May 13, 2012

Does “Truth” Matter in Spirituality?

In conversations about spirituality, I often encounter the perspective that truth is entirely relative and that there is no such thing as “reality.”

Everything is simply perception. Some people also like to talk about certain proposed “absolute truths” that are beyond the mind or the material plane and have to either be accepted on faith or experienced directly during say, meditation.

While there is of course something valid and important in recognizing subjective perception and perspective, and while I value contemplative experience very deeply, I have a different perspective on “truth.”

Truth matters. It is not only of central importance in how we think and act in the world, but also a principle to strive for in our spiritual lives. But we forget this—and it is easy to see why.

Truth exists in different ways in different domains of human knowledge and experience, and this can sometimes be confusing. We can tease these domains apart, but it is important to remember that they are always aspects of an integrated whole.

For example, if I said that water was made of two parts sulfur and one part helium, anyone with a middle school science education would know that this was not true. But not all truths are reducible to the domain of scientific evidence.

Many people stop there, saying that some things are scientifically demonstrable (like the composition of water) and everything else (like the meaning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what happens after we die) is just belief, opinion and mystery. But let’s slow that down and look more carefully.

One step removed from scientific evidence, there is also logical reasoning.

If I said:

All men are mortal. Hillary Clinton is mortal. Therefore Hillary Clinton is a man.

It should be obvious that my conclusion was not true. Now we are in the domain of reason and logic—and whether we are aware of it or not, we all practice using our capacity to reason as a way of evaluating truth.

So we have discovered that one kind of truth has to do with established scientific knowledge and another (which may rely upon, but does not require scientific evidence) has to do with reason. If a statement or belief is contrary to evidence and reason, then we should be comfortable saying it is false.

To continue: If I told you that I was writing this article from the stable of my pet unicorn, you would be quite entitled not to believe me unless I provided evidence of this highly unlikely claim.

We enter now a related domain, which has to do with how we think about what is most likely to be true. Based on what we know about the world we live in, it is unlikely enough to be almost impossible for me to have a pet unicorn. If I claimed a pet of any species that was known to exist, no matter how exotic, this would be more likely by an order of magnitude to be true. If I said I had a pet tiger you might still demand to see a photo or video of me with it, but your level of incredulity would not even come close to that for the claim of a pet unicorn.

A common mistake here would be to think that unless someone could prove that I didn’t have a pet unicorn, that we should on principle be open to the possibility. But this is impractical, and none of us actually live our lives this way. It also goes against the famous observation credited to Carl Sagan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

In other words, if you claim something highly unusual, the burden of proof is on you to show that your claim is true, otherwise why should anyone believe that you could walk on the ceiling?

But what about art or philosophy, surely these are entirely subjective, right?

If I told you that Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” was about a family outing to the beach in the south of Spain it would not take much research to find out that this was factually incorrect. If I told you the play dealt with issues of race and power, you might read the play, as well as some respected analysis of it and come to the conclusion that this too was an incorrect interpretation.

So even with regard to something that seems ultra subjective like “meaning,” we have ways of ascertaining truth. In fact, millions of people spend many years qualifying for doctorate degrees in interpreting meaning in philosophy, literature and other fields. They may not be able to agree with one another very often—but their opinions are generally more interesting, well-informed, and contain more truth than those of high school students who have barely read the text at hand.

While not objective in the strict sense, we can all agree that there are better and worse, superficial and profound, correct and incorrect ways of interpreting art and philosophy.

So much for claims about what is true in the outside world, in logical reasoning, or when interpreting language and images—spirituality focuses to a large extent on our inner worlds, and surely here there is no such thing as objective truth, right?

Sure. But we are still on the continuum of truth. The claims are becoming less objective, but this does not mean that absolutely anything goes! It also does not mean that our interior experiences are not still related to both the objective outer world and our capacity to reason and interpret meaning—in fact, I suggest healthy, sustainable spirituality requires this level of integration.

Psychology is the study of the mind and feelings. It doesn’t get any more subjective. We know from basic psychology that all of us have ways of distorting reality in order to protect ourselves from feelings with which we would rather not deal. These defenses include denial, rationalization, dissociation, compensation -all of which are ways of not being truthful with ourselves.

We all know the phenomenon of someone who is scared but pretending to be brave. Or of someone smiling through the tears, or hardening their face and body in resistance to letting their vulnerability be visible to others and perhaps even conscious to themselves.

A good counselor can guide us into being more truthful with ourselves about how we actually feel emotionally, and help us to gain insight into what those feelings mean. A good friend can listen and empathize and reflect back what may be true within a confused tangle of events, interpretations and feelings. Feelings have meaning and have to do with our relationships and our experiences in the outside world.

Of course a good psychiatrist can also diagnose the very extreme distortions of reality or wildly inappropriate feelings that are symptoms of severe mental illness. In fact, I would suggest that the complex and nuanced relationship between our inner truths and the truths of outer reality defines the continuum we all exist along with regard to relative levels of mental health.

When it comes to psychiatry, we are also talking about the intersection of the objective science of brain function and neurochemistry with the subjective domain of consciousness, sense of self, and interpretation of meaning. Remember, it is all connected…

Now what about something even more to do with the interior domain of spirituality—say, meditation? Aren’t the experiences that individuals have while in meditation, yoga or prayer, on vision quest or under the influence of psychedelic sacraments exempt from any of the more ordinary ways of ascertaining truth?

Well, what if I told you that while meditating I realized that all of external reality was actually my dream—that you who are reading this in fact do not exist except as a figment of my imagination, and that I in fact am an immortal being who has forgotten how to wake up out of my sleep?

What if I said I was going to sell all my possessions, stop working and meditate all day long sitting in the middle of the street earnestly seeking to wake up to my true identity beyond the dream?

Would the fact that I claimed this was true based on my experience in meditation somehow make you take it more seriously than my claim to be writing this from my unicorn’s stable?

If we are being grounded, surely we should consider all claims about external reality in the same way, and test them using the same methods.

Consider that I told you the following:

While meditating I realized that the tension I often feel in my shoulder area relaxed when I got in touch with how afraid I had been about my financial situation, and that as I sat with that fear, imagining breathing compassion into it, I remembered being a small boy and feeling afraid that my parents were going to get divorced, and that after shedding a few tears I felt ready to try some new business strategies that I had been procrastinating.

Then my mind shifted into a place of extraordinary peace and self-acceptance, I felt at one with all things and it seemed I sat there for a great while, even though I saw that the whole meditation had lasted just 20 minutes when I opened my eyes.

This account of an experience in meditation not only sounds basically sane and beneficial, it also makes no extraordinary claims about external reality. Rather, it expresses an integrated relationship between my external financial struggles, some underlying emotions, and how those are held as tension in my body. It also describes a brain state of meditative absorption that in fact correlates nicely with findings from neuroscience.

Many people who have never meditated would be skeptical about these claims, but there is nothing about them that sounds crazy or out of step with everyday accounts of both objective and subjective reality.

In short, you probably would have no reason to doubt the truth of this account.

When we hold ourselves to a standard of truth across all domains of reality, spirituality can be integrated, sane and beneficial. I think we run into trouble when we buy into the idea that spiritual experiences and beliefs are beyond evidence, reason, logic, or inter-subjective analysis.

Claims of an “ultimate truth”  beyond the mind and beyond material reality are a staple of many forms of spirituality. By definition, these claims are impossible to evaluate—a feature that for many would make them meaningless. But let’s say we remain open to the possibility of these kinds of ultimate metaphysical truths existing. We would still have to be honest about the fact that if they affect anything about the world we actually live in, those effects could be evaluated.

I hope this exploration of truth as it shows up in our inner and outer lives has been thought provoking and useful. Please let me know your thoughts on the subject.

Editor: Brianna Bemel

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