What Is Spirituality?

An excerpt from the essay Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty
by Thomas Metzinger

At the end of  The Ego Tunnel, I said that in the historical transition that is just beginning, the biggest theoretical challenge may be the question “whether and how, given our new situation, intellectual honesty and spirituality can ever be reconciled”. This idea met with great interest. This essay can be read as an epilogue to the Ego Tunnel, as an explanatory afterword, but maybe also as a starting point for a completely new line of thought…

Can something like a completely secularized form of spirituality exist? Or is this idea perhaps incoherent—something that on second sight cannot be described consistently and without getting lost in obvious contradictions? This philosophical problem—the question about the inner structure, the conditions of possibility for a secularized form of spirituality—is so interesting and for many has come to be so important that we should approach it very carefully, and in small steps. For this reason, I want to ask three very simple questions: What is “spirituality”? What exactly is meant by the idea of “intellectual honesty”? And: Is there an inner connection between these two stances on the world and our own minds?

What is Spirituality?

Even though this is not a technical philosophical text, I still will to try to defend the following three theses.

1) The opposite of religion is not science, but spirituality.

2) The ethical principle of intellectual honesty can be analyzed as a special case of the spiritual stance.

3) In their purest forms, the scientific and the spiritual stance emerge from the same basic normative idea.

One could say 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 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…

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-refine-ment. 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…

Intellectual Honesty

Intellectual honesty means simply not being willing to lie to oneself. It is closely related to old-fashioned values such as propriety, integrity and sincerity, to a certain form of “inner decency”. Perhaps one could say that it is a very conservative way of being truly subversive. But intellectual honesty might at the same time also be exactly what representatives of organized religions and theologians of any type simply cannot have, even if they would like to make claims to the contrary. Intellectual honesty means not pretending to know or even to be able to know the unknowable while still having an unconditional will to truth and knowledge, even where self-knowledge is involved and even where self-knowledge is not accompanied by pleasant feelings or is not in accordance with the received doctrine…

Again, this involves moral integrity. It means that, as often as possible, one’s actions should be in accordance with the values one has adopted as one’s own—and it concerns the question of what one should believe in the first place. Adopting a belief as one’s own is itself an inner action, and one that it is possible from which to refrain. The spontaneous appearance of a belief is one thing, the active endorsement of this belief by holding on to it another. Aside from emotional self-regulation (the ability to purposefully influence one’s emotional state) and the ability to control the focus of attention, inner self-regulation also exists with respect to what one believes. Interestingly, infants only gradually learn to control their emotional states and the focus of their attention. But the kind of critical self-regulation involved in adopting beliefs as one’s own is something that even many adults are not proficient in and never fully master. Is it possible to enhance one’s autonomy, one’s inner freedom, by practicing and improving this particular type of self-control? This is exactly what is involved in intellectual honesty. And it is interesting to note that meditation aims to increase this very same kind of mental autonomy—namely, by cultivating a specific and effortless form of inner awareness. Meditation cultivates the mental conditions of possibility for rationality. It involves the inner ability to refrain from acting, the gentle but yet precise optimization of impulse control and the gradual development of an awareness of the automatic identification mechanisms on the level of conscious thought…

Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty

What does it mean to say that science and the spiritual stance developed from the same basic normative idea, from a shared ideal value? This was my third thesis at the beginning of this essay. We can now see that there are two aspects of this shared basic normative stance: first, the unconditional desire for truth—for insight, and not belief—and second, the normative ideal of absolute truthfulness towards oneself…

It is now clear that there are several bridges connecting spirituality with science. Most bridges can also be crossed in both directions. For this reason, I certainly do not want to exclude that, in the future, we might discover completely new paths, leading from scientific research on the human mind to more refined, more effective, or even deeper forms of spiritual practice. In the past, the latter originated in the former, because both are forms of epistemic action, of acting for the sake of knowledge. The shared goal is the project of enlightenment, of a systematic enhancement of one’s own mental autonomy. There are two fundamental forms of epistemic action: subsymbolic and cognitive, in silence and in thought—involving a specific form of effortless attention (perhaps paradigmatically exemplified in the classical tradition of mindfulness meditation) and, on the level of critical, rational thought, scientific rationality. But must we really decide between these two forms of knowledge? I think that the opposite is true: they can only be realized together in the first place. There is one ethics of inner action, one basic normative idea that lies at the basis of both a secularized spiritual practice and the scientific ideal of intellectual honesty. We have already seen that meditation cultivates the inner preconditions for critical, rational thought. It is particularly interesting to note that both stances also aim at improving the standards of civilization, as a social practice refined by the right form of inner action. Today, this inner connection could be investigated in much more detail with the means of modern cognitive and neuroscience, thus realizing the philosophical ideal of self-knowledge in a new guise, on a completely new level of precision and in fine-grained conceptual detail. But it can also be formulated in more traditional terms. There is, once again, an old-fashioned philosophical word for the ability and the inner stance that allows one to do what one has recognized to be good not just successfully, but perhaps even with inner affection and joy. This old-fashioned concept is “virtue”. So one can also say: Honesty in the relevant sense is an intellectual virtue that can be cultivated over time, just as the inner virtues of precise and gentle mindfulness or of compassion are mental abilities that can be actively acquired and continually developed. Therefore, all of this might not be about a new synthesis of spirituality and intellectual honesty at all. Instead, it might be about seeing what is already there: the inner unity of the mental virtues.

Thomas K. Metzinger is full professor and director of the theoretical philosophy group and the research group on neuroethics/neurophilosophy at the department of philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He is the founder and director of the MIND group and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies, Germany. Metzinger’s research centers on analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, philosophy of cognitive science, and philosophy of mind, and he is the author of Being No One and The Ego Tunnel.

[Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty is included as an afterword in many non-English versions of The Ego Tunnel, and it is available for free in English in its entirety here: Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty by Thomas Metzinger]





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*All of the excerpts on my blog are from books that have stayed with me for some reason—because the concept was awe inspiring, changed how I view the world, was beautifully expressed, or all three. ‎I personally curate all of the book excerpts and always obtain the author’s approval before posting their work on my blog.

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