What is Spirituality? - Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, (1/6)

By Thomas Metzinger

photo by David Martin Castan

Is there something like a logical core, an essence of the spiritual perspective? In the history of Western philosophy, the Latin term spiritualitas has three main meanings.  First, it has something like a judicial and cultural meaning—referring to the totality of spiritualia, which are the opposite of temporal institutions, or temporalia; spiritualia, accordingly, are clerical offices, the administration of the sacraments, jurisdiction, places of worship and cult objects, ordained persons such as clerics and persons belonging to religious orders.

The second meaning is the early concept of religious spirituality, which refers to different aspects of religious life and is the opposite of carnalitas, or carnality.

Third, there is a philosophical meaning of spirituality, which for centuries referred to the existence and ways of knowing immaterial beings. Here, the opposites are corporalitas and materialitas.

I do not, however, want to delve deeper into history, but rather first want to ask which understanding of spirituality might be shared by many of those people who describe themselves as spiritual today, in the Western world. The interesting fact is that after the Second World War, a kind of spiritual counterculture began to develop in Western countries, supported by people who pursue spiritual practice far away from churches and organized religions. Today, the most widespread form is probably mindfulness or “insight” meditation in the classical Buddhist Vipassanā tradition. This form of meditation is largely ideologically neutral to begin with, but there also exist completely secularized versions such as so-called MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction). In addition, countless other forms of meditation exist, many of which involve movement, such as yoga, which stems from the Hindu tradition, spiritual martial arts like the Chinese shadow-boxing Tai-Chi Chuan, or Kinhin walking meditation practiced in certain Zen-schools.

There are also newer forms of spiritual exercises in Christianity, for example in the tradition of St. Ignatius. Many of these practices are characterized by the idea that regular and rigorous formal practice serves as a basis for the gradual transformation of everyday life. We now have a first defining characteristic: Most contemporary, live, forms of spirituality are primarily concerned with practice and not with theory, with a particular form of inner action and not with piety or the dogmatic endorsement of specific beliefs.

“Spirituality”, then, seems to be a property, a particular quality of inner action. But what is the carrier of this property? One could say, for instance, that spirituality is a property of a class of conscious states, for instance of certain meditative conscious states. However, spiritual experience does not only aim at consciousness as such, but also at its bodily anchoring, at the subjective inner side of what in modern philosophy of cognitive science is called embodiment or grounding. The goal is always the person as a whole. For this reason, I want to conceptualize spirituality as a property of whole persons, as a specific epistemic stance. What does that mean? Episteme (ἐπιστήμη) is the Greek word for knowledge, science, or insight; “epistemology” is one of the most important disciplines of academic philosophy, namely the theory of knowledge, the acquisition of true belief and of gaining a reliable form of insight (which would be the most direct translation of the German Erkenntnistheorie, which literally means theory of insight). A stance is something that a person has in virtue of being directed at something, for instance in desiring to achieve a particular goal. One can say that having an epistemic stance involves being directed at a special kind of goal, namely at an epistemic goal, and that it involves the desire to attain knowledge. The spiritual stance, then, involves the desire for a specific kind of knowledge.

Spirituality is, at its core, an epistemic stance. Spiritual persons do not want to believe, but to know. Spirituality is clearly aimed at an experience-based form of insight, which is related to inner attention, bodily experience, and the systematic cultivation of certain altered states of consciousness — but the next step is already much more difficult. When you talk to people who pursue a spiritual practice, for instance with long-term meditators from the Vipassanā or Zen-tradition, it quickly becomes clear that the domain of knowledge, its associated objectives and epistemic goals, the sought-after forms of insight cannot be named in clear and distinct terms. These objectives partially overlap with those that used to be sought after by religions and traditional metaphysics, and, in particular, by the mystics. Frequently, they also involve something like an ideal of salvation; some call it “liberation”, others “enlightenment”. Typically, the sought-after form of knowledge is described as a very specific form of self-knowledge, suggesting that it is not only liberating, but also reflexively directed at the practitioner’s own consciousness. Roughly speaking, the goal is consciousness as such, attained by dissolving the subject-object structure and transcending the individual first-person perspective. 7  This goal is often related to the systematic cultivation of particular altered states of consciousness. If one reads the relevant literature, it quickly becomes clear that it is not only the representatives of different spiritual traditions who have been debating for centuries whether anything like a learnable form, method or technique of spiritual practice, that is, a systematic path towards attaining the relevant form of knowledge exists.

The same classical questions continue to be asked to this day: Is meditation as an example of spiritual practice, a method, or does it exactly involve letting go of all methods and goals? Does it involve effort or is it necessarily effortless? What does real progress consist in, how could one detect it, and are there any criteria for distinguishing illusions, delusions, and self-deception from genuine insight? There is a classical answer, which continues to manifest itself in different contexts: the criterion is ethical integrity, the sincere pursuit of a prosocial, ethically coherent way of life that is observable in a person’s actions. At the same time, almost nothing can be said about the relevant form of knowledge itself; it cannot be communicated linguistically or be argumentatively justified, and there is no widely accepted doctrine.

This is very little. Let us summarize: Spirituality is an epistemic stance of persons for whom the sought-after form of knowledge is not theoretical. This means that the goal is not truth in the sense of possessing the correct theory, but a certain form of practice, a spiritual practice. To take the example of classical meditative practice, it is a systematic form of inner action, which on second sight turns out to be a certain form of attentive non-action. The sought-after form of knowledge is not propositional, it does not involve true sentences. Because it also does not involve intellectual insight, the sought-after form of insight is not communicable by way of language, but at most can only be hinted at or demonstrated. On the other hand, it always remains clear that spirituality is not merely about therapy or about a sophisticated form of wellness, but that in a very strong sense, it concerns ethical integrity through self-knowledge, a radically existential form of liberation through insight into oneself; and it is also clear that in many traditions, this involves some kind of mental training and practice, an inner form of virtue or self-refinement. At the very beginning, then, there is an aspect of knowledge as well as a normative aspect, and this means that, in a very special sense, taking a spiritual stance on the world involves both insight and ethics. The spiritual stance is an ethics of inner action for the sake of self-knowledge.

an extract from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (this is part 1 of a 6 part series) 

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