementioned book Conslience, which was recently published. Wilson's understanding of science is much better than Wilber's, and as a result he does a better job it together with other human endeavors like the humanities.


Now What?

After all of that criticism, is there anything worth recommending about Wilber's book? Indeed there is some, but not much and not for the reasons Wilber would like. He does not come anywhere close to the integration he aims for, and in fact others like Wilson do much better, even if they are not proven successful in the end. His perspective, however, might be unique for many. A significant percentage of the attempts to integrate science and religion come from the perspective of Western religions like Christianity and Islam. Wilber's perspective, however, is that of a vague Eastern mysticism, integrated with his own ideas of psychology.

But there are also other, more positive aspects to his book. His analysis of Western science and Enlightenment is not entirely sound, but has a lot to speak for it (even if it does rely too much on latter-day interpretations of Max Weber and Herbert Marcuse). At times, he also mounts an excellent defense of science against, among others, post-modernist stupidities. This may not be enough for many to justify spending the money to buy this book, but it's at least worth taking a quick look at.

Special thanks go out to Danno, Norman Doering, Ronnie Todd, and the many others who freely offered me their advice and thoughts for certain portions of this review. I really appreciate your efforts!

Now: what do you think? Can science and religion be reconciled or even integrated? Why or why not? Does science help religion or harm it? Let me know! Or visit the Chat Room.


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