As readers of this website may know, I am on a quest this year to try to understand how we know what we know and particularly how come good folks can differ so much on issues of politics and religion. Along that line, friend Dave Stang sent along the speech below he gave in 2007 in an attempt to school me on this subject.
(Also, see his Comment at the end of Articles of Interest.3)
May 16, 2007
Ways of Knowing Truth David P. Stang
If truth has meaning anymore, what is it? Many intellectual and well educated members of our society in government, industry, the professions and academia, who retain a serious interest in truth often appear to comprehend it as applying almost exclusively to two categories of concern: (1) concepts, hypotheses, theories and abstract ideas; (2) physical and economic facts, such for example — did the shipment meet our specifications or what is the bottom line?
The manner or method of addressing these two categories of concern in order to ascertain any relevant truths consists of applying two or three criteria or techniques. The first criterion is coherence of the argument, that is its logical structure. The assertion is scrutinized by testing whether it contains fallacies or non sequiturs, and whether it consists of logically persuasive arguments and is free of contradictions.
The second criterion is correspondence, that is how well does the verbal or written description correspond to the external reality about which it is asserting truth claims. Do the data and related facts support the conclusion?
These first two criteria are regarded as sufficient for the evaluation of propositions the subject matter of which is speculative or non-physical. But empiricist laboratory researchers believe for nearly all inquiries regarding physical or material objects or most known energy forms precise measurements are also required. That is measurements in combination with the utilization of the first two criteria. In these circumstances measurements are applicable to science, engineering, accounting and the like. Taken together these three interrelated methodologies are referred to as the empirically cognitive mode.
The truths that result from studies or investigations which employ any of the above three criteria have been touted as containing the following characteristics: they are wholly objective, totally impersonal, sterile, emotionally distant from us, unrelated to our character or being, unrelated to our daily behaviors and values, unrelated to our personal integrity, unrelated to our social conduct, unrelated to moral good or evil, in fact unrelated to any subjective aspect of our entire existence.
But being true to oneself — by the very nature of the undertaking — is wholly subjective: oneself evaluating oneself. Therefore, it is fair to question whether such a non-objective process can produce any knowledge of value or even begin to approach Truth? Those for whom empirical cognition is the sole pathway to truth would argue that subjectivity of any kind leads inherently to invalidity, uncertainty and self-delusion.
But the ancient Greeks made pilgrimages over twentyfive hundred years ago to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in order to consult the Pythian Priestess about their present and future personal concerns, an unquestionably subjective undertaking. The inscription on the Temple of Apollo stated, ‘Know Thyself.’ The Pythian Priestess or Oracle at Delphi was believed to speak only the truth.
Socrates, a visitor to the Temple of Apollo, as quoted in Plato’s Apology, advised a similar thing: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ or words to that effect. If these ancient Greek subjective, if not obviously mystical, approaches to Truth finding have any present validity, to whom can we turn for contemporary guidance on these matters?
In my opinion a book first published thirty years ago was quite seminal in the expansion of our comprehension of how truth beyond empirically cognitive knowing is perceived. The book’s title is The Spectrum of Consciousness. Its author is Ken Wilber. One almost unconscious and unquestioned assumption about how we perceived or discerned truth prior to publication of Wilber’s book was that we are only able
accurately and efficaciously to comprehend truth when we are functioning in the empirically cognitive mode. A similar belief was that the cognitive mode is the normal waking mind state of well-educated people and the only mind state that could be relied upon to deliver the unvarnished truth to us.
But Ken Wilber said no. There are many states of consciousness and we experience reality somewhat differently in each such state. Wilber acknowledged that scientific reasoning and responsible philosophical speculation do indeed occur in the empirically cognitive mode. He pointed out that there are also other mind states or states of consciousness in which people perceive, or are able to access, truths.
In his preface Wilber stated that the thesis of his book “… is, bluntly, that consciousness is pluridimensional, or apparently composed of many levels; that each major school of psychology, psychotherapy and religion is addressing a different level; that the different schools are not contradictory but complementary, each approach being more-or-less
correct and valid when addressing its own level. In this fashion, a true synthesis of the major approaches can be effected.”
All of these levels of consciousness, Wilber asserted, are components of a total spectrum similar to the spectrum of radiation ranging from light rays to x-rays. He could have also used as a metaphor the radio wave spectrum with simultaneous broadcasts occurring at multiple frequencies. A similar metaphor could have been lenses — from microscopes to telescopes — each lens exposes us to a different reality.
In Wilber’s contentions we see an echo in a new dimension of the value of a Liberal Arts education which was long-ago taught by Plato, one of Socrates’ disciples at the Academy in Athens. The more lenses through which we are able to view aspects of our existence — including our internal selves — the better and more comprehensive information we will be able to access. This remains to this day the justification for Liberal Arts studies.
Wilber opens his book with a quote from the American philosopher, psychologist and psychical studies scholar, William James, who declared: “Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the filmiest screens there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
It should be clear to us that Truth is multidimensional and truth is mediated through many different mind states. Without attempting to digest or encapsulate Ken Wilber’s or William James’ theories regarding the multidimensionality of consciousness, let us simply consider some examples of varying mind states or dimensions of consciousness that fit our individual frames of reference and experience.
Let us consider other common varieties of consciousness that rely less heavily or not at all upon empirically cognitive processes. There are many different ways of knowing, but we will only discuss a few of them. These include in descending order of empirically cognitive reliance:
(1) applied psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis;
(2) reflections on normative issues such as morality;
(3) matters of the heart;
(4) aesthetic experiences and awareness;
(5) meditation, breath work and other forms of spiritual questing.
How many of these lenses do you utilize? And which have produced real meaning for you? Let us briefly examine each of these modalities of consciousness one at a time.
In applications of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and in other patient-treating branches of psychology an agreed-upon goal is to facilitate the patient’s ability to tap into his unconscious mind whenever painful memories have been deeply repressed. The patient’s defenses tend to keep the door between the conscious and unconscious mind tightly shut, thus barring access by the patient’s conscious mind to his painful memories. Neither ‘willing’ that door to open or devising cognitively based commands to the patient to unlock that door himself are at all effective in relaxing the patient’s defenses. But there are unexplainable moments when the patient’s defenses slip or relax and the patient’s conscious mind in a mysterious flash obtains access to those buried, deeply repressed memories. Through such openings — as truth is revealed to the patient — emotional healing takes place.
Becoming a student of one’s own unconscious mind and its unconsciously generated dreams is an additional way to heal as well as broaden one’s depth of self-knowledge.
Searching for answers to questions involving right and wrong can also involve the utilization of modes of consciousness other than the empirically cognitive mode. It has been well established for centuries that the empirically cognitive mode is far better able to comprehend ‘what is’ than ‘what ought to be’. The latter type of question is known as a normative issue.
Normative questions such as those concerning moral issues have been explored by philosophers and theologians for millennia. The objects of such discussions — based on cognitive reasoning — pertain to the production of good and the avoidance of evil, and to how good and evil are defined. These criteria have been employed to determine whether an action is good or bad. Ethicists look at the likely result of the action or behavior in question. An example of this approach is the theory proposed by Immanuel Kant known as the categorical imperative. This asks what would be the result if everyone took the action in question. The deontological approach claims that certain actions are inherently wrong irrespective of their likely results. Others interpret right and wrong to have been determined by God, for example the Ten Commandments.
But normal, healthy minded people who have never read philosophy tend more often to make heart-based moral choices. On a day-to-day basis many such people determine what behavioral choices to make by listening to their conscience. Some adopt the Golden Rule which holds: do unto others what you would wish they would do unto you. Out of this heart-centered modality, rather than employing a strictly cognitive approach, they act lovingly and compassionately.
There are other heart-centered ways which combine knowing and loving. One way is to ‘know’ a lover in the biblical sense of that term. Yadah is the Hebrew word consisting of the letters Ayin, Dahlet and Yod. ‘Knowing’ a lover in the King James Bible sense of that word was not a prudish avoidance of the term sexual intercourse or shorter, more earthy versions of the verb to copulate. ‘Know’ in the King James Bible meant the kind of knowing that results not only from the sexual act — but from sustained intimacy — as a result of looking lovingly into each other’s eyes, eyes that are the window of the soul and learning — therefore knowing — the naked essence, character, soul and being of one’s lover.
That level of intimacy is so intense that in participating in it one comes to know one’s lover as oneself. That knowing is recognized as a soul entwined linkage of the couple which produces an awareness of that aspect of their inner-selves capable of experiencing a union of being. The quality of this connection and oneness of being transcends orgasm. Thus, the knowing extends beyond tactile sensation. It is also a joining of heart, mind and soul. At its deepest essence this is not unlike how a mother knows her infant and how the infant recognizes its mother — much in the way cow and calf know one another, mare and colt, ewe and lamb.
Although with respect to human beings this form of knowing contains a cognitive or discursive and sometimes introspective dimension, that aspect of the totality does not constitute its core. The core of knowing one’s lover in the biblical sense is learning to love selflessly which is knowing through giving love with the totality of one’s being. There is truth in this kind of knowing. This level of knowing another is similar to the mystical experience of knowing the Divine. When we experience the Divine at the very highest level that moment of unitive oneness
is not only an exhilarating experience, but awe inducing as well.
Lovers’ love and loving the Divine aside for a moment, there is also a wide variety of uplifting aesthetic experiences available to us. But, for the sake of illustration, let us consider two aesthetic subcategories: Nature and the Arts. Everyone has enjoyed sunrises and sunsets particularly in the mountains or at the seashore and other beautiful landscapes at any time of the day or during a moon-filled night. Such visual experiences delight the eyes and satisfy the soul. But at their peak these aesthetic experiences instill a profound and transcendent state of consciousness giving rise to a deep sense of relationship and interconnectedness between and among Creator, Creation and Self.
Connecting with, relating to and becoming at one with Nature can indeed be a mysteriously thrilling experience which transcends a visual awareness of ambient beauty alone.
The other day I visited a good friend who is very bright, holds a Ph.D. and whose cognitive reasoning is usually quite solid. Yet neither his doctorate nor his well-honed empirically cognitive skills constitute the core of his feeling vibrantly connected to Nature.
My friend took me out on his patio and asked me to sit very still. Then he went inside and came out with food for the birds, squirrels and chipmunks. As he sat down in his chair the birds dropped down from the trees, perched on his arms and wrists and ate the seeds out of his hands as well as those that had fallen to the patio floor next to his feet. Then the squirrels scampered down from the branches above and ate seeds out of the cup which my friend held firmly against the trunk of the tree.
After he had finished feeding the birds and the squirrels my friend noticed that a chipmunk had arrived on the scene. He poured some seeds into the palm of his right hand and sat down holding his hand about three inches above the patio’s red brick floor. The chipmunk headed straight for the hand holding the seeds then stopped dead in its tracks as he noticed my presence. My friend said to the chipmunk, ‘Don’t be afraid. He won’t hurt you. He’s just a spectator. Now come and eat your seeds.’ The chipmunk trotted over to my friend, rubbed his nose against his hand, then hopped up on my friend’s wrist and ate contentedly out of his hand. The little furry creature filled his mouth with seeds until his cheeks puffed out like little balloons. Then he hopped down and scampered over to the edge of the patio to masticate his mouth full of seeds.
Just then about seven or eight of the birds who had already eaten their fill landed on the fence at the edge of the patio chirping away as they looked down at my friend. Facing the birds he said, ‘Did you have a good feed?’ He then looked at me and said, ‘They have returned just for the company. They do it all the time.’
My friend told me that several days each week a wild Fox in his neighborhood walks to the edge of his patio while he is sitting in his chair. The Fox will simply stand there and look at my friend and he at the Fox. My friend told me that this communion with the wild animals means a lot to him. He said, “I really feel connected to these critters and they to me. I talk to them and they understand me. You can imagine what a transformational effect my experiences with these wild creatures has had upon me.’
It is difficult to separate a love of nature itself from the aesthetic enjoyment of gazing intently at any of nature’s manifestations — whether they include a broadly spanned landscape, a close-up view of wildlife or the appreciation of a single blossom.
We move on now to a Fine Arts sense of the aesthetic. The oil painter will be mesmerized by a landscape, feel connected to it and compelled to paint its vital essence he sees with his eyes and feels in his heart. Out of this process the artist’s canvas often comes alive and speaks to the inner eye and ear of the artist. Ask any accomplished fine arts painter and he or she will tell you that this is almost universally the case.
The novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet hears voices — the voices of characters they write about and the voices of the Muses who inspire them, just as composers hear, with their inner ear, delightful melodies which they transcribe into a musical score. Whether one is a creator within the realm of the Fine Arts or an aesthetically sensitive appreciator, both worship Beauty. They know and have experienced how transporting Beauty can be. This short focus on the Fine Arts has brought us to the aesthetic/spiritual interface.
We now transcend aesthetics and the five senses and consider another way of knowing.
Consider how the meditator learns to sit absolutely still and with the aid of disciplined breath work he allows all of his cognitive thoughts to blow by like clouds on a windy day. In the silence of his no-self enlightenment blossoms.
We have now entered the realm of spiritual knowing. When we males first step intently onto the spiritual path it is common to perceive the experience ahead as a great adventure — a conquest of sorts. Under such circumstances it is easy for us to tend to act as if our purpose is to locate and possess spiritual treasure in order to haul it home with us — much in the spirit of a big game hunter. He shoots and kills the animal whom he was tracking and questing after, then drags the dead carcass to a taxidermist and mounts the animal’s preserved head on his office wall.
But walking the spiritual path in search of enlightenment is not like being a big game hunter at all. One doesn’t return from the quest with God’s head in a bag ready for mounting. This is not only because there may not be any anthropomorphic bones in the body of the Divine. It is also because the most intimate knowing of the Divine transcends duality. This means that to experience at-one-ment with the Divine requires suppressing the egoself.
Accordingly, the object of walking the pathway of enlightenment is not to seize, capture and conquer either a piece of God or a chunk of so-called esoteric knowledge related to the nature of God. Rather, a valued prize of dedicated walking along the spiritual pathway can be the acquisition of a sense that at the core of our being we are connected to the Divine Spirit and that incomprehensible, unknowable Spirit lives and somehow expresses itself within, through, between and among us.
Another prize available from dedicated walking along the spiritual pathway is a contentment to live in the present moment filled with gratitude for the gift of incarnation and a feeling of compassion, empathy and graciousness for and toward everyone with whom we come in contact.
The gifts which come to us as we walk dedicatedly along the spiritual path are not gained by conquest, but through surrender. What is surrendered is the ego. What replaces the ego is a silent, centered, patient receptivity. Only in an egoless state of receptivity are we capable of receiving illumination and enlightenment.
When illumination and enlightenment descend upon us they often come — as the American poet Carl Sandburg put it — like fog, ‘on little cat feet’. The story of Saint Paul’s illumination recorded in the Book of Acts was that he got on his horse full of delusions, was hit with a lightning bolt of illumination and knocked off his horse aware of nearly every heavenly secret there was to know.
But that’s not the way it usually works. Illumination and enlightenment more often come in subtle little slivers gently touching our awareness causing us to recognize, ‘Yes, that’s how it is in this present personal moment in time.’
Illumination and enlightenment come on little cat feet to the poet part of our minds. Not to the computer-driven, data-collecting, fact-finding, empirically-bent, logic-chopping part of their minds.
The Light is a Divine Gift, not a negotiable commodity. Light is not
to be had on demand; light comes to those who patiently wait for it.
A paradox is that to receive the Light we must become still and receptive with zero attachment to whether our centered sitting results only in a moment’s serenity on whether it also sheds a glimmer of Light.
Only when the ego is in the inactive mode does the Light began to reveal itself. But an ego in remission is only a necessary condition for the Light to enter, not a sufficient condition. The nature of the Light-bringing Spirit is described in the book of John this way: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who was born of the Spirit.”
Light can manifest in many forms. Two of its most common manifestations are as Truth and as Beauty both of which we experience as perceptions. Another manifestation of Light is compassion or love which expresses itself through us. One way to understand compassion or love is that this action is in our heart and constitutes our soul’s response to Light. Put slightly differently, the Light triggers within us a compassionate and loving heart.
As we become more spiritually sensitive we are no longer able to perceive Truth and Beauty coldly with our discursively observing minds only as something apart from us that we objectively recognize. What happens instead is that Truth and Beauty lights a fire in our soul which stirs our heart to awaken and respond. A response is joy and also compassion. To an experienced sojourner along the spiritual pathway – where there is Light there is Love and the two fit together as part of the Divine Whole.
At the beginning of our discourse we were focusing on the nature and process of empirically cognitive knowing. Since then we have departed that realm to journey together into other more personal, more subjective, more sensitive ways of knowing. We can also refer to these experiences as modalities of consciousness.
What are the truths we can experience when we are participating in each of these various modes of consciousness?
The truth of the experimental laboratory method is scientific knowledge.
The truth of cognitive inquiry is validity, coherence and correspondence.
The truth of applied psychology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy is self awareness.
The truth of moral searching and normative reflection is justice, fairness and the common good.
The truth of the heart is compassion, loving service to others, also intimacy, tenderness and adoration.
The truth of aesthetics and nature is a consciousness-altering beauty, poetic insight and a sense of being deeply connected to what was once perceived by us to be ‘other’.
The truth of meditation, breathwork and spiritual questing is serenity, illumination, enlightenment and a sense of oneness with the Divine.
The truth of all these pathways combined and integrated is wisdom which refuses to dwell solely in a modality that always distinguishes self from other, but which instead more often perceives Self as connected to Other.
The essence of how efficaciously to transform ourselves from new initiates of the Spiritual Pathway into a full-fledged truth seekers, truth lovers and truth doers is to recognize that only some truths are objective, dry, distant and impersonal. For truth seeking and truth loving to become more richly meaningful to us we need to know that Truth is mediated not only through our cognitive processes but throughout our entire spectrum of consciousness. Accordingly, each of the non-cognitive aspects of our consciousness is also a pathway to its own type of truth.