This video of a talk by Thomas Metzinger called "Spiritualität und intellektuelle Redlichkeit” (in German, with English captions) has attracted some attention on the Internet; Metzinger has translated his title into English (“Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty”) written an essay (available in PDF form here) summarizing the main ideas of the talk. (In this post I'll be responding to the written essay.)
His main theses are:
- Intellectual honesty (or integrity) is a special case of moral integrity.
- Spirituality is a specific epistemic stance, that involves the desire for a specific type of knowledge.
- The spiritual stance is a form of intellectual integrity, and (some) spiritual practices are aids to intellectual integrity.
- At the present time, thoroughly embracing the spiritual stance, in a form that reflects intellectual integrity, necessitates abandoning some but not all of the traditional goals of spiritual knowledge. (Metzinger doesn't explicitly say this, but it's implicit in his “three critiques” – of of God, immortality, and enlightenment – in the latter portion of the essay.)
He makes all this work, first, by defining spirituality in the right way: Spirituality is an epistemic stance that involves the desire for a specific type of knowledge. Spiritual knowledge involves inner attention, bodily experience, and altered states of consciousness, in which the subject-object distinction is dissolved and the individual first-person perspective is transcended. The goals of spiritual knowledge partially overlap with those of religion and traditional metaphysics, and frequently involve an ideal of salvation, liberation, or enlightenment.
While all of these are characteristic of some forms of spirituality, I very much doubt that they are all consistent with each other (and Metzinger may not intend them to be, since ultimately he wants to jettison a lot of the traditional goals of spiritual knowledge). Moreover, his conception of spirituality as an epistemic stance is a pretty narrow one, and excludes a great deal of what a lot of people would regard as falling under the concept.
His conception of intellectual integrity is an admirable ideal: I think, though, that he makes several unwarranted leaps in spelling out what it entails. His unexamined and undefended assumption is that the will to avoid self-deception (a crucial part of intellectual integrity) requires us adopt the canons of evidence of the natural sciences and the concept of rationality in contemporary analytic philosophy.
I'll illustrate what I mean with regard to what he says about God. Considering first logical arguments for the existence of God, Metzinger tells us,
Conceptually, there is not a single convincing argument for God's existence in 2500 years of the history of Western philosophy.
He then backtracks in a footnote:
Of course, there are first-class philosophers who would hold a completely different view. What does not exist, however, is a consensus among experts in the field that would point in the direction many still hope for.
I'm with the latter claim, provided that “experts in the field” refers solely to people whose professional field of expertise is the major arguments for God's existence in Western philosophy. I'd point out that there's no consensus among the public at large, nor among those who might in one sense or another be counted as “experts on religion,” that that narrow sort of expertise is particularly relevant to the main issue. Moreover, I question whether reliance up expert consensus is consistent with the kind of intellectual integrity that Metzinger urges upon us.
Second, he considers arguments based upon religious experience:
Empirically (and this is a trivial point) there are no proofs for the existence of God. Obviously, mystical experiences or altered states of consciousness as such cannot provide empirical evidence in any strict sense of the word.
Well, it depends on what you take “the strict sense of the word” to be. While Metzinger's aware that there are alternative views with regard to logical arguments, on this subject he shows no awareness of other points of view. His discussion of intellectual integrity relies heavily on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on "The Ethics of Belief” and "Integrity" (both of which he refers the reader to). Had he explored in equal depth the articles on “ The Epistemology of Religion,” “Religious Experience,” and “Mysticism,” (to pick a few examples) he'd have been led to confront the current robust debates on the epistemology of religious experience. (For a sample, see William Alston's Perceiving God, and critiques thereof by Keith Augustine and Jonathan Kvanvig.
In this brief response, I have not come close to doing justice to Metzinger's wide-ranging and thought-provoking essay. Most egregiously, I've left out his report on recent accounts of the evolution of belief and how it may make us prone to systematic error. Give the whole thing a read or a listen. It's worth it.