In my life I've flown in both directions: toward mysticism as taught by gurus, and toward scientific understanding as taught by scientists. For a long time I felt like it was possible to meld the best of both worlds in an even-better combination.
Now, though, I feel like whatever mysticism claims to offer needs to be assessed from within the world of reality known to science.
Understand: I'm not saying that scientists are anywhere close to knowing what life, the universe, consciousness, and All That is all about. Mysteries abound. Maybe they always will, since it seems that most of the cosmos will forever remain outside the bounds of the space-time we humans inhabit.
However, I've become convinced that mystics who fail to embrace findings of modern science are even farther removed from knowing the truth about reality. Recently I blogged, "Spirituality without neuroscience is bullshit."
No longer is it possible for me to take claims seriously about how someone with an elevated consciousness can perceive the cosmos hugely more clearly than ordinary humans can.
Usually such claims are founded on a dualistic soul-body (or mind/soul-body) notion. That is, consciousness can be aware of reality without the confounding influences of the physical brain. Supposedly some form of "pure awareness" perceives things as they are, not as they seem to the rest of us unenlightened beings.
Actually, those who talk this way are deeply deluded.
Mystically-inclined dualists who posit consciousness as being separable from the human brain don't grasp a truth that neuroscientists have revealed: there is much more to awareness and perception than what is apparent.
Check out my "Brain's 'dark energy' casts doubt on pure awareness" for some of the reasons why this is so. Here's additional scientific thoughts on the subject that I came across today in my reading of Patricia Smith Churchland's fascinating "Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy."
On the general subject of dualism, Churchland in effect says: Show us what you've got, dualists; put up or shut up. But in a more courteous philosophical manner.
Dualism is implausible at this stage of our scientific understanding. In the business of developing an ongoing research program, dualism has fallen hopelessly behind cognitive neuroscience.
Unlike cognitive neuroscience, dualist theories have not even begun to forge explanations of many features of our experiences, such as why we mistake the smell of something for its taste, why amputees may feel a phantom limb, why split-brain subjects show disconnection effects, why focal brain damage is associated with highly specific cognitive and affective deficits.
In truth, dualism does not really even try. To be a player, dualism has to be able to explain something.
Look: I really want my consciousness to be separable from my brain. Most people do. This is why religion is so popular.
It promises an afterlife following bodily death. Even though all of the evidence is that a brain is necessary for consciousness now, supposedly after we die our soul flies off into heaven, or wherever, living on as an ethereal something-or-other.
Nice story. I wish it were true. But as Churchland says, it almost certainly isn't.
The brain makes us think that we have a self. Does that mean that the self I think I am is not real? No, it is as real as any activity of the brain. It does mean, however, that one's self is not an ethereal bit of "soul stuff."
But it is as real, for example, as the coherent neuronal activity that yields your capacity to walk or think about global warming or find your way back from a hike in the bush. Brain activity is an entirely real thing.
...Here, as elsewhere, scientific discoveries give us surprising new ways of looking at familiar phenomena. For brains, as well as for the stars, fire, and the heart, there is a reality behind the appearances, and the exciting thing is to figure out how to think about that reality in a way that improves upon the old ways.
In this century, modern neuroscience and psychology allow us to go beyond myth and introspection to approach the "self" as a natural phenomenon whose causes and effects can be addressed by science.
What I find fascinating is how mysticism and science basically have changed places.
Mystics used to be viewed as special people who have peeked behind the veil of appearances. Now, though, it is apparent that any dualistic form of mysticism which looks upon consciousness as being separable from the brain is very much caught up in the illusion of how the brain causes reality to appear to humans.
Evolution has produced this veil of appearances. Only science is able to pierce the veil. Churchland says:
But one might say, that is not how I am used to thinking of myself. Why would my brain lie to me? Think of it this way.
Fundamentally, your brain's task is to allow you to make your way in the world, and that means it needs to be able to make reasonably good predictions, and to make them in a timely manner. One's scheme of representational devices need not be the best possible in order to have practical and predictive value. It just needs to be good enough so that you can make a living, in the broadest sense of the term.
In particular, for most of the business of surviving on the planet, the details of how the brain actually works need not be explicitly known by the brain. ...For much of the business of everyday life, human brains can manage without such categories as "neuron," DNA, "electrical currents," and so on.
Lastly, I want to put another nail in the coffin of the belief in "pure awareness" or "perception without thought." This is one of those beliefs founded on the brain's ability to hide from conscious awareness what is going on behind the neuronal curtain.
It simply isn't true. Repeat: not true. There is no such thing as an experience unmediated by complex goings-on within the brain. Churchland tells us how it is:
The logic of the situation, however, is this: nothing follows about the metaphysical uniqueness of the mind from the existence of discriminable simples, i.e. judgments made without consciousness of the computational antecedents.
First, absolutely all knowledge involves some neural processing prior to conscious recognition that something is an X or a Y. This is so whether the cognition pertains to the mind or to the body, whether one is aware of a stimulus as hot or as lasting for seconds or as looming towards you.
There is no such thing as unprocessed perception.
...That one cannot articulate how the discrimination was made is simply explained by the fact that there is a vast amount of nonconscious neural activity to which one does not -- and perhaps cannot -- have conscious access.