Comments on
Reductionism

Recently I have been looking through the internet for material to use in a seminar I'm developing on the topic of reincarnation. Occasionally I stumble upon a skeptic's website, and I try to read it dispassionately. Again and again, however, I run into reductionistic thinking. My first response is frustration, but it has gotten me thinking about the whole subject more deeply.

I'll give a couple examples I saw yesterday to make it clear what I'm referring to. In the first, some scientists were discussing their conclusions about "OBE's," or "out-of-body experiences." Since OBE's are commonly associated with sleep paralysis, their conclusion was that the brain, which naturally creates paralysis during dreams so people won't hurt themselves, was manufacturing the subjective experience of reality perceived through the senses, even though the actual senses were shut down and inaccessible. This is a reductionist explanation, inasmuch as the agent of consciousness is assumed to be the electro-chemical actions of the physical organ, the brain.

In the second example, a college professor was critiquing the research of Dr. Gary Schwartz, who studied a handful of "star" mediums including "Crossing Over" host John Edward. The skeptic said that the information provided by the mediums was too general and could apply to any number of people. He gave the example that a psychic told a subject that there was a father figure with a name starting with "H," and with an "N" sound in it, known to be big, like "the big H." The information matched the subject's father; but, the skeptic pointed out, it also matched his own father. Thus, the inference was that mediumship itself is impossible and that Dr. Schwartz's study(1) was poorly-designed (note that Dr. Schwartz has extremely good credentials as a scientist).

Here are the obvious flaws in both these arguments.

In the first case, that of OBE's, there are examples beyond count of people verifying details in their environment while experiencing OBE's and NDE's (near-death experiences), which they couldn't possibly have known while sleeping, dreaming, or even while confined to the same room. But these cases aren't even necessary to counter this argument. All that's necessary is that the person see the same details in the room while out of the body, as he/she sees when regaining normal functioning. In short, if the brain was manufacturing a subjective semblance of reality in the sleep paralysis state, then it would not correspond exactly to what the person sees when they are back in their normal state. It might be close, but not exact.

I myself had a very brief OBE after an incident of sleep paralysis. In it, I started to panic, got my wits about me, and learned through trial and error that I was able to move by mentally willing myself to move, i.e., willing myself to be somewhere else. In this manner I proceeded in small increments to get closer and closer to my then-fiance, who was sleeping and turned with her back to me. After a few such tries, I was able to get to within inches of her back--I was looking directly at the bedcovers on her back from inches away, in full detail, while fully conscious (and with no problems focusing as I might have with my physical eyes at such close range). Suddenly, I found myself back on the other side of the bed, fully functional. Logically, if my physical brain had been manufacturing a semblance of reality, I would not have woken up to see exactly the same scene as I had witnessed while in the altered state--i.e., my fiance sleeping with her back to me in exactly the same position, with the bedcovers lying in exactly the same way.

You can come up with possible alternatives here--like, my eyes were open and I saw the scene with my peripheral vision--but this wouldn't account for the crisp details I saw visually. Nor does it account for the stronger cases in which people have reported things going on in adjoining rooms. In short, if you stick with the reductionistic explanation in the face of mounting evidence, your explanations have to get more and more tenuous and illogical.

In the second case, there is a logical flaw in the skeptic's argument about the medium's matching information. Do you see it? He chooses one statement out of hundreds, and shows that this one isolated example also matches his own family and describes his own father. From this example he infers that all the statements could similarly apply to his own family, and he also implies that the one statement he cites could equally apply to any number of other people's families.

These inferences are clearly not warranted. The other hundreds of "hits" made by the mediums surely did not apply to the skeptic's family; nor would this one "hit" have applied to anyone else's family except for the skeptic's. But they did apply to the subjects they were given to with an accuracy rating of about 80%. Clearly taken as a whole, the statements would not have applied to the skeptic's family with anything like an accuracy of 80%.

Now, the skeptic was an educated and highly intelligent man, as were the skeptics in the OBE example. They've made what amount to gross logical errors, and they put the weight of science and reason behind them. How is this possible?

I've concluded that reductionism is a form of psychological denial, which attempts to protect the person from a radical challenge to their world view. It reminds me of trying to argue logically with a relationship partner. If you finally make a point with a partner who is in psychological denial, what happens? Do they cheerfully admit, "I guess you're right, I may have to rethink my position?" Well, maybe they do, and if so, you'd better hang onto that relationship because you have a real gem there. But in most cases, this is what I've seen happen:
1) the person falls asleep
2) the person announces that the discussion has gone on too long and it's time to stop
3) the person walks away
4) the person vents angrily in some way
5) the person projects something on you, the equivalent of "no, you"

Or any number of similar ego-maneuvers.

The similarity of this kind of behavior to the reductionistic arguments against phenomena like OBE's, NDE's, and reincarnation is striking, and I suggest it's fundamentally the same process.

Now, however, we come to the issue of what to do about it. The natural inclination, or perhaps I should own this and say my natural inclination, is to try to force the person into accepting the obvious. You may know this doesn't work too well in relationships, and it doesn't work too well with skeptics and reductionistic thinkers, either.

I believe the proper course is to make the information available, state the case clearly, and then let it go. Why? Keep in mind you are threatening the person's entire world view. It's a very uncomfortable feeling to be challenged at that level. If it is a scientist or professor as in the above examples, you are, in effect, challenging the validity of their doctoral dissertation, all their publications, all their teaching, their standing with their peers, and more. If their career is threatened their relationship is threatened, their children are threatened, their self-concept and self-esteem is threatened. Morever the very "ground they walk on," subjectively, is threatened. I certainly don't like that feeling much when it happens to me!

There are two reasons not to use psychic violence in trying to overturn such people's world views: 1) it is inconsiderate to them, and 2) like anyone who is thus challenged, they can get unexpectedly and uncharacteristically aggressive.

One wonders whether the martydom of various forward-thinking people throughout the ages was entirely necessary.(2) We usually think of it in sympathetic terms, but there is the other side of the coin, that some martyrs may have been unnecessarily psychologically violent in trying to self-righteously tear down other people's denial systems when those people weren't ready to assimilate the information to make a smooth transition.

What would you think of a man who charges into a field of flowers, and starts ripping open the buds trying to force them to grow? Or what would you think if your doctor started violently ripping off the scabs covering your wounds, before the wounds were fully healed?

Truth by its very nature must manifest--"the truth will out," as the saying goes. Simply by manifesting Truth, you will inevitably offend and challenge people. The dilemma is that attacking people's belief systems can become psychologically violent--but soft-peddling the truth so as not to challenge someone who may, in fact, be poisoning other people's minds, can be an act of cowardice.

The trick, I believe, is to act appropriately for each situation, and for that, one has to dig deeper into this mystery of reductionism and denial.

The classical definition of "reductionism" is: "1) a theory that all complex systems can be completely understood in terms of their components" and "2) the analysis of complex things into simpler constituents." However, Western society makes the implicit (and unwarranted) assumption that this means physical constituents, because it assumes that the physical world is real and the spiritual world is derivative of the physical world. The materialistic search for simplicity thus focuses on finding the most basic particle. There is nothing wrong with the principle of reductionism, per se, if it were spiritualized, because the search for the most basic spiritual unit would end with the soul. But that's the subject for a different paper.

Thus, instead of reducing things to their most simple and basic spiritual substratum, reductionism has degenerated into understanding everything in material terms. It attempts to "explain away" everything spiritual. This kind of reductionism, as it is is commonly practiced in our Western culture, is nothing but a new name for that state in which man believes in his senses and the manifested universe. It is, in fact, a natural and necessary state which goes on for countless incarnations, until a man finally starts questioning it based on the logic of his experience. This questioning stage itself probably takes quite a number of lifetimes, and is often preciptated by major shocks and disappointments in life, including his own death and the death of his loved ones. It's a process, moving from materialism, through nihilism, into mysticism. It's a hard-won victory each person must gain for themselves, and it can't be handed over to anyone on a silver platter. If you try to talk mysticism to someone, and you appear to have convinced them, you were really just acting as a trigger for their own experience to convince them, i.e., they were "ripe."

Denial is a subset of spiritual ignorance, what Hinduism calls "avidya." Spiritual ignorance can only be expelled by Truth, and that, generally, only when there has been sufficient experience of the opposites in previous lifetimes. The essence of spiritual ignorance is to take the unreal as being real--and, conversely, believing the real to be unreal. Spiritual ignorance has nothing to do with intellectual prowess. The most powerful intellect can be distorted and swayed by spiritual ignorance. Spiritual ignorance only dissipates as the heart is cleansed and egoism is reduced. This is one reason, to use an example familiar to our culture, that in the New Testament you have the learned priests and scribes arguing with Jesus, while little children and simple people are recognizing him. This points up the paradox that if you see someone giving a very learned discourse in a disrespectful, sarcastic, or pompous tone, it's likely to be distorted information, because the tone of delivery indicates that the person's heart isn't cleansed and the sense of egoism is strong--hence, spiritual ignorance will be operating to a relatively high degree.(3)

We see, then, that intellectual ability is not the only gauge of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, because the most powerful intellect and even the most rigorous science can be distorted by assumptions that are influenced by spiritual ignorance. This results in the paradox of highly intelligent, well-trained scientists resorting to various forms of denial. We also see that in trying to wrest someone away from their stranglehold on a reductionistic/materialistic world view, we are not merely dealing with a psychological or social phenomenon. We are dealing with something much deeper and more fundamental.

Again, I don't believe that one policy necessarily covers all situations. You would have to intuitively feel out where the person you're addressing is at, and you would also have to carefully look at your own motives. Are you manifesting Truth, or are you trying to egotistically force your opinion on someone? Big difference! Do you feel intuitively that you can plant a seed in the person's mind, for when they may be more receptive later on? Do you feel they are ready to hear it now? Or do you feel that you are trying to take their world by storm to win an argument for your own self-satisfaction?

We are on the verge of a societal paradigm shift, and the new paradigm will not be based on reductionism--or, more precisely, it will not be based on a materialistic reductionism. Those who cling to a materialistic/reductionistic world view will inevitably lose their legitimacy and authority as this transition progresses. Those of us who understand the spiritual nature of man and who will inherit the new legitimacy, will have to learn how to deal with the old order during this transition on a case-by-case basis with both compassion and courage.

--Stephen S.

1) See Gary Schwartz's own response to critical reviews of his work. [dead link as of 8/15/12]
2) This is not to imply that historical figures of spiritual authority were acting inappropriately when they exhorted and challenged people. What I'm suggesting is that their imitators may sometimes allow extraneous motives to enter in. Imagining they are doing the same thing the prophets were doing, in reality their version contains an admixture of egoism, etc.
3) A spiritual teacher may occasionally find it necessary to dislodge spiritual ignorance itself with sarcasm, but will never be found to be sarcastic toward spirituality or Truth. Further, in this instance the genuine spiritual teacher's sarcasm will not contain the element of egoism, but rather proceeds at its depth from compassion. The spiritual teacher wants to free the person he's addressing--the egotist wants to one-up the person he's addressing and defend his own point of view.

 

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