Empiricism & Experientialism
There is a third aspect, not unrelated to the above, of the politics of religious experience. This is the apparent tension between objective, empirical research versus experiential, hands-on spirituality. In his history of the AHS John Franklin (2006, P22, P37, pp45-46, & P49) refers to issues around this area such as pastoral care, counselling responsibilities, and the academic side of the Society. Interestingly, the course I studied on Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology offered core modules in both empirical research methodology and integrated experiential learning. The danger is, of course, again one of perceived academic respectability. There are a multitude of organisations offering opportunities for experiential practices but the majority of these are not academic.
My view then is that, as far as research is concerned, experiential approaches are useful and necessary provided they are performed for a specific purpose and use a stated methodology. However, as researchers, hands-on spirituality should never be simply an opportunity to experience for experience's sake.
Science and Scientism
In some holistic circles it seems (or perhaps I’m just being paranoid?) that there is a certain anti-scientific sentiment. Science is perceived to be trying to ‘explain away’ the spiritual aspect of our lives and the world. In criticising Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man (1959), Sir Peter Medawar coined the phrase ‘nothing-buttery’. This isn’t a sort of low fat spread but the claim that science is trying to say that spiritual experience is ‘nothing but’ neurotransmitters and brain waves, etc. A distinction is often made comparing evil ‘reductionist’ science with goody-two-shoes ‘holistic’ worldviews and a move is afoot to create a new holistic science (whatever this may mean). Paradoxically it also seems quite clear that some people adopt and redefine scientific terminology to support their own metaphysical doctrines. This is most apparent in appeals to quantum physics to support various holistic theories. Is this an attempt to capitalise on the success of science in understanding and controlling natural phenomena?
It may help to understand science in the following four senses. The first is that of the scientific method. This is a process of observation, hypothesis formation, prediction, testing, further observation, and hypothesis amendment. By its very nature this process is reductionist; an experiment isolates all variables but the one of interest and thereby focuses on isolated parts rather than the whole system. I find it difficult to understand how this could ever be made more holistic. The second sense is science as a cumulative collection of knowledge. This, I would argue, is the holistic side of science; biochemicals are related to organs, organs to physiological systems, systems to the body, the body to the mind, the body and mind to the environment, and so on. Science in the third sense manifests in the form of technology, from toasters to spacecraft. And science in the fourth sense of the word I understand as ‘Scientism’; a Dawkinsian worldview where science is gospel. All of this can help to distinguish between science as a body of knowledge and individual scientists. Scientists may believe or disbelieve, have spiritual experiences or not – they are not organising a reductionist conspiracy to ‘explain away’ religion. It also allows that someone can be a scientist and a materialist, a scientist who is spiritual, a scientist who is religious, or a scientist who subscribes to Scientism.
Whilst not wanting to deny that there are militant atheists who preach their own anti-religious gospel of Scientism, it is important not to stereotype science, or scientists, as a whole in this unconstructive way. We need to transcend the myth of ‘reductionist science’ versus ‘holistic spirituality’ and understand how science and spirituality can mutually inform and illuminate each other.
Part four to follow...
Originally published in two parts in De Numine, No. 54 & 55, pp5-8.