The Higher Truth

What are the limits of scholarly study in the search for spiritual truth?

"We are not looking for a reality without as much as one within."

— Augustine

About thirty five years ago I began paying wary attention to my mystical intuitions. Unlike some, this subtle shift in awareness wasn’t the product of any life shattering experience or profound revelation. It was more an abstract acknowledgement that maybe there was something out of the ordinary to those deep intuitions and odd events occasionally punctuating my thoughts and experience; something suggesting the possibility of hidden forces or some kind of spiritual dimension to my existence. By nature a rigid empiricist I was convinced there was a sensible explanation for these rogue impressions. I subsequently began a casual pursuit of trying to link spiritual and mystical phenomena to science and reason. However, during the process something unexpected happened.

The more I studied the spiritual the more I came to sense its presence within my own psyche. Gradually I became taken with the notion our existence was filled with meaning and higher purpose. Before long rationally reconciling the spiritual with the material became an all-consuming obsession. I had to understand what was driving these nebulous but powerful impressions. Unfortunately, over time the results of my quest turned from enlightening to frustrating. An inability to uncover hard conclusions regarding our spiritual nature delivered me to an uneasy though familiar junction. It was then I made a decision. It was time to stop this nonsense.

I’ve had quite enough of trying to understand the greater forces of existence. Oh, I’ve studied it all, the science, philosophy, history and religion. With fierce devotion I’ve gobbled up the cosmology and psychology, trolled through the physics, gorged myself on the writings of philosophers from Plato to Whitehead, probed the sacred practices of traditional cultures from the Aymara to the Zuni and deconstructed the wisdom traditions of Gnostics, Kabbalists, Sufis, Vedantists and Taoists. I was determined to discover if there’s any underlying truth to our spiritual inclinations. Something confirming or denying the possibility all is not just some random assemblage of impersonal forces in which we’re trapped. I’ve scrutinized the studies, parsed the arguments and weighed the evidence trying to answer the big question: is there some kind of intelligent and intentioned higher consciousness present within our existence? For decades I’d been searching for incontrovertible evidence; proof beyond doubt. But enough is enough.

Humans are by nature spiritually impressionable creatures. All have occasionally been touched by incidents of the mystical and unknown prompting us to wonder about unseen forces and the possible existence of an ultimate intelligence. These days grasping the higher mysteries of existence has never been more important or in vogue. The immediacy of survival better assured, greater numbers are turning their concerns to the loftier, more spiritual quandaries of our being. Unfortunately, we denizens of the modern world live in a heightened state of spiritual tension. Like so many of our earlier ancestors, many sense we exist in a state of deep interconnectivity filled with purpose and intention. However, we simultaneously worship at the shrine of our physical sciences which are reluctant to endorse most of our spiritual proclivities. This conflict of the intuitive versus the empirical has produced some curious results ranging from the wholesale embrace of one over the other to any number of creative reconciliations. Personally, I’d always been disturbed by the tone of our spiritual discourse. I felt the public face of our mystical/spiritual debate had been commandeered by those lacking in measured or critical temperament. Many of science were convinced theirs was the only possible path to understanding while religious dogmatists made no pretense of holding any reasoned perspective. Others, trying to reconcile the extremes adopted the more problematic tack of cherry picking scientific facts and arguments in support of their own subjective convictions. I could never surrender the discussion of our spiritual nature to the likes of these. Such discontent with the rigid or indefensible drove my quest. Though the realm of the spiritual may often elude reason I felt tempered rationality and scholarship were still the most responsible approaches to such matters. When it came to the higher issues and powers of existence I wanted solid and reasoned answers.

As a true product of the modern age, I initially placed little trust in the subjective or intuitive. Though aware of the limitations of science I nonetheless considered myself a devout materialist. I could never sanction what couldn’t be objectively perceived. In our empirically driven society this was an easy position to take and easier to defend. Was the world filled with unknowns, mysterious forces and grand questions? Without doubt. I conceded there were likely many unimagined phenomena that if known could profoundly alter our sense of existence and self. However, of one thing I was sure: all our metaphysical unknowns had cogent and reasonable explanations. It was just a matter of time and accumulated knowledge before we understood. There was no place for claims of faith. Detailed research and study are important in all fields. This is particularly true when dealing with spiritual issues. By nature these topics are empirically elusive and invite the indulgences of emotion and specious reasoning. Let’s face it, in the court of mystical revelation there are many petitioners whose burden of proof is low to nonexistent. I believed any interested in the higher issues of ontology, metaphysical phenomena, spirituality, or the deeper levels of conscious awareness best begin by grounding their opinions in the empirical and defensible. For me an accommodation of existing science was an obvious first step.

There’s comfort in science. It’s how we define and understand reality. We’ve been enculturated to believe it pronounces truth and indicts fiction; elevates us from the darkness and obliterates superstition. Any serious probing of the realm of the unseen or understanding the possibility of a higher nature begins with reviewing the current scientific perspective. Granted, when dealing with the thornier issues of the mystical/spiritual science has its own problems. However, any blind spots notwithstanding, the empirical allows many fundamental claims regarding the nature and process of existence. Even within the mystical mists of our intuitive experience science can never be completely ignored.

Our understanding of material existence has radically changed from the basic Newtonian principles most absorbed in college physics classes. The integrity of the material world, time and space have dissolved in the light of newer discoveries. However, as we accustom ourselves to the staggering metaphysical possibilities the areas of quantum theory and mathematics reveal it becomes obvious science still has limits. Certain insights seem likely to perpetually elude any materialist paradigm. Indeed, science may someday be able to confirm and explain the existence of such fantastic notions as psychic phenomena, reincarnation or even the reality of soul or spirit. However, such matters of discovering and defining any supernatural activity would do little to answer the most basic and enduring of all spiritual questions: is there any intention, meaning or purpose ascribable to a higher intelligence behind such phenomena? On this crucial issue it seems empirical science is destined to fail. As Wittgenstein so famously noted in his cumbersomely titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “even if all our scientific questions are answered, our problem is still not touched at all.”

Reaching the limits of observability doesn’t necessarily cast us into the realm of faith. It merely moves us to a different threshold of responsible inquiry: that of reason. Determining the truth or fiction of any type of higher consciousness has always been the enduring obsession of most philosophy. Unfortunately, though providing a wealth of intriguing ideas on the possibilities of our spiritual nature philosophy also has problems providing clear answers to our higher questions. While immune to the speculative limitations of science, philosophy suffers from a distinct lack of consensus. So many brilliant thinkers, learned opinions and crafty arguments resulting in such a divergent swell of opinion. Any who’ve spent time treading the philosophical path quickly realize logic and reason have the regrettable tendency of being dragooned to fit any number of clever argumentative frames. For every esteemed mind favoring the presence of an ultimate consciousness and purpose you have an equal number espousing a godless absurdity.

Of course the most persuasive testament to the presence of an active spiritual dimension comes from neither science nor reason but from direct human experience. As in my own case, most of the enduring mystical beliefs we hold are drawn from personal experience or interior awareness. Non-empirical in nature, many dismiss personal spiritual experience as being the purview of the superstitious, uneducated, delusional, needy, deceitful or loopy. And in many cases they’d likely be right. However, certain informants are better attenuated, critical and articulate regarding their mystical experiences than others. There’s also no denying the curious degree of commonality found within much mystical experience transcending both geography, culture and time. Consequently, it’s difficult to blithely dismiss all subjective claims relating to the spiritual or supernatural. As such, legions of measured individuals from a wide span of established disciplines (psychology, anthropology, history and yes, even the hard sciences) study these phenomena in a critical and responsible manner. However, any desire for unambiguous truth to be revealed is ultimately denied. It’s the classic conundrum; while many mysterious personal events have been pronounced genuine and worthy of scholarly assessment their inability to be independently verified forever deprives them of any scientific or argumentative endorsement.

Unfortunately, the inherent limitations of science, philosophy and individual experience as tools of spiritual understanding are further confounded by a more fundamental wrinkle; the nature of reality itself. Due deference must be paid to the notion there is in fact no shared, material reality to examine, ponder or experience. Idealist philosophies contend (to varying degrees) that what seems an external, material world is actually the construct of individual consciousness no more objective than a dream. This particular perspective is the cornerstone of most Eastern spiritual traditions. Slightly less radical but equally unsettling is the post-modernist perspective currently haunting the study of anthropology. Post-modernists claim any shared, material world would be constructed, experienced and interpreted in accordance with individual psychology and specific cultural influences. In other words there may be no commonality of experience or interpretation to be drawn from our sense perceptions of any possible external world. Any of the Idealist or post-modernist scenarios cast our spirituality into an entirely different perspective eluding any possibilities of common reconciliation. Many empirically entrenched blithely dismiss Idealism and post-modernism as being unfounded fantasy. I strongly disagree. Highly persuasive studies and rational exist within the spheres of both the hard sciences and philosophy suggesting otherwise. In truth these concepts very neatly solve many ontological problems continuing to elude materialist theory. If the fundamental reality of all we sense and reflect upon is less than certain any possibility of objective truth becomes categorically impossible.

This is neither the time nor place to debate the relative integrity of sensory experience. The point is clear enough; despite their formidable accomplishments, science and philosophy are still (and will remain) inadequate to the task of confirming, denying or explaining our spiritual sensibilities. When pursuing higher truth scholarly tools in measured hands don’t guarantee solid or inarguable results. Yes, new scientific discoveries and philosophical arguments continue to appear. Every day the field of existential investigation becomes more expansive, sophisticated and filled with ever more detail. Indeed, the widening scope of our potential scientific growth seems incalculable. However, no matter how many mysteries science explains, no matter how effectively it penetrates the metaphysical, no matter how far back it extends the links of causality it will never prove or disprove the presence of what the spiritually inclined truly suspect: a singular, irreducible, intention laden ultimate consciousness. The nature and scope of this subject seems far too daunting to allow our science and intelligence anything more than a limited degree of understanding. As the Taoists are fond of noting, the Tao that can be told or understood is not the Tao. This is not to devalue the search for better information regarding our spiritual inclinations. My own spiritual pursuits have to date been driven and enhanced by the premise that some perspectives are better founded than others. But there comes a point where being better informed is not enough.

Obviously, the truth surrounding our spiritual intuitions may remain forever unknown. However, one immutable certainty remains: with each passing day all become older and “our revels” could terminate at any moment without warning. With the passing of time the opportunities and potentials for acting on any assembled knowledge dwindle. I can think of little more regrettable than spending years trying to understand the nature and purpose of life only to either fail or have no time to indulge the fruits of any acquired wisdom. But enough is enough. It’s time to make a decision, time to reprioritize my approach; take my spiritual imperative to a better and possibly more constructive place. It seems I’m fated to do what I’d hoped I’d never have to: take the proverbial leap of faith.

Hopefully this leap is not totally blind. After all, there has to be some value in information. However, I’m through chasing facts and arguments to either confirm or deny the presence of a higher intelligence. Methodical and measured evaluation have brought me to a conclusion I feel to be as adequately supported as possible by the evidence. I’ve comfortably settled into some core principles regarding the nature of our existence which I hope will hence forth guide my life. I’ve come to the surprising belief there is a very real and immediate spiritual dimension to our existence. I believe all (humans, animals, plants, rocks and everything in between) exist as multifaceted expressions of a higher consciousness enduring beyond the scope of our physical lives. Our existence is filled with the intelligence, intention, deliberation, design and purpose of this higher influence. Whether such a consciousness be an ultimate, singular, irreducible, “uncaused first cause,” God like presence is beyond the scope of my inquiry. Nor does it matter. I’m not interested in semantics or fetishizing knowledge. I want information for a purpose. For me, as grand a scheme of being as I can ever comprehend has suggested itself. For my purposes this is all I need or can know. My quest is now to reorient myself towards living in concert with this perspective and reveling in the wonder and expression of such an order. Let others of greater ambition debate the “Ultimates” of our nature, study the science and parse the language. I’m done.

My newfound position raises a fundamental question: is it possible to responsibly accommodate the nature of human spirituality without resort to God or science? Can we revel in the fantastic, mystical experiences of this world and reasonably fill our lives with meaning and a sense of higher purpose without understanding how they work or attributing their existence to an ultimate power? I believe we can. In truth we’re continually confronted with the spiritual and miraculous at every moment. Even hard core positivists wouldn’t deny we live in a finely balanced, integrated world filled with phenomena and forces lying beyond the scope of our perception. The mystical is everywhere we look. Understanding the nature and processes underlying these experiences doesn’t make them any more or less amazing or wondrous. The existence of a God, or not, does nothing to enhance or reduce the sense of awe and enchantment existence provides. Regardless of the source, we can appreciate we live in a deeply interconnected and significant world filled with higher meaning. Every day supplies overwhelming evidence of this fact. The only remaining issue concerns the meaning and purpose of all in which we find ourselves enmeshed. Taking a page from the post-modernist playbook I’m confident each of us hold within us the correct answers regarding these primary issues.

Like the post-modernists, when it comes to assembling a sense of existential purpose and meaning I believe there is no singular truth. Even should the material world and its physical processes have agreed upon objective qualities the meanings we ascribe them are extremely fluid and varied. Regardless of the myriad ways in which they’re acquired, our spiritual beliefs and convictions are more than just subjective feelings. They’re active determinates of reality. To stoop to cliché, I believe reality is actually what we make it, both causally and interpretively. From a physical perspective I have little doubt our thoughts and actions contribute to the actual shaping of the interconnected whole of which we are a part. But more importantly, we actively impose any number of potential ontological meanings upon the objective world and its processes based on our own perspectives. Where some see the world as the product of random chaos, others see grand design and intention. Where some perceive the objects of reality as separate and unrelated others see a vast singular entity. Some feel life is filled with absurdity, others profound purpose. It would seem existence is literally a vast potentiality waiting to be ordered and understood in accordance with each of our sensibilities. It presents itself in accordance with our expectations. As such, all perspectives of meaning may be true and functionally viable. All are free to define their own existential meaning and all are correct. And I for one fully intend to start defining. Enough of the detached analysis. I’m opting to live in a spiritually resonant world consistent with my own intuitions and sensibilities. And the best thing is there’s no downside to this approach; if I’m wrong I’ll never know and in the meantime I’ve bestowed upon myself the gift of a spiritually enchanted world of profound purpose.

Having made as informed and practical an assessment of our spiritual circumstances as possible I hope to free myself from the self-imposed confines of an ontology marked by disenchantment, alienation and meaninglessness. It’s time to embrace the mystical imperatives filling my life; focus on living the miracle and reveling in the notion I’m a critical part of a grand plan formulated by a higher consciousness. At this stage I suspect our purpose is not to question the game but to play it. Adopting such a perspective doesn’t mean my studies have ended. Instead my focus has reprioritized. The object of my spiritual interest has shifted from decoding the specifics of existence to understanding and appreciating the myriad ways such higher truth is conceived and expressed. I don’t consider this an admission of failure or a lack of intellectual will. Much like Descartes, I understand any certainty of knowledge to be impossible and have accepted a coherent and rational “probability” allowing me to move forward to what I consider more relevant and personally fulfilling issues. I understand those who claim my conviction in the presence of a higher consciousness to be similar to religious dogmatists and their concept of God. Without delving into the semantics there are obvious areas of overlap. However, I’d quickly point out my conviction is the product of an extensive and methodical process rooted within the best examples of scientific observation, social theory and rationality as opposed to an uncritical assimilation of century’s old mythology. This is a big difference. Despite any similarity of result, the way we reach our conclusions matters a great deal. I for one find little virtue in being right for the wrong reasons.

It’s now time for different priorities; more poetry and less physics, more Lao Tzu and less Schopenhauer, more admiration and a damn sight less analysis. I believe it tragic to condemn ourselves to an absurd existence devoid of any higher meaning because rock solid empirical proof of what we sense to be true is forever denied. The absence of ultimate certainty should not relegate us to a life lacking in spiritual purpose. I now hope to act in accordance with these deep insights while keeping a roving eye for any better material to more accurately align my impressions. Will this new outlook color my receptivity to fresh information? I’m sure it will, but no more than did my previous position.

Make no mistake, my new spiritual conviction presents some serious challenges and no small number of fears. My efforts to determine the existence of a higher consciousness were never motivated by personal desire or a need to assuage any existential angst. They were strictly a matter of trying to reveal a more essential truth I suspected was present. In some respects I wish I were back in a soulless, material world ordered by nothing other than random physical forces. This was an existence whose nature, rules and limitations I clearly understood and could accept. Reconciling (or surrendering) my existence to this new ontological scheme may not be easy. Hopefully, I can find comfort in knowing this is the natural order of things. That by itself should make it all right.

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