An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


The Ultimate Fallacy

Why Not to Confuse a Road Map for Absolutes

David Lane

While I can readily appreciate Abrahmson's spiritual outlook, I don't see it as precluding a intertheoretic reductive approach.

I appreciated reading John Abramson's recent article, “Ultimate Reality Cannot be Explained by Physicalism.” He raises some interesting points over which to reflect and I enjoyed thinking anew about virtual reality, karma, and the remainder conjecture. It also allows me the opportunity to further elaborate on several articles I have written in the past. My hope is that my essay will be a springboard for further discussions on these subjects (pro or con).

Let me start off with the very title of John Abramson's essay, “Ultimate Reality Cannot Be Explained by Physicalism,” which I feel sets up right at the outset a misleading (and apparently inviolate) axiom since it assumes that we, with our very limited craniums, know what ultimate reality is (or should be).

The scientific approach to explain things by looking for physical causes first doesn't presume to “know” what ultimate reality is, but is rather a very practical approach to better understand how certain phenomena behave and operate. The electrician who comes to fix your outdoor light fixtures isn't focused on trying to understand the “ultimate” reality of photons but rather with making certain that the lights turn on at the correct time.

Thus, we should be making a distinction between the practical affairs of science and our quest for some absolutist position about the multiverse. John Abramson appears to conflate these when he cites two different articles (and mindsets) of mine, apparently forgetting in the process that they each have different foci. The following is his direct quotation from a recent comment I made:

“What I have argued (as I repeat my position once again ad infinitum) is taking a practical approach and exhausting physicalist explanations first. Taking my boat, as just one telling instance, whenever the thing breaks down on the way to Catalina it seems quite reasonable to look at the engine first to see if something is broken before positing a Gremlin First hypothesis ...”

To which John Abramson commented, “But in your 'The Mystical Dimension'(2010) post you say something radically different: 'Reality is always greater than our conceptions of it. Thus, contrary to our popular notions of mysticism, genuine spiritual practice is not concerned with increasing knowledge, per se, but rather reconciling man with his fundamental state of absolute ignorance.'”

This latter point of mine then leads Abramson to comment that, “If reality is always greater than our conception of it then this seems to imply that a physicalist explanation of reality is a non-starter.”

Yet it is right here that Abramson is confusing two separate issues as if they were one, which was never my intention and which is not within the purview of the article he cited. In the former quote (using my boat 's engine problems as an illustrative example), I talk about exhausting physical explanations first (let's look at how much oil we have) before positing a “Gremlin First hypothesis”. I suspect that any boat owner would agree with me, as would the vast majority of non-boaters.

In the latter quote, which is centering on how little we know when we are pushed to our neural limits, doesn't preclude studying reality from a physical perspective but only underlines that we have certain limitations in such studies.

Contrary to what Abramson contends, realizing that maps have limited import doesn't then “imply that a physicalist explanation of reality is a non-starter.” Quite the opposite, since fully exploring those empirical maps is an illuminating and instructive first start, since otherwise one can too easily mistake a physical occurrence for a magical one. I can give a host of examples to illustrate this very simple point, but let me draw one from my own personal encounters with a spiritual leader, the late John-Roger Hinkins of MSIA. When I first met J.R., as he is affectionately called, at his ritzy home in Mandeville Canyon, he explained to me that he had psychic powers and could know things beyond the five senses. He even claimed that he could leave his body at will and right then, in the midst of our conversation, alleged that he had just circumnavigated where I was sitting in his spiritual body. He even stated that he could eaves drop on other people in the house and listen in to their private conversations. Many students of J.R. took these claims literally and believed their teacher had direct access to regions of consciousness beyond the ken of normal humankind.

But later on it turned out that J.R. had installed an electronic surveillance system throughout his large house and was gathering information about his students from a state of the art “physical” medium and not a higher “psychic” network. I would argue that J.R.'s students would have gotten a much better understanding of their spiritual guru's “ultimate” state of attainment if they had first focused on the physics of his home first.

Of course this doesn't mean that everything must be physical or that all things have to be explained by material processes, but only that it is a great place to start so one doesn't get caught in a Wilberian pre/trans fallacy.

John Abramson then immediately follows his criticism with a sentence that I find surprising since it underlines precisely the point I was just making. He writes, “In the context of a Buddhist form of explanation of reality the above indicates you have failed to fully appreciate the profound difference between the “Two Truths” i.e. conventional and ultimate truth.”

It is not that I failed to appreciate the differences (just read what I wrote prior), since I am quite clear about the distinction between confusing a map with its territory and conflating neurology for ontology, but that perhaps in your rush to conflate my viewpoints you, yourself, have neglected my own clarifications on these issues. Or, to be more generous, I should make my arguments more explicit so as not to generate future confusion.

Where John Abrahmson and I decidedly part company is when he opines,

“Logically, the first place to seek an understanding [of] something in the ultimate realm is [in] some form of ultimate explanation.”

I don't agree here since seeking an understanding of something in the ultimate realm should start with what we know firsthand and then proceed. Moreover, I think the use of the word ultimate is a fraught with problems, not the least of which is that we may get caught in a definitional quagmire particularly when such discussions devolve into metaphysical speculations. While it may be helpful to imagine all sorts of scenarios about the cosmos in general, I do think taking a systematic or algorithmic approach is quite fruitful and shouldn't be ad hoc dismissed with categorical preclusions, as Abrahmson seems prone to do.

When reading Abrahmson I sense a religious undercurrent in his argument.

When reading Abrahmson I sense a religious undercurrent in his argument and though I, myself, like much of Buddhist and Advaita Vedanta philosophy, I do think we should tread carefully and not fall into the pit of reification whereby we start to assume much more than we actually do know. Thus it gives me pause when I read Abrahmson quoting T.R.V. Murti “where he says the 'Absolute' can only be known as an ascription mark, 'transcendent to thought, as non-relative, non-determinate, quiescent, non-discursive, non-dual.' This is a nice use of language, rich as it is with a “neti, neti” (not this, not that) approach, but it is saturated with all sorts of unpacked and uninspected philosophical presumptions—all of which are still open to vigorous debate.

While I can readily appreciate Abrahmson's spiritual outlook, I don't see it as precluding a intertheoretic reductive approach. As I have long argued in a series of articles, those most interested in mysticism and spirituality are better served than they might at first suspect by those with a materialist bent. Why? Because skeptics, and not believers, tend to demand for more evidence (not less) when it comes to transcendent claims. We have already seen how powerful skepticism can be in the religious world in exposing frauds, whether it is Sathya Sai Baba using sleight of hand to produce a Shiva lingam out of his mouth or the Christian preacher, Peter Popoff, receiving hidden electronic transmissions from his wife informing him of the medical conditions of those attending Church. Believers in general want to believe and thus tend not to do the necessary investigations to determine whether a miracle has really occurred or not.

Let's see if I can get myself in even deeper hot water with a related issue concerning eliminative materialism and its practical application. There is a strange story in the New Testament, specifically in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 8: 23-34) concerning Jesus exorcising two demon-possessed men and then sending those demons into a herd of pigs:

Jesus exorcising two demon-possessed men
Jesus exorcising two demon-possessed men (Matthew 8: 23-24).
“When He arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met Him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 'What do you want with us, Son of God?' they shouted. 'Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?' Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, 'If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.' He said to them, 'Go!' So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they pleaded with Him to leave their region.”

The same story with a slight variation is also retold in the Gospel of Mark (Chapter 5:12) where the number of swine that drown is put at two thousand.

I mention this story because I wonder if all those pigs could have been saved if Jesus would have known more about neurology and biochemistry and instead of opting for a demon first explanation concerning those two violent men, he realized that they might be suffering from severe migraines that could be alleviated with two extra strength Excedrin or some other medical (read physically grounded) intervention. I don't think it is surprising to learn that even two thousand years ago when news spread about Jesus' actions and their deathly consequences that the whole town wanted him to leave.

My point is an obvious one: the more we understand about the body and its machinations, the less likely we are to believe in demons and other mythological deities. Whether we like it religiously or not, we have become practicing eliminative materialists to a large degree, even if such a posture contravenes are own philosophical posturing. Why? Because it is practical and it works for the most part.

Hence, in our pursuit for the transcendent, I see no reason why we shouldn't start with physics first. Simply put, it will end up saving us a lot of time so that we don't get snookered into confusing a magician's trick for a genuinely mystical occurrence.

My article on Karma has generated some heated responses and this is probably a good place for me to clarify the real intention of that acerbically entitled piece. If everything is connected in some intractable web, then it makes no sense (at least to me) to then extrapolate a single link from that chain and then say to someone (who just learned that his friend was dying from cancer, let's say), “well, that karma.” Why? Because in light of this theory, it is impossible to say what is “not” karma, except to pontificate about some religious belief system (ranging from Buddhism to Hinduism to Sikhism to Jainism—each of which have variations on the subject) and then pass judgments as if we actually knew the inner workings of the cosmos. One soon realizes that in talking about karma and its implications we end up having a theological discussion of this subject (and all that sadly goes with it), if we have to resort to such believer-laden statements as how the moral mechanism actually subtly works “can only be understood by a Buddha” or “all humans (except Buddha's) cannot attribute the outcome of a ripening of a karmic seed.”

The latter two quotes come from John Abramson and while I can sympathize with his feelings on the subject, there is no getting around the fact that we have devolved into theological speculations, especially if we are going to refer to Buddha who never penned a single word that survives to the present day and whose teachings were not codified until long after his demise. This is akin to talking about original sin with Christians.

The real point in the article about karma was not whether such a concept was universally true (we simply don't know that at this stage) but that it is nonsensical to use it to explain a single event when, in fact, there are no isolated incidents since there is an unfathomable complexity that precedes and exceeds any one event. That is why I wrote in the article, “Even if we accept the idea of karma and its apparent universal applicability, we can never truly discern any one thing as not karmic since the implication in Eastern philosophy and mysticism is that everything is karmically bound.”

Thus I am arguing against invoking karma theory as an explanation since it a priori implies that we know more than we actually do. John Abramson essentially agrees with my overarching point when he concedes, “you correctly point out that it is impossible to identify a specific cause of something that has occurred (e.g. breaking ones ankle)” but then goes on to suggest that karma theory is a coherent one and helpful in improving individual lives. He provides an analogy from caloric intake and the like to substantiate his position.

But, ironically, karma theory is completely superfluous to his conclusion that ”The exercise of at least some virtues tends to increase happiness.” One doesn't need karma theory to explain why certain behaviors lead to greater happiness. Certainly medical doctors don't invoke original sin or karma theory to explain why one should eat healthier foods.

So, again, I find karma theory nonsense in a very literal sense (sorry for the pun) since it entails a complete and unadulterated metaphysic that we simply don't have access to.

In light of this ignorance, I think we are much better off displaying a bit of humility (and less hubris) and instead of saying “well, that karma or that's sin” confess the obvious: “Shit happens and quite frankly it is beyond my pay scale to really know why.”

Or, to invoke a slightly bastardized reworking of a famous Meister Eckhart quote, “In order to find karma, I had to give karma up.”

Now, finally, I want to tackle John Abrahmson's first point concerning virtual reality and meditation. As a lifelong meditator I quite agree that meditational experiences are categorically different than virtual reality ones, especially as generated by Google Cardboard or Occulus Rift. I said that very clearly when I wrote,

“I, myself, have been a lifelong meditator and have practiced shabd yoga for over 40 years and though I am the first to admit that a meditative experience is different than a VR one, there is no question that they mirror each other in a number of ways and that in the near future it seems exceedingly obvious that anyone will be able to enjoy a simulated “astral” trip without resorting either to prolonged meditation or ingesting psychedelic drugs. And because VR is so easy and (here is a conscious pun) mindless, it will go viral throughout the human population, just as radio and television and the Internet have done before.”

Also, contrary to what John Abrahmson suggests, I am not arguing that VR should replace arduous meditational practice, but only that in a very “Atman-like” way it most likely will since, like the ease of taking drugs, it gives one a high without much effort. Keep in mind that my invocation of Ken Wilber's Atman Project was a conscious one, since Wilber rightly points out that we have a tendency to create substitutes (if easier) for difficult achievements or goals since they involve greater commitment and greater self-sacrifice.

I think meditation does indeed confer benefits that cannot (at least as far as I can see now) be achieved by simply donning a VR headset. That is why I spend two to three hours a day meditating and not a whole afternoon playing Valkyrie. Although I don't agree with John Abrahmson that meditation secures “precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance” as part of its process, I do think it can help in many other ways, including insight into how the mind operates and how we can access different states of awareness.

Let me end this article with a bow of appreciation to John Abrahmson for taking the time to read through some of my articles and provide me with his cogent commentary. It has been a great help to me to go through his arguments and I have benefitted from his insights, even if we may still have disagreements on how best to approach certain subjects.

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