The role of intellect in spirituality (translation)

(I received a request for translation of one of my older articles in Croatian, so here goes.)

What makes logical sense to the human mind does not therefore necessarily have much to do with reality. This is the reason why the overly intellectual systems, such as the medieval scholastics, that were based on the authority of logic and reason, historically fared rather poorly. Those systems, however, that placed intellect second, and observation of facts first, such as the modern science, gave much better results in practice.

One could now say that science is an extremely intellectual discipline. That is true, but it is only secondarily intellectual, and primarily factual, observational and perceptional. If observations contradict an intellectual construct, the intellectual construct will be discarded. In a scholastic, neoplatonic system the facts could contradict a theory all they want and it would still remain standing, simply because its adherents could say that their intellectual construct is founded in the world of ideas and as such superior to the imperfect, transitory and limited matter, which due to its deficiencies fails to meet the requirements of perfection set by their theory.

The human mind is, therefore, a weak instrument of cognition, and unless we keep it in check by a contact with reality, it will be capable of forming utterly ungrounded ideas that can exist in contradiction to facts and can be accepted without positive evidence of any kind, without any kind of correctional feedback. If we observe the history of human thought, which can be more truthfully called the history of human folly and nonsense intermixed with occasional sparks of lucidity, it becomes clear that the only way for us to avoid the pitfalls of navel-gazing madness, is to stick to the specific, to that which has foundations in experience and observation. To disregard observation because it doesn’t fit our theories is a common sign of psychotic behavior, to which few are immune, including science. The example of that is ignoring the transcendental experiences, which simply do not exist for science – they are either ignored, or attributed to delusion, hallucination or deception. Essentially, the witnesses are not trusted, in the same way in which Lavoisier didn’t trust the eyewitnesses of meteoric impacts. The lesson is that the ego-stimulation, caused by the sense of having it all figured out, and having the intellectual comprehension of the totality of all existence, is such a seductive and powerful drug, that it is capable of turning the otherwise reasonable people into fanatical cultists capable of ignoring absolutely anything that threatens their drug supply. What makes science, at least in theory, superior to the alternatives, is intellectual honesty, due to which a pet theory will be discarded if it is contradicted by the facts. At the point where science starts ignoring the facts, it ceases to be science.

In what way is all of that relevant to spiritual practice? Well, it is my personal opinion that there is no significant difference between physics and spirituality, other than the obvious fact that they are dealing with different kinds of subject matter, and vectors having a scalar component that isn’t kinetic, thermal etc., but emotional, karmic etc. All the basic principles, such as the law of conservation of energy and momentum, equivalence of action and reaction and all similar geometric laws therefore apply to both, they just need to be adapted to meet the specifics of the field of study, and we then get something that could be called the law of conservation of overall spiritual energy, or karmic momentum. Likewise, similar problems remain due to excessive fondness for a particular worldview and aversion to its dismissal when it is contradicted by the facts. The greatest difference is in the fact that in spirituality, human consciousness is in fact the laboratory in which the experiments are performed, and predictions are either confirmed or falsified. That is where the aspects of reality are perceived and interpreted.

If the fondness for delusion and errors of all kinds persists in physics, which is based on objective sensory measurements, it is significantly more so the case with spirituality, where everything takes place within the mind, which makes the concept of completely neutral sensory instrument and measurements impossible. This makes the situation so difficult it is really hard to find people who would indeed approach spirituality in a way that could be considered scientific. However, it is not only possible, but is a direction I think is necessary if the true advancements are to be made. For if the follies such as alchemy and astrology didn’t produce good results in physics, they will fail in a similar way in spirituality, and we should instead choose to rely on principles and methods that produced better results.

Now we get to the point where spiritual practice must part ways with the customary methodology of science, which tends to be cold and distanced. For if we are to use the spiritual states as a laboratory in which experiments are to be made, it means we must at the same time calmly observe the events, and at the same time be completely involved in some, often extremely intense spiritual state, such as ecstasy, love, sorrow, happiness or suffering. Likewise, due to the specifics of the human mind, the things that will yield results can often be the direct opposite to anything one would recognize as scientific. For instance, a state of elation produced by listening to music or reading literature will almost certainly produce some kind of spiritual experience, while cold analytics will rather suppress the latent spiritual potentials. The part of consciousness that is useful for analysis and interpretation of an experience, therefore, lies in direct opposition to the part of consciousness that is useful for actually attaining a spiritual experience. This apparent incongruence is the cause of a great divide between qualifications necessary for a mystical practice, and qualifications necessary for the correct intellectual formulation of the practice and its results. Consequently, the spiritual practitioners are often to be found among the intellectually incoherent persons, while the intellectually coherent ones are hindered in attaining spiritual experiences by their very coherent and disciplined mental structure, and are therefore limited to having an opinion about the spiritual experiences of others. I would say that I am a huge exception in this regard, perhaps due to my specific approach to mind, which I treat as a tool or an instrument of a sort, that needs to be maintained in order to be useful for correct formulation and expression of ideas, but I don’t actually use it as an instrument of cognition, in a way similar to that in which a military radar installation doesn’t use a computer for getting information about the size, position and direction of the aircrafts – for that, it uses the radar. The computer receives the information detected by the radar, and proceeds to analyze and display the information in a symbolic, coherent form.

It is exactly due to the frequent intellectual incoherence of the spiritual practitioners that we have to deal with the deluge of false-positives, where incoherent persons posture as spiritual practitioners, without any factual backing. I met my share of those, and I’m afraid it would serve no useful purpose to indulge in lengthy analyses that would aim to discern them from the authentic phenomena. I use my “nose” for discernments of that kind – if it stinks, don’t eat it. If a person emanates a “stench” of spiritual rot and decay, all the while rambling about his high spiritual achievements, run the other way. The criterion of fruits, as established by Jesus, is quite applicable: if a tree produces acorns, it is definitely not a fig tree, or, as the Romans would nicely put it, “Sed nemo potuit tangere: merda fuit”[1]. However, with a similar analogy, I tend to avoid eating blackberries from a bush that is placed at just the right height for a passing dog to piss on – or, in other words, I avoid the good spiritual fruits that have been intellectually processed in such a way that the overall result is inedible. The example of this are the authentic mystics who have moulded their experiences in the context of their own religion, which by itself is more of a spiritual pitfall than a path, and it is better to take the entire thing with a grain of salt, rather than to risk accepting it all without reservations and ending up in some pathological following.

One will ask how is it possible for deranged and clinically stupid people to have authentic spiritual experiences. I would say that one of the possible causes lies in the instability of their minds, which makes it rather malleable and prone to all kinds of influences, ranging from authentic spiritual experiences to various mental disorders. This doesn’t make the experience itself less valid, but it can be mixed together with other phenomena, often so problematic that the overall result is rendered useless. Likewise, mental rigidity can be a powerful inhibitor of spiritual experience, which requires a great deal of spiritual flexibility, or deviation from the mental paths most commonly traveled. If one’s inhibitions reman active at all times, they will correct all deviations and thus effectively roast all possible seeds of spiritual experience. On the other hand, if such inhibitions are completely absent, the mind can simply disintegrate into madness due to the enormous number and strength of various deviations. In my opinion, the useful approach is to keep the mind active and useful when necessary, but to allow it to get out of the way of the spiritual states that are incompatible with its very nature. It’s like sex: you need the mind in order not to end up in bed with the wrong person, but when you are in bed with the right person, you can safely turn it off and enjoy the experience. The question is therefore not whether you need the mind or not, but where do you need it and in what way, and when you don’t need it, it is to be set aside. It is similar to the way in which a soldier wishes to have the best possible rifle, one that will always accurately hit and kill the enemy, that will never jam and for which ammunition is abundant, but he doesn’t carry it around with him all the time, but only when necessary.

[1] Martial 3.17: “But none could touch it: it was shit”.