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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 Magical Mystery Tour of Matter

It is Never "Just" Stuff

David Lane

“I'm a mystical agnostic materialist. What it means is that I ultimately don't know
—David Lane, 1995.

Back in the Fall of 2010 my wife, Andrea, and I were asked to be one of the plenary speakers at an international conference called SPIRCON (Spiritual Consciousness Studies), which was being held at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India. We very much wanted to attend but our youngest son, Kelly, was only four years old at the time and we realized that it would be better to wait until he got older to make such a long trip. So instead we decided to produce a two-part movie and write an extended essay entitled, “Mysterium Tremendum: Exploring why the conflict between science and spirituality is trapped in a linguistic conundrum.” It was published on Integral World that same month and year and later included in a book (along with a number of other essays by scholars in Asia and North America) printed in India entitled, Spiritual Consciousness (New Delhi: New Age Books, 2013).

Spiritual Consciousness

The underlying thesis of both the film and the essay was that matter is a term that is too often misunderstood and because of this has led far too many religionists to assume that it is one-dimensional, flat, grey, and completely devoid of mystery. Our argument is that matter is the complete opposite of that misleading caricature. Rather, matter (etymologically speaking the word has various originations, but my favorite is from the Latin “mater: origin, source, mother.”), though understood hierarchically and in multifarious ways, is ultimately a profound mystery at its base which invites us on a magnificent adventure to explore its almost infinite array of complex and intersecting components. I think a pun I often used in my upper division Science and Religion courses at California State University, Long Beach captures the essence of why we shouldn't be scared or dismissive of the physicalist quest: “If we are just matter, what then is the matter?”

Simply put, saying something is “just” matter makes absolutely no sense, since there is nothing “just” about it. Do we say light is just light or consciousness is just consciousness? No, because we realize that in each case we are confronting something that is wholly mysterious, even if we can understand differing aspects about it.

I mention all of this as a necessary preface to Steve Taylor latest essay, “Beyond Belief: When Science Becomes A Religion (A response to Lane and Visser.”), which I enjoyed reading and which I believe outlines his position clearly and succinctly. Taylor has given us a cogent presentation that is worthy of closer analysis. Even though I disagree with much of what Taylor writes, I think the reason we appear to be arguing at opposite ends of the spectrum may be due, in part, to a definitional confusion which underpins and, at times, undermines our discussion.

Elements in Samkhya philosophy
Elements in Samkhya philosophy

For instance, after our talk was aired in India, I was a bit startled to learn that it was quite well received, even by those who I had wrongly suspected would be most resistant to it. Only later when P. Sriramamurti, the distinguished Professor of Sanskrit and Editor of Spiritual Consciousness, personally visited me at my office at Mt. San Antonio College did I realize the reason why. Professor Sriramamurti explained to me that there is a variant interpretation of Prakriti, usually translated as “nature” or “primary substance,” which instead of being seen as the opposite of Purusha (“pure consciousness”) is rather viewed as one, unified whole. In the dualist, Samkhya school of thinking, Prakriti represents the feminine/matter facet and Purusha represents the masculine/soul/consciousness aspect. The former is the substrate of the latter and is often viewed “as [the] essential constituent of the universe and is at the basis of all the activity of the creation.” Prakriti is sometimes aligned with the concept of Maya which is often understood in Buddhism as “the power by which the universe becomes manifest,” though it is most commonly used today to represent “illusion” or “that which betrays its real origin.”

Professor Sriramamurti argued that matter and spirit are better understood as two ends of one rope and though they appear quite distinct they are, in truth, just different ways of understanding the universe. So, from his perspective, which dovetailed with mine, the real conundrum was definitional since the deeper we explore material objects the more we will see their intrinsic majesty. We have, of course, already seen this to be the case with the strange and mysterious world of quantum mechanics.

Therefore, I don't see why we have such a resistance to fully exploring all that we see, hear, touch, and feel physically first since matter itself has so many permutations at varying levels of momentum and position that have yet to be unearthed. We are like sailors who have just left port at Huntington Harbour to explore the vastness of the Pacific Ocean but who get as far Catalina island (just 26 miles away) and set anchor down saying among themselves that there is nothing else to see. Such voyaging, of course, doesn't preclude anyone else from embarking on a different journey with a different set of tools.

The crux of Steve Taylor's argument, at least as how I read it, boils down to what I believe is an unnecessary dualism when he writes,

  • “Life did not come into being through the accidental interactions of certain chemicals, but as the result of the innate tendency of the universe—propelled by consciousness itself—to move towards greater complexity. At a certain point, when material entities reached a certain degree of complexity, they became able to receive and transmit universal consciousness. This was when life began.”

I suggest that we simply don't know the ultimate reason of why the cosmos is as we find it (especially in light of such concepts as multiple universes, holographic event projections, and computer simulated models, ad infinintum) and that as explorers we should keep on seeking. I have noticed that one of the fundamental differences between traditional religion and science is that the former claims to already know the truth (whether it is revealed in the Christian Bible, the Muslim Koran, or Eckankar's Shariyat Ki Sugmad), whereas the latter starts from the position of unknowing and because of this wants to know more.

I am ontologically ignorant about whether the universe is an accidental one (to cite Alan Lightman's pithy title from one of his most readable books), a virtual simulation created by alien friends of Elon Musk who he has yet to formally meet, or a bizarre experiment run by a punk teenager who has nothing else to do in his own private parallel universe. Yes, we can know many things (such as how to make a car, build skyscrapers, and bake vegan chocolate cakes), but at this stage in human development and cognition it is the height of folly to believe that we have even touched the surface of all that can be known physically about what surrounds us and what makes us tick.

Therefore, saying something is a matter of focus (and that science is mostly a practical endeavor) shouldn't be confused with a metaphysical end game. We are nowhere near knowing what matter is and what it can portend under different conditions. No need to jump the gun here and say, “well, since science has yet to explain NDEs, so-called psychic phenomena, and qualia” we should abandon ship. Geez, we have barely touched the surface of what physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology has in store for us. Let these pioneers keep voyaging and working. No one is blocking Consciousness first advocates of launching their own spiritual junkets. Let each of them bring back their bounties and we can compare riches.

I find it a bit too revealing and a bit too ironic that Steve Taylor's list of how the universe actually operates is dogmatic to the core when he can (without caveats) list the following as “tenets” of his spiritual science.

  • “Life did not come into being through the accidental interactions of certain chemicals, but as the result of the innate tendency of the universe—propelled by consciousness itself—to move towards greater complexity. At a certain point, when material entities reached a certain degree of complexity, they became able to receive and transmit universal consciousness. This was when life began.
  • Evolution is not an accidental process. Once life forms had come into existence, evolution was impelled by the innate tendency of consciousness to generate greater complexity. More complex life forms enabled universal consciousness to express itself more intensely, manifesting itself as individual consciousness.
  • Rather than being just biological machines, human beings are, both mentally and physically, expressions of spirit, or fundamental consciousness.
  • As the previous point suggests, our individual consciousness—our subjective or inner life—is not generated by the brain. It is a fundamental universal quality, which our brains 'receive' and canalise into our individual being.
  • Mental phenomena cannot be reduced to neurological activity. There may be correlations between mental and neurological activity, but there is certainly not a one-way causal link. Neurological changes can affect mental experience, but mental experience can also bring about neurological changes.”

In re-reading Taylor's tenets, I must confess that I am duly impressed that he has already figured out exactly the purpose of life, the universe, and self-reflective awareness. I don't have such axiomatic beliefs, contrary to what he has impugned about me and others of a certain scientific bent. No, I am still in the hunt to know as much as I can and I have found that a good way to derive more, not less, information about the cosmos is by studying it physically first, even if I meditate in a Ramana-like fashion (e.g., “find the source of where the 'I' arises, etc.”) two to three hours daily.

Where my quest will end is both uncertain and unknown to me. Thus, before we castigate those who look for empirical causes and correlations and belabor their targeted efforts, we should be aware that they may not be as dogmatic as we mistakenly believe. Because any scientist worthy of that appellation will be the first to confess how little they do indeed know. Richard Feynman gave a beautiful and telling analogy about the humility of genuine scientists when he explained in a televised interview the following:

“When you're thinking about something that you don't understand, you have a terrible, uncomfortable feeling called confusion. It's a very difficult and unhappy business. And so most of the time you're rather unhappy, actually, with this confusion. You can't penetrate this thing. Now, is the confusion's because we're all some kind of apes that are kind of stupid working against this, trying to figure out [how] to put the two sticks together to reach the banana and we can't quite make it, the idea? And I get this feeling all the time that I'm an ape trying to put two sticks together, so I always feel stupid. Once in a while, though, the sticks go together on me and I reach the banana.”

Feynman further added that

“The scientific spirit [is one] of adventure—the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it—the humility of the intellect.”

If I compare Feynman's approach to those of Taylor's tenets, I see a fundamental difference in their arcs. Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the last century, doesn't start out with inviolate axioms, but compares himself with an ape trying to reach a banana and is doing his level best to do so. Does this very approach mean that he only studied physics to the exclusion of all else or that his materialist bent discouraged him from studying Uri Geller, or experimenting with psychoactive drugs, or taking weekly plunges in Dr. John Lilly's deprivation tanks, or experiencing out of body experiences? Not in the least, since he did all these things and more.

Let me say here that I do appreciate Steve Taylor's continued efforts to explain his philosophical position which he has done with great clarity and skill. I commend him for being forthcoming in articulating why he disagrees with me and Frank Visser and our respective purviews. While it is obviously clear that I don't agree with his unequivocal tenets as posted in his essay, I have enjoyed thinking through these issues with him and others.

In conclusion, this may be a good time to reiterate my own philosophical leanings since Steve Taylor has been so refreshingly transparent in his. I was once asked by Dodie Bellamy, the noted fiction writer from San Francisco, who interviewed me for a cover story on Eckankar in San Diego back in 1995[1], about my overall philosophy on life to which I gave the following reply,

“Dave, what do you believe?”

“I'm a mystical agnostic materialist. What it means is that I ultimately don't know. And in my unknowingness, I like to explore how much more I don't know.”

“Is this a scary position?”

“I love it. I love unknowingness.”

Nowadays, I tell my philosophy and sociology students on the first day of class, “I didn't know much when I was two; I didn't know much when I was 22; and I still don't know much now that I am 62. The only real difference between then and now is that I can articulate my own stupidity much better.”

That is my metaphysical pathos.

So, I look forward to any return volleys that may come this way in our intellectual game of “to and fro.” I may not necessarily always agree or I might even give a sterner pushback, but I always learn more from those who have differing voices and differing ideas than my own.


[1] Dodie Bellamy, "The fraud that is Eckankar: Hi Fubbi, this is Gakko",, June 22, 1995, Page 12.

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