Reflections on Spiritual "Proof"

This article attempts to give more validity to spiritual experiences, by the roundabout method of showing that they are different in nature from what is currently considered objective scientific phenomenon, and thus must be clearly seen as amenable to a verification process that is different, yet just as actual and meaningful.

Any scientist anywhere can do a simple physics experiment and re-confirm that, for instance, F = ma, or disconfirm a false equation such as F = mv. In this sense, such knowledge is "public knowledge". The experiments are reproducible, and so are the results. They are concerned with external phenomena.

Spiritual facts on the other hand, cannot be confirmed in the same way, nor can any private knowledge, such as what the color green looks like to some particular individual.

Perhaps what’s important about the fact that public knowledge is confirmable is the fact that reality - the world out there - is orderly or "rational".

What a new psychology would say is that at some level, when looked at with a clear enough mind and with enough perspective, human psychological experience and behavior is also orderly and rational, and obeys certain invariant principles. So far, psychology as a science has not been able to agree on any such underlying structure.

Physical scientists try for objective confirmation and support of hypothesis by testing and experiment. They look outside for confirmation or "final" proof, in publicly repeatable material situations called experiments.

A psychology based in "spiritual" experiences or insights looks inside, to subjective experience, for proof and confirmation, guided or primed by clues from others who have had similar experiences. But the final "proof" is subjective in the sense of being inward or "inside". Thus with spiritual states of mind you cannot compare measurements of experiments in the outside world: the "observations" in this case are invisible. Even if someone changes their behavior as the result on an insight for instance, that change of behavior is only proof of behavior: what it is the result of is open to any interpretation by the observer, and still only knowable finally by the subjectivity of the person behaving. As an analogy, what the color green looks like to them will always and finally only be known for certain by them alone.

But in the broader, social sense, spiritual experiences and scientific experiments are both confirmable by a similar process: anyone performing the "experiment" will get the same result. We would certainly hope that that were true if they reflected facts — that is, natural or spiritual "laws" —which have to be universal to be laws of nature. In the case of spirituality, this means experiencing an altered state of mind that all humans through the ages have had access to.

In the realm of psycho-spiritual insights however, it is much harder to delineate exactly what the "experiment" is, because it breaks the bounds in which the person is conceiving of the whole situation!

(Revision 05/5/'10: Here I have confused the experimenter with the subject. The actual problem has to do with the veracity and subjective nature of the subjects reports, and the fact that the only access to them is subjective, and the only way to communicate them is verbally (so far as current technology and science go)).

It is essentially a creative event of a holistic nature within, or from inside, their own life-mind, in the present.

(Revision 05/5/'10: I now doubt that it is "holistic", at least in the sense that I meant it here (global and mental). Rather I now believe it is some part or parts of the brain that are triggered into a coordinated and genetically innate response, despite what it seems like and however veridical it feels to be).

It is the nature of the experience of the absolute Now, that is not continuous with what is called "learned knowledge", "conditioning", or "process thought". Thus only certain pointers, principles, clues, paradoxes, or metaphors can be used to guide a person towards a realization of the nature of their own True Self.

(Revision 05/5/'10: Though the psychology of switrching from "processing" to "flow" state is what is alluded to here, and still relevant pscychologically speaking, I no longer think these experiences are reflections of a spiritual or "universal" mental reality of any type, but rather are based in physical processes and human "software" handed down by culture, that have both evolved over immense spans of time).

Sometimes techniques are used, including meditation and mantras (as in Zen), but these of course are not foolproof, and are merely instruments or tools, artfully chosen to somehow create an opportunity, if lucky, to bypass the interfering intellect.

Someone might get a "feeling" you know something, but you don’t have any concrete tokens to bring back from another mental state — unlike a diver in the outer world's oceanic depths, who could bring up a gold coin or goblet — other than your testimony or changed presence. Any attempt to articulate what you experience as a deep spiritual reality will get lost in the translation from mind to language to lips to ear to another mind, through time.

So in a sense, in the material world, anyone can see the result of an experiment or action and what it can confirm or deny (though this still requires that they are not dogmatic in their interpretation of what it means). But in a spiritual realization, we are utterly alone, and without interpretation. Only you can truly know what you know in this case. This may sound frightening to the ego — something infinite and lonely — but the experience is actually one of boundless freedom and flexibility in thought, feeling, and action.

The wise teacher or counselor's admonition to "listen for the feeling" is significant, in helping us to sidestep the "endless loop" generated by intellectual thinking and preconceived notions of opening up in psychological matters. The deeper feelings he and other teachers try to point us towards can indeed "take one to the world within", and open up new channels of perception and learning, and a new direction from which to experience life. How this works, I don’t know. But thinking about mechanisms misses the point, because it is about the process itself, in the infinite present, before the kind of thought that cleverly designs or understands mechanisms.

(Revision 05/5/'10: Again, this may be true in a subjective sense, but there still will be ways to understand it scientifically and reproduce the experiences at will, such as by neural stimulation. We may not be as special as we imagine (under the influence of spiritual and religious teachings, which tend to emphasize the ultimate importance of humans and our spiritually-influenced lives), and these experiences probably reflect natural survival mechanisms only).

By seeing these psycho-spiritual facts from such a broad perspective, and developing a teaching model based in experience, this deep knowledge connects with "common sense" in both its foundations and it’s learning, and therefore is potentially available to anyone. Freedom from technology and ideological baggage also democratizes it and makes it more palatable to a wider audience. None of the esoteric teachings or "wisdom traditions" (at least that I know of) are this simple and "user friendly".

(Revision 05/5/'10: The "broad perspective" I would point to now would be one that includes evolutionary theory, the latest explorations and techniques in neuroscience, cognitive science, anthropology, and so forth).

I see a future psychology as part of a broader forefront of change within the mind of humanity, just beginning, marrying practice and theory in a truly "grounded" philosophy, as some inspired individuals break away from the pack and create a coherent paradigm for healing and discovery of the mind and our unlimited human potential.

(Revision 05/5/'10: This "grounding" I now think should be in a naturalistic framework and not a spiritual one. The "mind of humanity" is not one unified thing, although you could look at it that way. Genetic and neuropsychology, if steered correctly, will help us optimize humanity and unleash our potentials. However, philosophy is needed as a consulting and guiding mechanism).

- Eric Platt 9/'99







This article was written for the Psychology of Mind Communique (not published).