Understanding Evidence & Reason in Spiritual Naturalism
Naturalists can be found in many places extolling the value of reason and evidence so this will not be a redundant preaching to the choir. What I hope to do differently here includes two things: (1) to highlight how our naturalist understanding of the world leads to, or relates to, the importance of reason and evidence; and (2) to explain why reason and evidence is not the ‘end-all, be-all’ of Spiritual Naturalism or our spiritual practice.
Evidence and Reason are two things we use to determine what is real or true. Basic physical evidence is simply raw fact and doesn’t quite get us to broad applicable conclusions of the world by itself. It must be gathered in a reliable way, assessed rationally, and then processed with reason in order to provide a picture of the world.
Our evidence is rarely complete, and we are imperfect at gathering it accurately. And, when it comes to processing it with our reason, we can make many mistakes and fail to comprehend. So, using reason and evidence to glimpse reality is an imperfect process with a lot of pitfalls. But it is the best process we have found so far for coming to reliable, repeatable, conclusions about the objective world – conclusions that display their veracity by the fact we can take actions and craft things in accord with them which are effective. But because this approach is imperfect and limited, we have to proceed with humility and take careful precautions to help ensure we are not overstating or missing things. Most importantly, all conclusions must be provisional and open to revision based on continual looking and learning. There are many such humble yet rational people in the world. But what even they miss will be addressed later.
For now, I would like to explore why naturalists use evidence and reason as a means to gain knowledge about the world. We could go into the history of these ideas with respect to Western civilization and the Enlightenment, or the history of ideas in the East. But here I will keep things general and conceptual.
Many people don’t realize that these two pillars of knowledge are derived directly from our view of what the universe, or reality, is. The two traits that define reality as naturalists see it are: (1) It is monistic, and (2) it operates according to natural law. Our use of evidence derives directly from the implications of monism, and our use of reason derives from the implications of natural laws.
Without getting too technical, there are varieties of ‘monism’. But simply put, like many ancient Greek philosophers, we view the universe as One. That is, it is one integrated whole. All of its parts are interconnected and interdependent, with nothing ‘transcending’ or ‘super’ to nature. At least, not the parts we can observe and cross-verify with one another. So, it’s not that things outside Nature aren’t possible – it’s just that we simply don’t base our perspectives, principles, or practices off of them or found our spirituality upon things we can’t claim to know*. This holistic view of reality is also generally consistent with the Vedic metaphor of Indra’s Net in ancient India and the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness.
The reason why our use of evidence is derived from interdependence is because this creates a chain of consequences for every state of being or event in a system. In other words, if something is true, or an event happens, it should leave behind results of that happening or states which can be observed and traced back to its cause. Anything outside this interconnected web in which we find ourselves would not leave evidence that we could reliably use to make statements about it. So, the reason we do not include these things in our spiritual practices is not necessarily because reality is limited, but because – in either case – we are limited.
Natural Law, or the laws of physics, are really quite an astounding thing to consider. Heraclitus spoke of the Logos – that is, the underlying rational order by which the universe operates, and he said Nature’s complex transformations were like a kindling in an ever-living divine fire. Some later thinkers would associate the rational operation of the universe with a reasoning mind like ours, which played into concepts of personified deities (eventually the Christians used ‘Logos’ to mean ‘the word of God’). But it is clear to us today that the universe does operate rationally, in that its motions can be examined, understood, and described.
Buddhist causality (see pratītyasamutpāda), or dependent origination, also describes how events take place in the world because of prior causes. This may seem a rudimentary statement to us today, but in ancient times when so much was not understood about nature, this was an impressive and crucial achievement. People didn’t need to fear that a storm or illness was because they were displeasing the gods or spirits. Neither did people need to think that their lot was entirely up to chance.
The fact that things happen for a reason and because of causes means that we can work to understand those causes and take action to change them. Centuries before the beginning of the Enlightenment, these concepts would open the door to the use of reason to solve problems. This is why our use of reason derives from the fact that the universe operates in predictable, understandable ways. Given that our brains evolved in such a system, for dealing with our environment, the notion that our own rational capacity is a ‘spark’ of that divine fire operating throughout the cosmos is not wholly off base.
Discerning what ‘reason says’ from what ‘we say’
The problem that arises when many naturalists discuss evidence is that they tend to focus on what everyone else is doing wrong. We too often use it as a tool to criticize others, or to dismiss them or their beliefs. To so many, the paramount issue is ‘being right’.
Walter: “Am I wrong!?”
The Dude: “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole!”
— The Big Lebowski
The Spiritual Naturalist approach, however, is to take to heart what Gandhi said about being the change you wish to see in the world, and what the Stoics recognized – that the only thing we truly control is our own values, character, and choices. Our spiritual practice thus reminds us to turn toward ourselves and trust that humility and our living example will be a better testament and inspiration than offense and debate. But, importantly, understanding this is about more than merely ‘public relations’. We sincerely need to reassess the role, emphasis, and place of reason in our hearts and minds as naturalists.
Limitations of the rational faculties
“Logic is the beginning of wisdom… not the end.”
— Mr. Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
All good scientists and rational people understand the limitations of reason and evidence. As naturalists we cannot use those limitations as an excuse to make unjustified claims. But what we can recognize is that the human mind is vastly more complex, diverse, and subtle than merely a tool for conducting formal logical operations. Active conscious reason is an important tool we possess, but there are many things far too subtle, vast, or complex for our conscious rational processes to handle.
For example, ask any athlete what they are thinking about during their most complicated or vigorous actions and they will report a kind of thoughtless flow. Undoubtedly, the brain is making many incredibly complex real-time ‘calculations’ for lack of a better word. But these operations lie beyond that subset we refer to as the rational tools we use to assess arguments, plan, or build things.
But it goes even further than merely doing things. It also extends to understanding things – really perceiving them directly, or what might traditionally be called ‘gnosis’. This is a kind of intuitive grasping that goes deeper than mere intellectual knowledge. If I tell you about a fist than came within one inch of my face, you grasp “inch”. But when I tell you about a galaxy 3 million parsecs from earth, you only intellectually know what a “parsec” is. An inch is on the scale of your experience, whereas a parsec is an abstract concept of distance.
The difference between inches and parsecs is the most rudimentary example and doesn’t even begin to cover some of the vast subtleties of reality that only experience can really lead us to grasping intuitively. Yet these kinds of intuitive understandings is of what wisdom largely consists; and this is why a wise or experienced person cannot simply explain a list of facts to an unwise or inexperienced person to improve their condition.
Perception and understanding as broader concepts
We do not currently know of any verified means by which knowledge enters the mind other than the physical senses. But what we need to understand is that our normal perception of the world is being seen through a filter. Our brains evolved to block out a lot of information, or to prioritize it and emphasize it to us in a certain order. This is why we aren’t constantly distracted by the bits of dust floating in the air as we engage in a business meeting. Yet, the ‘goals’ of our instinctive brain, including the intermediary goals of our rational brain, are arbitrary and unrelated to the true reality of the larger world in which we exist. That goal-set, and the filtering and prioritizing of our incoming impressions, is a bias on reality. But even more, once we get that customized set of inputs, we further limit them by applying labels and categorizations to them based on our limited experience, deluding ourselves into believing that the abstract symbols of language have enhanced our understanding rather than constrained it. True reality has no such filtering and cannot be so easily described by our simple vocalizations.
Why is this important? The world, as it truly exists, is an extraordinary dance of overwhelming interactions. It is boundless and luminous in all of its dimensions and ever-changing forms – time itself laid out like an eternal tapestry. To say it is beautiful or interesting is a comical understatement. There are states of mind in which the veil of that filter is lifted and we can catch glimpses of the world. One must necessarily step up to more advanced ways of conversing than technical language, such as poetry, to describe it if only partially. People interpret those experiences as best they can, and in different ways but language fails to convey them to others (a problem I face in even writing this article). But even these paltry glimpses, if a person is ready for them, can change a life forever.
This is relevant to naturalistic spirituality (or more specifically, to its purpose – human happiness) because such grasping is instrumental in handling the events in life as an athlete handles the moment-to-moment flow of their sport. Taoists describe this effortless action, and to increase our ability to handle life in the same manner greatly improves our experience.
Importantly, this is not merely an emotional placebo that makes us feel better about our lot. It is deeper perception of an objective truth about reality, which yields real fruits that allow for more skillful action in our lives than was possible before. This is much like they way rationality allows us intellectual knowledge which yields the ability to achieve simpler goals, yet at a level that makes it understandable why so many in history have confused it with magic (or, perhaps current understandings may lead to a refined understanding of a more relevant use for that word).
A space for the a-rational
These things are not opposed to, or contrary to, reason or logic or evidence-based approaches. They are not irrational. But they are a-rational – other ways of grasping our conditions and responding to them than strictly using our conscious logical faculties. While logic and reason can do things we will always need, they are essentially one tool in our toolbox. The problem arises when we think this is our only tool, or when we think the things it does are the only things that need doing. Another problem is when people try to use this kind of intuitive grasping in places where reason is needed or to make unsubstantiated claims about individual matters of fact. Intuition of this kind is best used to grasp the subtle flow of complex systems in a real-time or interactive manner when simple reason is not sufficient or possible. From that grasping comes a balanced view and value judgments, which help guide our actions (or refrain from action) in highly complex situations.
It is also this kind of view which informs us, in a profound way, of that value which is even more primary than even reason: compassion. Perceptions of interconnectedness will inevitably lead us away from the isolated goal-set of our lone egos. As we take on that larger view in an intuitive and deep way, compassion becomes more than either a mere concept or an empathic impulse. It becomes an obvious natural response to reality; its contrary being madness. This too increases life skills. How can strictly reason-based ethical models serve us in a vast, complex world where all the variables, options, and consequences are rarely known to us? We must rely on our virtues and these are cultivated from wide holistic grasping of the subtleties of things – the flow of Nature.
These perspectives can be cultivated through many different means. Altered states have been reached in near-death experiences or with chemical assistance and most commonly in dreams and appreciation of beauty, but there are many other ways of glimpsing these big-picture aha moments. This is one role for ritual, music, art, myth, community, and many other practices like various kinds of meditation and more. When the right realizations come together, we can even have unintentional and unexpected epiphanies which lead to grasping while in a rational mode (such as reading philosophy). You’ll know it when you feel your heart beating from the rush.
It is a large and robust space for these kinds of activities, processes, and explorations that naturalists need. We need to understand these are not mere entertainments or spice. They are integral to greater wisdom and happiness in our lives and in the world. Therefore, we cannot be content to explore rituals, myth, and practices as scientists studying other humans in a lab. We must engage in them openly ourselves to fully understand. All of this forms one part of a complete practice that embraces naturalism and its methods alongside everything else it means to be human – reason and compassion. This is what the Spiritual Naturalist Society and its members are interested in.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
* Withholding assent to that which we do not know or cannot know is an act of cultivating humility and a spiritual practice I like to refer to by the ancient Pyrrhonian term, Epoché.