After writing yesterday's post on Spiritual Materialism, I was reminded of another critic of spirituality, Geoffrey Falk, who was once a long-time member of Swami Yogananda's Spiritual Realization fellowship, later became involved in Ken Wilber's integral movement, and has ended up an incisive if increasingly rabid critic of both, and even all things mystical. He wrote a well-received online book called Stripping The Gurus, in which he rather scathingly indicts many well known figures on the spiritual circui. It is worth reading as a kind of mental vaccine for anyone considering getting involved with any teacher or Guru. It's not a wholly convincing argument in my view, but its arguments are worth considering in any case. Many people find Falk's manner offensive and unnecessarily personal. I rather enjoy his style, but I must admit he uses a rather broad and heavy brush to cover over a great many subtleties he seems to wish didn't exist in this field of spiritual criticism. Even so, many of the objects of his criticism are well-deserving of some critical attention, a thing not much cultivated in the public world of spirituality these days.
The downside of Falk's arguments, I find, is the same bias towards materialism that is visible in Jody's Guruphilliac website as mentioned yesterday. Falk is even more materialistic than Jody, however, and seems to have the zeal of a convert to the cause. Of course, he also has the virtue of knowing what he's talking about, when it comes to scientific matters at least. His take-down of Wilber's evolutionary mysticism is quite on the mark, for example. And his explorations of the neurological correlates to mystical experience are also grounded in solid science. He takes the findings of neurology and science as indicating that there is no truth at all to mystical experience, and that we can safely categorize virtually all such things as forms of either brain damage or psychosis, which in essence are the same thing.
I've followed neuroscience for a long time, and I'm always happy to learn more about it. Falk's blog, which is an often amusing read, frequently delves into these matters, as in two entries from October 10-11, 2007, readable in whole in his archives, but not directly linkable. You will have to scroll down to the appropriate dates. I was particularly interested to find this passage, which relates to the Cosmic Vision I described in a previous post:
Subject: White Light October 10, 2007
From Chapter 22 of Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi:[God] eventually appears to the persistent devotee in whatever form he holds dear. A devout Christian sees Jesus; a Hindu beholds Krishna, or the Goddess Kali, or an expanding Light if his worship takes an impersonal turn.
From Clay Stinson's (1997) Open Letter to Ken Wilber:[T]he sustained "white light" experience, or "entering into the light" through meditation, is a form of what neuroscientists call cortex disinhibition—the random firing of neurons in the brain. This random firing, in turn, stimulates the visual cortex producing these lights and luminosity's fanatical mystics and zealous meditators talk about. Moreover, the greater the number of neurons firing, the greater is the intensity of the white light. Quantitatively put, with few neurons randomly firing, all one sees during meditation is a small circle of white, to bluish-white, light. With a moderate number of neurons randomly firing, one sees, during meditation, a moderately large circle of light. With all or most of the neurons randomly firing, one sees a circle of light so large, brilliant, and luminous that it literally engulfs the field of vision during the meditation session. The mistake, here, of mystics, meditators, spiritual "masters," and Near Death Experiencers is to identify the "neural noise" or "white light experience" for God, Self, Mind, "mystical realization," satori, etc....As a measure of how far I've come in the past three years, i.e., since the time when I took parapsychological and mystical claims completely seriously: I agree with everything Stinson wrote in that piece, including its obvious (and valid) "reductionism."
[S]o-called mystics, meditators, and spiritual "Masters" with the "big realizations" are suffering from various species of (i) brain damage, (ii) epilepsy, (iii) psychosis, (iv) schizophrenia, and (v) debilitating depersonalization disorder, or (vi) some combination of these five.
I also really like the "tone" of it. :)
Note also that a "small circle of white light" is effectively a vision of an "internal sun," providing a neurophysiological basis for the "sun symbols" found throughout our world's mythologies, beyond mere exoteric "sun worship."
The finding that “With all or most of the neurons randomly firing, one sees a circle of light so large, brilliant, and luminous that it literally engulfs the field of vision during the meditation session,” is very interesting in relation to this vision of a circular “Cosmic Mandala” of lights stretching all the way to the periphery of one's vision, with a white light in the center surrounded by bluish light, and gold on the outside. That's certainly a fairly accurate representation of what I saw in my vision, as well as what Yogananda saw, and Adi Da as well. The question then is, what does this mean? Falk takes the materialistic view that it means these views are simply the result of the brain acting in an excited state, brought on by various intentional methods, or merely random happenstance. He seems to think this discounts or reduces such experiences to deviant brain phenomena.
The problem with this view is that the same data can be just as easily argued in support of mystical experience as being real. It would suggest that there are, indeed, ways in which the brain can reflect experience that is beyond the merely physical, if it is put into a state in which the normal sensory inputs from the physical world are interrupted, and different forms of processing are used by the brain. It even suggests that the structure of the brain itself can be seen as a reflection of these greater-than-the-physical patternings of consciousness. In other words, this “Cosmic Mandala” may be very much real, and the fact that the brain can be made to see it in certain states may simply reflect that even the brain itself is built upon a higher physics which enables us to process and recognize these higher perceptions.
The more obvious point that Falk seems to miss is that the main message of neuroscience is that ALL of our perceptual experience, physical and mystical, is a construct of the brain. Or at least, that it all perceptions are processed and created in the brain out of whatever inputs exist, and thus what we call “ordinary reality” is just as much a brain phenomena as mystical experience. The question of deviant phenomena arises only in relation to whatever brain phenomena we have come to except as “normal”. But we must always be reminded that what we call “normal” is itself a construct of the brain and nervous system that is subject to constant alteration and interpretation, and is composed of a great many “false perceptions” and assemblages of data that don't make real sense. It is often familiarity alone that allows us to “make sense” of or experience, and the problem there is that familiarity with an illusion of the brain can be just as convincing as anything we might call “real”. This is the real reason why religion is so full of nonsense – because our brains tolerate a tremendous amount of nonsense, and even seem to require it. So the problem isn't confined to religion at all. The whole gamut of human experience is guided by brains that lie to us all the time. This is where real skepticism and criticism should lead us.
Deconstructing our experience in toto is not a terribly reassuring process. The contributions of neuroscience here are immense, but they do not lead to materialistic conclusions, in my view. Rather, they lead to the conclusion that the snake is biting his own tail. That our entire materialistic view is itself merely a construct of the material brain, and that materialistic logic is a vicious circle that cannot find a solid foundation upon which to rest. It not only requires faith in material reality that cannot be confirmed, it requires faith in our own reasoning power that is dependent on a brain that can't be relied upon to tell us what is real.
The alternative to materialism is not plain old religious or mystical faith, however. The critique of neuroscience can't be dismissed so easily. We do have to recognize that even spiritual mysticism has no absolute foundation. It too is in essence subjective, it is merely an infinite subjectivity, rather than a reductionist subjectivity. And that is not genuinely consoling or satisfying either.
But at least with spiritual mysticism we are dealing with an open universe, rather than a closed one, and this alone is a good argument in its favor. We can't dismiss the relationship between mysticism and brain phenomena, but we can reject the notion of reducing it to merely that. Even so, we have to consider that because all mystical experience is indeed filtered through the brain, it is changed and modified to suit the brain's capabilities. Which means that mystical experience is inherently unreliable, and probably even more so than physical experience. We have to admit, I think, that our brains our better designed and formulated to process physical experience than mystical experience, which I think is why so much of our mystical experiences are chaotic, discontinuous, in conflict, and contaminated by personal and structural biases.
One theory I'd give credence to is that one of the primary purposes of the large and advanced brains that human beings possess is to filter out mystical and non-physical experience. This gives us a tremendous advantage in many basic respects, in that we are able to reduce the world to its physical dimensions, and thereby work with the physical world in a way that most other creatures cannot. The downside of this is that when we do experience mystical or even subtle realities, we don't know how to deal with them. Our brains literally don't know what to do, other than repress the experience, or discard the data. In some respects this helps us, but in others it represents a real liability, and can become a runaway train of reductionism that leads to much misery and isolation. The problem here is the notion that such reductionism is itself “real” rather than just a particular evolutionary path our brains have taken that does not reflect reality itself, but merely what works for human beings as creatures trying to survive and prosper in the physical world.
The problem with this evolutionary path is that it can actually reduce our chances of survival in the long run. Just as the strangeness of evolution can produce peacocks with massive tails that serve no use whatsoever, other than that female peacocks like them, our brains can produce an overabundance of wiring that suppresses the mystical simply because we find temporary satisfaction in that. It has certainly allowed us to vastly increase our numbers and dominance of the planet in the short run, but in the long run this same tendency could lead to our extinction, in so far as insensitivity to what we are doing on the spiritual level can make us oblivious to the damage we are doing not just to the planet, but to ourselves, in the process. Which is why I think these modern spiritual movements aimed at gaining greater spiritual and mystical experience of the world are essentially positive, in spite of the tremendous number of illusions generated in the process. I see an evolutionary correction happening, in which the motion towards reductionism is being refined by greater sensitivity to and understanding of the subtle and mystical. I think the structures of our brains are learning to adapt to mystical experience in a way that can often be quite positive. It can of course also be quite negative, as more than a few examples show. But evolution is always a messy and imprecise process.
I should mention that I'm not really referring to genetic evolution here, or even merely cultural evolution. I am referring to the evolution of human consciousness, which isn't precisely defined by either category. In other words, genetics alone does not define how people think, or even how brains work. Genetics certainly plays a huge part, but it only sets the table, it does not tell us what to eat and how to go about choosing what to eat. The brain itself is not defined by genetics. Rather it is in a constant process of growth and adaptation. Probably the greatest discovery of modern neuroscience is that the brain is not a fixed piece of hardware that is set in place once we have grown up. Quite the contrary, it is capable of a great deal of on-the-fly adapation. These can be affected in all kinds of ways, from behavior modification to spiritual techniques to diet and exercise to environmental factors. Brain imaging studies show remarkable adaptivity at every level, and the possibility of enhancing this process is growing the more the brain is studied. All of these processes can be seen as a meta process of the evolution of human consciousness, occurring at all levels, including the physical.
One other excert from Falk's blog is worth looking at:
I've just finished reading Newberg and d'Aquili's (2001) intriguing book Why God Won't Go Away. From which:Research reveals that repetitive rhythmic stimulation ... can drive the limbic and autonomic systems, which may eventually alter some very fundamental aspects of the way the brain thinks, feels, and interprets reality. These rhythms can dramatically affect the brain's neurological ability to define the limits of the self. (p. 79)
If those rhythms are fast—in the case of Sufi dancing, for example, or in the frenzied rites of Voudon—the arousal system is driven to higher and higher levels of activation....
As a result, certain brain structures are deprived of the normal supply of neural input on which they depend in order to perform their functions properly.
One such structure is the orientation association area—the part of the brain that helps us distinguish the self from the rest of the world and orients that self in space—which requires a constant stream of sensory information to do its job well. When that stream is interrupted, it has to work with whatever information is available. In neurological parlance, the orientation area becomes deafferented—it is forced to operate on little or no neural input. The likely result of this deafferentation is a softer, less precise definition of the boundaries of the self. This softening of the self, we believe, is responsible for the unitary experiences practitioners of ritual often describe.
They later give similar plausible explanations for the meditative origin of a "subjective sense of absolute spacelessness, which might be interpreted by the mind as a sense of infinite space and eternity; or conversely, as a timeless and spaceless void.... There would be no discrete objects or beings, no sense of space or the passage of time, no line between the self and the rest of the universe. In fact, there would be no subjective self at all; there would only be an absolutely sense of unity—without thought, without words, and without sensation. The mind would exist without ego in a state of pure, undifferentiated awareness." (p. 119)
This, too, is something that Falk likes to interpret as demonstrating that even the mystical experience of “no self” or “egolessness” is simply the result of a deviantly functioning, or malfunctioning, brain. However, the real point seems to be the opposite. That the sense of “self” we take for granted throughout the day, and even in dreams, is itself merely a construct of the brain, and if that aspect of the brain which constructs a self is not there, neither is this so-called self. It suggests then that what is experienced by mystics is simply an absence of an artificial construct – in other words, a more genuinely pure experience of reality than the brain normally saddles us with. This may well be the case with all kinds of mystical experiences. Their relation to brain “malfuction” may merely be that when the brain is no longer processing sensory input in its accustomed fashion, we get a glimpse of what the world might look like to us when it is not so heavily processed by the brain – a more raw and more “real” perceptual experience, even one that is no longer saddled by the conventions of objective perception. Hallucinatory drugs have a long history of being used in this manner, and it may well be that they function not by “adding” anything to our experience, but by “subtracting” aspects of the brains processing of our experience, giving us a more raw and unfiltered experience of reality. However, the devils are always in the details, and the fact that both drugs and mystical experiences are processed by a brain at all indicates that we are always experiencing a mixture of the two, and how they mix together is always hard to predict, and decipher.