Matters of Objective Truth: Science and the Enneagram – Mario Sikora

Matters of Objective Truth: Science and the Enneagram – Mario Sikora

(Note: This article is adapted from a letter Mario Sikora wrote to the IEA board of directors. It is published with his permission as the Nine Points editor felt it might be of interest to our readership.)

Bringing contemporary science and sound scientific methods, logic, and reason to the study of Enneagram theory and application has been a long-time area of interest for me. I’ve become more and more aware that it is an interest shared by many others–particularly, but not limited to, people who use the Enneagram in business environments where the audience requires more rigorous empirical support for the model, or at least a model that doesn’t make claims that go against established science.

I believe that one of the errors that happens in Enneagram teaching, and in broader psycho-spiritual circles (for that matter, it is a very human habit), is a tendency to use the wrong “way of knowing” for a task, or failing to recognize that different “knowing tasks” require different “knowing tools.” It is an issue of epistemology–the branch of philosophy that focuses on how we can know what we know.

Broadly speaking, one can say that there are three fundamental epistemic domains:

  • matters of objective truth,
  • matters of subjective experience,
  • and matters of reasoning.

Matters of objective truth fall into two categories: “relations of ideas” (e.g. “all never-married men are bachelors”) or “matters of fact” (e.g. generally, the realm of empiricism and science). Objective truths are the things that are true no matter how any of us feel about them or what we believe. For example, the earth is round, it revolves around the sun, and objects fall toward it due to gravity.

Matters of subjective experience, or “personal truths,” are experiences that are “true” for the individual experiencing them no matter what others believe, and they don’t require empirical evidence. I can assert that I am happy or I have a headache, that I believe “A Love Supreme” is the greatest recording ever, or that sitting in front of Chagall’s stained glass in the chapel at Fraumunster in Zurich was a transformative experience, and nothing you can say and no amount of science or logic will change my belief.

Matters of reasoning are the effort to use logic, reason, inference, etc. to make sense of matters of objective truth and matters of subjective experience. They can be used to either derive moral or ethical guidelines or to test plausibility of objective claims where empirical evidence is not readily available. For example, you can’t “scientifically” prove that (1) it is better to be kind to others or that (2) I don’t have a non-substantive and invisible unicorn in my garage, but it is rational, using logic, reason, etc., to believe (1) and disbelieve (2).

These epistemic categories require different epistemic tools, and you wouldn’t “know” a matter of subjective experience with a tool for “knowing” an objective fact any more than you would measure weight with a ruler. (In logic, doing so is called a “category error.”)  If someone says that a particular practice is rewarding for them and shapes their beliefs about the world, I have no problem. If someone tells me that they believe that non-local consciousness exists, my response is generally, “that’s nice.” People–including me–are entitled to their own subjective opinions, beliefs, standards, values, mores, etc. as long as they are not hurting anyone. If someone finds astrological signs to be useful model for understanding human nature, more power to them. There are many other methodologies for eliciting subjective states and technologies for deriving beliefs from those states–meditation, prayer, somatic practices, the arts, etc.  No one has the right to try to use science or reason to attempt to invalidate someone’s subjective experience in any of these practices. Science and reason should stand mute on claims about our subjective experience because it is the wrong epistemic tool for “knowing” my subjective experience. If I claim that meditation makes me feel better, science has nothing to say.

Science and reason CAN be used to evaluate objective fact claims extrapolated from subjective experience, however. For example, the Dalai Lama collaborated with neuroscientists at MIT to scan the brains of meditating monks and empirical evidence has shown an increase in self-reported well-being in multiple subjects and brain scans have demonstrated brain activity that supports those claims. Specific objective claims were made that were testable by science. (That is, the claim was not “meditation benefits me;” it was “meditation benefits those who meditate”—a very different claim because it moves from subjective to objective.)

I’ve always been curious about what would have happened had those MIT studies not showed an objective positive result from meditation. At the time, the Dalai Lama wrote an editorial in the NYT called “Our Faith in Science” where he stated that if science contradicted a claim of Buddhism, then Buddhism would need to change. I’ve always admired that public commitment to intellectual integrity and hope the Enneagram community will model it as well.

(Note: I think the Dalai Lama’s editorial is worth reading for anyone interested in the pursuit of truth–here is a link: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/12/opinion/our-faith-in-science.html)

My personal area of interest is when people–especially “teachers” of some sort who have an ethical responsibility for their teachings to others–use the wrong “knowing” tool for the claim they are making in a way that affects other people.  This happens in two broad manners:

  • When people use subjective tools to make objective claims, conflating subjective and objective domains, and
  • When people claim to be using objective tools to “prove” a heretofore subjective belief.

An example of the first is listening to an Enneagram teacher talk about going to a psychic healer, drinking a potion that caused the teacher to go sleep, and then describing as factual an experience that was clearly a hallucination. The teacher finished the story with “It did happen, because I know my own experience!” The danger is that by not exercising critical thinking and confusing subjective experience with objective fact, the teacher was advocating fraudulent practices to the teacher’s followers. This is, admittedly, an extreme example, but illustrates the point.

The second situation is much more common–people distorting science to “prove” something they want to believe. Ken Wilber, for example, distorts established consensus science regarding evolution to rationalize his concept of “Eros.” (I thoroughly addressed this and other issues in my “Enneagram Journal” article “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” a few years ago. That article is available at: http://www.awarenesstoaction.com/blog-enneagram-learning-international/?p=857&lang=en.) Many people distort quantum physics in a way that they (wrongly) believe “proves” the existence of non-local consciousness. In the Enneagram world, people often distort the research of HeartMath to justify their belief that humans have three brains. (For what it’s worth, my view is that HeartMath offers some solid advice on the value of relaxation but then comes pretty close to making claims that are not justified by their research.)

I’m often asked why I care so much about these things. I care because I feel a responsibility to my clients (and workshop participants) to be able to give them guidance based as much as possible on truth rather than error when truth is available. As someone who seeks to understand reality and the workings of the mind, I feel cheated when someone says they have “proof” of the veracity of a metaphysical claim and the proof is flawed. The existence of say, non-local consciousness would be a really cool thing to prove and I would love to see proof of it. Wasting my time with flawed “evidence” or incoherent chains of logic tends to get under my skin.

There are many people out there who are interested in the Enneagram but turned off by many of the same things that I describe here. For these reasons they don’t join the IEA, they attend a conference and don’t go back, etc. This deeply saddens me, because I think the Enneagram could reach more people if it was known that there are people in the Big Tent that approach the Enneagram with a mindset that embraces science and reason. The Enneagram and Science Forum (www.enneagramscience.com and www.facebook.com/enneagramscience ) is meant as a place for those people because such a place does not yet exist. I would love to see a similar mindset take root in the IEA as part of the Big Tent because I think Enneagram theory can only advance with better epistemic clarity. To be blunt, when I look at the new ideas that are coming out they seem to be going intellectually backward, which will further marginalize the system, the opposite of the IEA’s mission. My hope is that those of us behind the Forum can work closely with the IEA for the best interests of the whole community.

Finally, a point I feel I shouldn’t have to make but it seems I do: This is not an assault on “spirituality.” Setting aside the problems with that word–namely, it means different things to different people–I have no problem with spirituality in and of itself, nor does anyone in the Forum group as far as I am aware.

Again, I speak for myself here: I have heard people claim that I am anti-spirituality, which I reject out of hand. I think the world is a better place with intellectually rigorous and science-informed spirituality in it. I’ll point to the Dalai Lama as an example of such a spirituality, but there are many others. I do, however, think that intellectually sloppy and anti-science spirituality makes the world a worse place (think fundamentalism of all kinds at the extremes, but also fuzzy-minded New-Ageism) and does a disservice to uninformed followers. I am only too happy to point out examples of that because I believe ideas matter and taking them seriously in the search for truth requires pointing out what is NOT true as much as pointing out what is true.

I welcome discussion and debate of all of the above. Thanks for providing the opportunity to initiate that conversation. And don’t hesitate to let me know if you would like me to clarify any of the points I’ve made here. I think this is an important conversation and want to make it as fruitful as possible.

Sincerely,

Mario Sikora

 

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