REPORT FROM A SESSION AT THE IEA CONFERENCE – PART 2 OF 3
Eric Meyer, PhD
Perspectives of a historian and philosopher of science
The IEA’s mission envisions a world in which the Enneagram is widely understood and constructively used. Given the central role of science in modern culture, we might like to see scientists in particular pay more attention to the Enneagram, even ultimately validate the effectiveness of its teachings. We might even be curious why that isn’t already happening. In the first article developed from our session at IEA 2014, Jack Killen explored the prospect of scientific collaboration, drawing on his experience with research into alternative medicine. My own background is in the history and philosophy of science, so in this sequel I address what science is all about in general terms and how that’s relevant to the Enneagram community. We believe these two themes are closely related, because the more we can embrace basic “scientific” habits of thinking and working ourselves, the more sense the Enneagram will make to scientists and scientifically-minded people, and the more likely it will be to attract their interest. (We also expect such attention to method to benefit Enneagram studies, directly and independently.)
Of course the spiritual wisdom tradition from which the Enneagram has emerged can seem to have a very different character, and our culture has a long and unfortunate history of difficulty between science and religion. Yet the special strength of the Enneagram lies precisely in its synthesis of psychology and spiritual practice, so we should actually be in a position to help heal this cultural division. Serious Enneagram practice certainly involves individual, subjective experience; at the same time, the material written and taught, especially at the introductory level, consists very largely of general claims about everyone’s experience and behavior. It’s important to recognize that such claims are by nature empirical theories much like those in a science like psychology, though obviously less rigorously formulated or established – and therein lies the challenge. We can choose to learn from the example of science how to investigate them better ourselves; science and mainstream culture can too easily dismiss our work as unworthy of their attention if we don’t.
I should pause to define “empirical”, since the word may not be familiar to everyone and is so essential to this discussion. From the Greek empeiría meaning “experience”, the term has been used since antiquity in philosophy, medicine, and science to mean reliance upon direct sensory evidence or the results of practical experience, rather than prior assumptions or beliefs. Of course in practice this is a question of emphasis and balance: theory and observation both have a role to play, and it took many centuries to work out the details properly. The precise connotations of “empirical” have shifted a bit over time, but today it’s used to express in one word everything we’ve learned about scientific knowledge and its crucial dependence upon evidence. And if we return to its root meaning, it needn’t even be limited to observations of the external world; spiritual experience is also experience and as such, material for investigation. In this sense, Buddhism could be said to have an empirical aspect, and likewise mystical spiritual traditions in the West. And of course, the Enneagram.
I’ve benefitted greatly from working with the Enneagram and its community for about six years now, but must confess that given my scientific orientation, I felt some doubts along the way. While I recognized something deeply true and useful in it, I still found myself wondering what sort of endeavor this really was, relative to established professional fields. I struggled not to be put off by certain claims that struck me as unclear or poorly supported, or by finding many questions of the sort I ask by instinct or training unanswered, possibly even unwelcome. I wondered how the mental approach (my specialty) could be so openly deprecated without acknowledging its role in generating all those theories and patterns and correspondences that we teach. These are very real obstacles to broader acceptance of the Enneagram; I persevered despite them, as others might not.
So what exactly is it that a skeptically inclined person might hope to find in their first encounter with the Enneagram, or that a psychologist or psychiatrist would recognize as a sign that it was onto something important and worth investigating? Testimonials alone aren’t enough. Scientific proof sounds desirable, but we shouldn’t think of it as merely an official stamp of approval to validate everything we already think we know is true – and that’s actually not very likely. Science is a specific method of ongoing inquiry, one that’s proved highly successful since it was first developed centuries ago. In order to understand its fundamental purpose and its relevance to Enneagram studies – without getting into too many technical details – let’s examine three key themes: fallibility, testing, and progress.
“Modern” science actually has a long history by now, having got underway around the year 1600 with the work of Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, and their less famous contemporaries. (Many historians would date it back to Copernicus, sixty years earlier still.) What made it appear so distinctly new was the growing realization that ordinary common sense or intuition, and often even ancient science itself, were just turning out to have been wrong about many things, from the motion of the Earth to the circulation of blood. As new discoveries were made, they revealed previous error after error. This was often quite controversial, even dangerously so given how deeply some of these ideas had been integrated into Catholic doctrine by medieval scholars, but the fundamental lesson began to sink in: not just that the world is a far stranger place than had been supposed, but that human judgment itself is fallible in distinctive ways.
So scientists learned that they had to become more aware of how they tend to make mistakes. The first systematic treatise on scientific method, published by Francis Bacon in 1620, listed many typical errors of human judgment to be wary of when drawing conclusions from observations. Consider just three of his examples1 that remain especially relevant 400 years later:
“Human understanding is by its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.” This is the tendency recently popularized by skeptic writer Michael Shermer as “patternicity”. Our minds have evolved to be pattern-constructing engines, and we must remember to ask whether all the patterns that may occur to us correspond to anything real.
“Human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion… draws all other things to support and agree with it.” This habit, called “confirmation bias”, can make it difficult to recognize or admit contrary evidence. It inspired philosopher Karl Popper’s argument that science needs to be oriented toward “falsification” not verification, always investigating how it might still be mistaken. (Only after doing this diligently can we have some degree of confidence.)
“Human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections… Numberless… and sometimes imperceptible are the ways in which the affections color and infect the understanding.” We’re not purely rational creatures, and our perceptions and thinking are profoundly affected by feelings we may not even be aware of.
This last point has become a focus of intense scientific interest in recent years; the role of emotions in perception and reasoning is an active and fruitful area of research in economics, psychology, and neurobiology – an area that could easily extend to include investigation of the Enneagram. In fact, considering all these characteristics of human judgment, there’s a very natural compatibility between science itself and the Enneagram, which could be emphasized by stating the core purpose of science as striving to be receptive to glimpses of the world as it really is. We apply that principle ourselves in Enneagram practice, recognizing that we must question our own assumptions, overcome biased perceptions, and redirect our attention in unaccustomed ways. We just need to remember to pursue Enneagram theory in the same spirit.
Aware that any interesting idea we’ve had could actually be mistaken, we can get into the habit of investigating that possibility further. In a tightly regulated laboratory context, scientific method involves precise techniques of experimentation (controlled variables, etc) that may not be applicable to everyday life. But simpler approaches can be appropriate in more ordinary situations, really any sort of attempt to question or “test” an idea that we can think of. For example, we can simply imagine various ways in which something that seems plausible might still not be true, or not completely or always. And if there’s any actual way to check out such possibilities against our or other people’s experience, or against relevant science, we can try to do that.
So you might take a moment to ask yourself: what Enneagram teachings have you encountered that seem to conflict, or didn’t make sense or appear to fit for you? Have you ever wondered whether even those that do seem plausible are really true, and how we know that? Even if you’re not accustomed to asking such questions, you should be aware that other people are, and will. Without singling out anyone’s particular pet theories, which abound, consider a few obvious examples of Enneagram lore we could be curious about:
Strategies – Are the types really misguided or outdated “survival strategies”? Are they driven by a rational intention to achieve specific results, or is that impression just our attempt to make sense of what we find ourselves doing? When our experience shifts to another point, are we trying out a different strategy, and why? And if not, what is actually driving the type patterns?
Subtypes – Do the subtypes or variants involve specific “instincts”, as biologists understand that term today, or if not, what do we mean by that? (Might these simply be domains of life instead?) What is the third one, variously described by different teachers as “one-to-one”, “sexual”, or “transmitting”, truly about, and why has it been a source of more confusion than the other two?
Arrows – Are the arrows or lines on the Enneagram telling us something real about people of each type – that we will have more pronounced experiences of certain other points, good or bad, or under specific conditions? Theories about this have varied without clear resolution, and countless individual reports appear to have “confirmed” all of them.
These are serious empirical questions, not just about how persuasive or interesting an idea sounds or which version you were taught or like best, but what most accurately describes real people and their experience, and best helps them cope with it. The last example (of the arrows) is worth more detailed examination, since we like to regard the Enneagram as solidly based on reported evidence, and confirmation bias is such a pervasive and tricky problem. To draw arrows specifically between my own point Five (for instance) and Seven and Eight is to predict not only that I will have particularly important experiences of those two patterns in my life, but that I won’t experience other points (say One or Three) to the same degree or with similar significance – all because I’m a Five. And so on, for each of the nine types around the circle. That’s saying quite a lot; it’s a very strong claim, which is great from a scientific point of view. If it’s true, then we really know a great deal about people; if it’s false, that should be easy to discover, since it makes so many predictions that evidence could refute. For example, some Fives might report that Seven and/or Eight just don’t register much for them. But we should bear in mind that they may not be very likely to say so, since everyone does experience all nine patterns and can describe how, especially when expected or encouraged to. Or equally well, some Fives might report unexpectedly strong experience of other points like One or Three. But in practice this may not be very likely either, because we don’t commonly invite them to look for that. So we’re not really testing the predictions of this theory very effectively.
What might we learn instead by simply asking everyone, in a non-leading manner, which other type patterns they notice coming up most strongly for them? Or purely as a thought experiment, imagine for a moment that we drew the Enneagram differently than we do and told Fives they connected specially to One and Three: would they then have “confirmed” how they can switch to doing One and Three, and described how interestingly different that is for them? I know I could, and suspect we all would. And in that case, despite all the thousands of individual reports collected over decades, what real evidence do we have that the customary lines on the Enneagram mean anything at all, empirically speaking? (It should actually be possible to test their validity scientifically, and that’s already been attempted. At the end of our IEA session, Jerry Wagner mentioned that two of his psychology graduate students have completed dissertations 2 investigating people’s experiences of other points, and both failed to find any support for the theory of the arrows.)
Many readers may just have encountered more questions about Enneagram theory in the last five minutes than in the last five years, and that could be a real problem. There’s plenty of purely individual subjective experience in Enneagram work, but when we start constructing theories and explanations, we’re no longer in the subjective realm and must recognize that. Assertions about the real world, including the people in it and their experience, require critical examination. We must be curious whether claims are true or false ourselves if we expect anyone else to be, including but not limited to:
* historical claims about ancient origins of the Enneagram
* characterizations of the types and subtypes and what drives them
* interpretations of patterns seen in the Enneagram figure
* proposed correspondences with mainstream psychology or biology
Suppose I (as a Five) actually do report that Seven hasn’t come up especially strongly in my life, and I’ve found even Three more prominent. If you’re willing to entertain doubts about an aspect of Enneagram theory, we might learn something. If you merely reply that I live in a Three culture, or may not yet have fully recognized my ordained connection with Seven, we won’t. When theories are taught without being questioned, simply fitting facts to them, ignoring conflicts, or explaining away discrepancies, the result is what Popper (thinking of examples like astrology or Freudian psychoanalysis) called pseudoscience. Pseudoscience may superficially resemble science, but doesn’t allow itself to benefit from full contact with empirical evidence, including the possibility of falsification. Many people today are quick to dismiss any enterprise that gives such an impression.
As a result of the sort of inquiry and testing I’ve described, science makes progress, not merely by continual accretion but by discovering and correcting oversights and errors. Of course, the Enneagram already appears to capture something true and very important about human experience, and to be a useful tool for personal growth. So it might not seem obvious that progress is necessary or relevant, or that there’s even much harm in any errors that might be found. But its teachings do include many dubious or conflicting theories that haven’t been adequately examined, yet never seem to be conclusively rejected. And surely there’s still more to discover – not just ever more patterns or interpretations, but (for example) a deeper explanation of the psychology that drives the types, and how to work more effectively with it. I myself don’t find personal growth easy enough already that I want to ignore the prospect of further improvement in understanding and methods.
Naturally, the appearance of progress is also a standard by which many people would judge a field like the Enneagram. How then do today’s teachings differ from those of 10, 20, or even 50 years ago? This may seem an odd question for a community that considers itself to be transmitting ancient wisdom, but the Enneagram in the form and detail we teach today really dates back only to Ichazo and Naranjo, not Llull or Evagrius. Can you think of examples of progress in Enneagram studies where a disagreement has been resolved or something new and important learned, by discovering that a plausible idea needed to be revised or rejected? When teachings do appear to have shifted, has this happened straightforwardly, and has the issue been clearly resolved? For example, consider how the understanding of the arrows seems to be changing in recent years, backing away from the idea that growth lies in one direction and regression in the other. Are these still arrows then, or just lines? And if they’re not important for the reason previously thought, do they still matter? I’m actually unsure what to say about this, since all the materials in print still have arrows in them, and I’ve never heard a clear explanation of how that was wrong, exactly what understanding may have replaced it, or who decided that. Such a lack of transparency will understandably make many people uncomfortable.
A more “scientific” approach to the Enneagram will involve not just self-questioning to supplement individual intuition or insight, but collaborative criticism. Modern science evolved very rapidly in the early 1600s from an isolated, competitive (even secretive), proprietary approach, to the founding of scientific societies and journals where ideas could be shared, explored, and presented to a broader public. There’s an Enneagram Association today, with a Journal; what sort of activity will occur within them? Can critical discussion be accepted naturally, even welcomed in the Enneagram community? Can new ideas be proposed and evaluated, or old ones openly questioned, in a spirit of curiosity without taking anything too personally? My own experience of fields that work this way (within the limits of human frailties) has been positive and highly rewarding.
There’s actually a very natural fit between Enneagram studies and science that should turn out to be highly productive. Of course some people may always prefer to emphasize the mystical spiritual aspect of the Enneagram or employ it as a universal metaphysics, in which empirical standards and methods may play a lesser role, or none at all. For them there would be no need to ask too many questions – nor to feel threatened if others do. And it would be very useful indeed if others began to pursue a more “scientific” approach where that’s appropriate, in order to develop consensus and facilitate new discoveries and applications in Enneagram studies, to reach a wider audience, and to attract the interest and support of scientists. Naturally this isn’t just a one-way street; science and skeptically inclined people have much to learn from the Enneagram community too. Let’s find ways to make that more obvious, and easier.
1 Francis Bacon, 1620: Novum Organum Scientiarum (The New Instrument of the Sciences), Book I, Aphorisms XLV, XLVI, XLIX.
2 Penelope Thrasher, 1994: “The Enneagram: movement between types, an inventory, and a criterion measure.” Dissertation Abstracts International, 56(3), 121B, UMI No. 9416974. J. Tworney, 1995: “The Enneagram and Jungian archetypal images.” Dissertation Abstracts International, 57(02), 1490B, UMI No. 9616846.
Eric Meyer, PhD has taught History and Philosophy of Science with particular interest in the Scientific Revolution, scientific method, and science and religion. He is a certified Enneagram teacher in the Narrative Tradition. His current focus is on understanding personality, depression, and trauma.