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Science can be a powerful ally on the spiritual journey

Last month I attended a conference at Oxford University’s Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion called Religion, Society and the Science of Life. The premise was that there is something called the ‘new biology’ which is perhaps more sympathetic to religious or spiritual views of existence than the ‘old biology’.

What is this ‘new biology’? No one really laid it out at the conference, but from what I gathered, it refers firstly to the rise of systems biology. Computational analysis has given us a picture of nature as ‘a system that operates at a very wide range of scales’, as Cambridge plant biologist Ottoline Leyser put it, ‘and the whole system is soaked in feedback’.

If Darwinian biology studied life at the level of competing species, or competing genes, the new biology studies how systems interact from the very small scale (cells, DNA) to the very big (planetary eco-systems). The emphasis is now perhaps more on interdependence and feedback loops within holistic systems rather than Darwin’s war of all against all. Perhaps that view is more sympathetic to holistic spiritual visions than the more reductionist and mechanistic ‘old biology’. 

However, the ‘new biology’ can also refer to the rise of synthetic biology – the ability to create new forms of life, to de-code and edit genes. This seems to me more of a super-Darwinian vision, in which we can upgrade our genetic fitness not slowly, over generations, but instantly through CRISPR (a new genetic editing system, recently used to eradicate illness-carrying genes in human embryos). It is an exhilarating vision but also one that raises the prospect that humans will be surpassed by a superior species – homo deus of some sort – or we’ll mess up and wipe ourselves out by creating a super-virus. You can now order CRISPR gene-editing starter-packs on the internet…Yes, for $100 you too can make your own species! 

Universities as universes

The conference was a good attempt to get different disciplines to talk to each other. That’s what universities should be: ‘communities where you always recognize that someone else’s questions are as interesting as yours’, as Rowan Williams puts it in this interesting new book. I’m reading the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, God, Philosophy, Universities, in which he talks about the medieval university as a place offering a universal vision of existence –  of the cosmos, human biology, and man’s purpose in the cosmos.

That universal vision broke down in the 17th century, when Aristotelian science was supplanted by the mechanical materialism of Descartes, Hobbes and the rest. Disciplines became increasingly specialized and compartmentalized, with completely different and sometimes clashing visions of the universe, man, and man’s purpose. There’s rarely any effort to combine those visions into a universal vision – the faculties simply don’t talk to each other enough, and when they do, it’s with suspicion or incomprehension. 

If there is any over-riding vision for modern universities today, it is probably materialist utilitarianism: there’s no God, no afterlife, let’s try and make money, expand the economy, and maybe improve society. In the UK, 97% of the £3 billion the government gives to university research goes to sciences, with only 3% going to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Only one in ten undergrads study the humanities – by far the most popular degree is business studies and other vocational degrees. If there is any sense of purpose in this vision, it’s the blind drive for economic growth: get up the career ladder, get tenure, win funding, attract publicity, expand your department, attract more students, build more buildings.

What’s lacking in this vision of academia is any real understanding of consciousness, how it arises, what it’s for,  how it relates to the consciousness of other humans, animals, the natural world and the cosmos. Nor is there much understanding of how to transform consciousness, how to help it flourish and even reach enlightenment – a mission that was central to the first universities in ancient India and ancient Greece. 

Let’s imagine, for a second, a future model of the university in which the study of consciousness and the transformation of consciousness is central, rather than marginalized and excluded. For one thing, it would have a much greater sense of the importance of the arts and humanities. 

On science and spirituality

Personally, I have faith that science and spirituality are not at war with each other, that they both lead to one truth. I don’t believe that God – a word that denotes a higher dimension somewhat beyond our comprehension at present – requires us to believe in absurdities. I think both science and spirituality are driven by the hope that it all makes sense in the end, that our minds are moving towards greater understanding of ourselves and the cosmos.

One reason I think people mistakenly believe science and spirituality are enemies is because they confuse the empirical method with the worldview of naturalism and mechanical materialism. One of the key-note speakers at the conference was Massimo Pigliucci, prominent Skeptic blogger and recent convert to Stoicism (he’s just written a book called How To Be A Stoic). Massimo took issue with an Aeon piece I wrote on ecstatic experiences recently, and he wrote

Despite his skepticism of disenchanted materialism, Jules does bring in science when it seems to favor his take on things,

Massimo equates the scientific method with the worldview of disenchanted materialism. If I don’t believe the latter, I must be against the former. This is a standard mistake, highlighted by Rupert Sheldrake in his banned TEDx talk: ‘There’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or worldview. And unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and restrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of scientific endeavour’.

I think William James was right that we need a more ‘radical empiricism’ which is open to human experiences as a valid source of data – experiences of happiness, meaning, despair, transcendence and so on. If we accept subjective experiences as valid data, then we’d accept that most humans have occasional experiences of a higher dimension of mind, spirit or power which they describe with God words or spirit words. This is a common aspect of human nature which we need to include in any biological description of homo sapiens. We could then try to work out what this dimension is (not easy) and how we can access it in ways that help people flourish (somewhat easier). 

My intellectual heroes – James, Frederic Myers, Aldous Huxley and others – saw no contradiction between science and spirituality. They developed a sort of evolutionary spirituality, in which homo sapiens unfolds her spiritual potential from culture to culture and religion to religion. Wisdom –  sapiens – is a golden strand in our evolutionary code. We’re not quite sure where the sapiens came from – the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace thought it comes from a spiritual dimension which occasionally intervenes in evolution, while a few conspiracy-theorists have suggested wisdom-teachers like Pythagoras or Dionysus are really visiting extra-terrestrials, intervening benevolently in our cultural evolution. Pythagoras did have a golden thigh, after all, which sounds like a cyborg to me.

Anyway….we do at least have some idea how to develop the golden strand of sapiens in our minds and culture, so we can rise up the ladder of the helix.  I hope humans are just at the beginning of our evolutionary journey, and that we will develop more advanced forms of spirituality in which we don’t kill people with different definitions of the divine. Universities may have a role to play in that spiritual evolution, as far-fetched as that sounds today!

Crossing the Is / Ought divide

One of the challenges of combining science, ethics and spirituality is the Is / Ought divide. Can one go from an ‘Is’ – a scientific description – to an ‘Ought’, a moral prescription? Many Skeptic philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche have insisted you can’t, which has led to the sense of ethical confusion today. Must we try and pin our ethical or religious theories to the latest scientific evidence? Not easy when the evidence changes so quickly. 

And yet many contemporary thinkers, including me, have arrived at a sort of empirically-supported virtue ethics, in which the good life for individuals and cultures is the life in which we fulfil our natures as rational, social, political and spiritual animals.  The virtue ethics of Aristotle, the Buddha, the Stoics, and Christian philosophers like Thomas Aquinas are all based on models of human nature and theories of how to train the mind and body to find flourishing and liberation. They’re both ethical and biological systems – and also, at a deeper level, systems of physics and metaphysics, theories of consciousness, what it is, what happens to it after death. They’re universal theories. 

Findings from empirical psychology, psychiatry, sociology and neuroscience can help support classical virtue ethics. For example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Positive Psychology have tested out some of the techniques for self-transformation from Stoicism, Buddhism and Aristotelianism, and found that they ‘work’ – they help some people change chronic habits of depression and anxiety.

The empirical science of ecstasy and transcendence, which goes all the way back to William James, has also found that homo sapiens often has ecstatic experiences – moments where humans go beyond their ordinary self and feel powerfully connected to something greater than them. Psychologists have even developed scales to measure the depth of a person’s mystical experience. Psychology and neuroscience is increasingly finding that such experiences are good for us. So we can incorporate our yearning for ego-transcendence into an expanded virtue ethics (as, say, Iris Murdoch does in The Sovereignty of the Good). 

In both Philosophy for Life, and The Art of Losing Control, I described how recent findings from the psychology and the social sciences support this sort of expanded virtue ethics, how scientific evidence gives us hope that we can free ourselves from suffering and find flourishing in this life. I tried to build an agnostic model of virtue ethics, where people can accept the usefulness of both Greek philosophy and ecstatic practices as a means to flourishing, even if they don’t believe in God or a higher power (although I, broadly, do). 

But we also need to be honest about the limits of empirical science. CBT and mindfulness may help some people overcome emotional problems, but that doesn’t mean it makes them more virtuous people (as Stoicism and Buddhism claim). It’s difficult for science to measure how a person behaves all the time, whether they behave virtuously, without following them around their entire life or keeping them in a confined space (like a monastery).

This point was well made by the philosopher Owen Flanagan in his 2011 book, The Boddhisattva’s Brainwhich explores how contemplative science can tell us some useful things about Buddhist virtue ethics, but not whether the dharma actually makes people good, let alone whether it helps them reach Nirvana. 

Likewise, we can try to assess if ecstatic experiences help people flourish, but we can’t know for sure, because we don’t know what happens to consciousness after death. Socrates drinking hemlock, or Jesus dying on the cross at 33, appear to be a non-optimal outcomes from the point of view of their personal flourishing in this life. But they would argue it led to a greater flourishing in the next life.

Empirical psychology, then, can provide some support for virtue ethics theories, but they can never be entirely ‘proven’, because not everything can be precisely and objectively defined and measured.

A systems theory understanding of religions and revelations

Let me end with two things that I didn’t see discussed at the conference, which I think usefully connect the ‘new biology’ with spirituality. The first is to consider how systems theory help us understand individual and communal flourishing.

When I was mentally ill, I was stuck in a toxic feedback loop of rumination. I had a toxic idea of my self as damaged, broken and unloveable, which made me relate to other people in an avoidant and defensive way. This made other people react to me with suspicion and hostility, and it became a feedback loop – reinforcing my toxic idea of self and my alienation from the world. I was caught in a whirlpool of ego. 

I then had a near-death experience, which broke the loop of fear and rumination. It felt like some external force hit me and re-set me, a sort of external shock, like a spiritual meteor, although it may have been something within my own mind manifesting. Anyway, the experience helped me realize I was causing my own suffering through my thoughts. I couldn’t control what others thought of me, but I could learn to accept myself, and this gradually changed the feedback dynamic between me and other people (wisdom epigrams like ‘you get back what you put in’ refer to this sort of feedback loop between people’s intentions and other minds).

So that’s one point: mental illness can be understood in terms of getting stuck in feedback loops of rumination and alienation, and people are sometimes liberated from these loops by mystical-type experiences. That seems to be what happens in psychedelic therapy, for example. In Alister Hardy’s database of spiritual experiences, one often finds people saying they felt more and more cocooned in a loop of negative rumination, and then suddenly a spiritual experience breaks them out of the cocoon and they feel re-connected to their soul, their body, to other beings, and to the sparkling wonder of existence.

I subsequently became fascinated with the idea of nature as a self-regulating organism, and the idea – which one finds in many different cultures – that when a civilization becomes alienated, out-of-balance with nature and with the gods, when it worships itself and forgets its dependence on nature and the spirit-world, the eco-system seizes on individuals to act as regulators, to bring the system back into equilibrium. The shaman, prophet, artist and visionary are all figures who are seized by the eco-system (or the spirit world if you prefer), and used – possessed – as regulatory mechanisms to bring the alienated civilization into a new equilibrium with the spirit-world. 

Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, introducing tools to shift human consciousness and culture

This systems theory of religion and revelatory experiences isn’t entirely original. The work of Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and David Byrne incorporates systems theory into their exploration of communities, religion and the arts. Stewart Brand helped to organize the first Trips Festival in 1969, developing the idea of the rave as a self-regulating system in which he acted as the Regulator, tweaking the system to produce communal ecstasies (this is described in Fred Turner’s excellent book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture). He saw his mission as introducing new ideas and tools into the system – like the idea of the Whole Earth – which would then help the system to find a better equilibrium.  It’s interesting to think of religions as systems of information-sharing and consciousness-connection which form new holistic systems through collective ecstatic experiences.

DNA and the forgiveness of sins

The second idea which I think usefully connects spirituality with the ‘new biology’ is the idea, in classical Greek culture, that we carry around the sins of our tribe within us, and we somehow have to pay the karmic debt for these sins. I think this is an interesting way of understanding DNA – the double helix is our long ancestral history, and it contains both unfulfilled potential and inherited curses. The spiritual journey involves developing the potential while healing or breaking the curses.

I’ve inherited a genetic or epigenetic disposition to anxiety and other emotional problems, possibly from my mother, who possibly inherited it from her mother, who possibly inherited it from my great-grandfather, who either developed it during World War I, when he was gassed in the trenches, or perhaps inherited it from his ancestors. It’s hard to know where it began, but it’s there, in our genes, and a lot of my spiritual journey in this particular life is trying to work with these tendencies in my mind, in order to change the story, change the tune, while also helping other people going through similar stuff.

How do you change the story? Through things like wisdom, philosophy, spiritual practices, and also through therapeutic psychedelics. One way to understand the healing use of psychedelics – particularly ayahuasca – is that they give you the capacity to see your personal and family history, and to change bits of the story so that they don’t just repeat themselves over and over. It’s the spiritual version of CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. You see the emotional loop, and you can go snip, I want to change that loop so it doesn’t keep replicating.

Perhaps psychedelics can help break ancestral patterns of violence and suffering. But that doesn’t mean they’re essential to spiritual growth – Jesus suggested we just need to take the Eucharist, believe in Him, and we will be liberated from all ancestral sins going back to Adam. The Buddha and the Stoics, meanwhile, suggested we just need the wisdom to realize the emptiness of our thoughts and we can be liberated. Anyway, God knows what gene-editing is going to do to our understanding of the meaning of sin and suffering. Who needs karma or original sin when you have CRISPR! 

Mental illness: shedding the stigma around India’s big secret

From the 2016 movie Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression

Yesterday, I was at a panel on mental health in India, at a conference in Goa organized by UCL. One of the speakers – Ratnaboli Ray, who runs a mental health NGO called Anjali in West Bengal – asked for anyone in the audience who’d ever had mental illness or been on psychiatric drugs to raise their hands. For a few seconds, no one did. And then about 10 of us did, in a room of around 100.

It felt strange to me, raising my hand, in a way I’m not sure it would anymore in the UK – like I was risking my status, pushing against a wall of shame and secrecy. Like having had a mental illness was a big deal (which it isn’t). In fact, I only raised my hand because the lady next to me did first.

This is the paradox: that a culture with such a huge focus on health, well-being and spiritual wisdom should see mental illness as so taboo. If Prince Siddhartha hadn’t had a breakdown, India would have never given the world Buddhism, yet this is a country where mental illness is simply not discussed.

Why? My tentative initial answer is that India (like the UK) is a country obsessed with status and hierarchy. Mental illness is still seen as a terrible blot on one’s status, and therefore a risk to one’s career advancement, one’s marriage prospects, one’s place on the social scale, and to your family’s social prospects. India is the country that gave us Snakes and Ladders, and mental illness is seen as one big snake down to the bottom of the social hierarchy. (I might be wrong in this assessment – let me know in the comments!)

It’s also a threat to your rights. If you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, it can affect your ability to open a bank account, to get a driving license, to maintain custody of your children. Until 1976, it was accepted as grounds for divorce.

To protect the family status, the mentally ill are often abandoned in over-crowded psychiatric care facilities, where they can be ‘treated worse than animals’, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.

Mental illness is also hiding in plain sight in India. According to two recent surveys, between 130 million and 150 million Indians are suffering from a mental illness, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. I’ve met successful young Indians on my travels who are clearly stressed, over-worked, and in need of support. But mental illness is seen as a terrible curse, not something that pretty much happens to everyone in varying degrees of intensity.

As the Buddha put it, life is suffering – having a mind means you sometimes experience mental distress, and there are techniques we can learn to mitigate that, both psychological and pharmaceutical. India invented many of these techniques – indeed, Buddhism is one of the major influences on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which the NHS has put over one billion pounds into providing.

Yet in India, 90% of those with mental illness receive no treatment at all. India has 0.3 psychiatrists per 100,000, one of the lowest figures in the world. And they’re almost entirely in big cities.

Even among the urban affluent, very few seek therapy because of the stigma attached. I sat next to one lady on a plane and said I wrote about mental health. She told me of her ex-husband, who refused to admit he had depression. I didn’t like to ask if they had divorced or he was one of the 250,000 Indians who kill themselves each year.

Soumitra Pathare, an academic who drafted a new Mental Health Act, says: ‘There is institutionalized discrimination against the mentally ill. If they were a caste or women, we would be doing something for them, but we do nothing.’

Things are finally beginning to change. The new Mental Health Act is due to be made law this parliament, and will legally guarantee Indians’ right to treatment, and also to refuse treatment if they don’t want it (many inmates are in asylums and given Electro-Shock Therapy without consent). There are new initiatives to train community health workers to give brief psychological therapies.

There are several new apps and websites that offer counseling and therapy online. In Chennai, India’s third biggest city, I saw adverts for private counsellors and a wall painted with a big sign: Depression Is Treatable. There’s even a sex therapist in Bangalore (something so unusual it was written up in the media).

There are signs of a new openness around mental illness – last year, there was even a Bollywood film, Dear Zindagi, about a young woman seeking therapy for depression from a hot therapist. Imagine if one of India’s cricket superheroes opened up about mental illness – something several western sports stars have begun to do.

At the UCL conference, I spoke to Vikram Patel, a Wellcome-funded psychiatrist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has pioneered training rural community care workers in India and Africa in the delivery of brief psychological therapies. He was voted one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world (he points out the leader of Boko Haram is also on the list).

Why are there so few psychiatrists in India?

There’s a bottleneck problem in training – only accredited teachers can train new psychiatrists and there are very few accredited teachers. There’s also a stigma around being a psychiatrist, compared to say a neuroscientist. And there’s a huge distribution problem too – most psychiatrists work privately in big cities. In rural India, there could be a region with 10 million inhabitants and no psychiatrists.

Your approach is to train community ‘health visitors’ to give brief therapy?

Yes, we’ve trained health workers to give specific treatments for specific conditions. We found it worked very well when they were trained just for that, in controlled conditions. We now need to see how it works out in the field, in frontline primary care, where health workers treat not just mental but physical illness. The treatment of both in fact uses similar skills – lifestyle support, behavioural change support, the promotion of self-care.

And they give similar sorts of psychological therapies to western psychotherapy? Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, interpersonal counseling etc?

Yes, similar therapies, but briefer and simpler. The most profound discovery for me is that the theory of psychological mechanisms is universal. Cultural factors play a role in the metaphors you might use. Say you train people to use meditation and yoga in the treatment of anxiety. You could train them to breathe in, and then breathe out saying ‘om’, or a prayer to Jesus if they’re Christian. Those cultural factors make a difference because you’re tapping into hope, which is a very powerful healer.

Is depression and anxiety treated here?

Hardly at all. I thought the ‘worried well’ was a Western phenomenon but it exists here too. The majority could recover with some form of self-care, but some need more clinical interventions. But depression and anxiety are not even seen as illnesses. It’s just your social situation. It gets somatized, as fatigue or insomnia for example. And doctors would also not recognize they’re actually treating depression, they would treat it with painkillers or sleeping pills. People criticize me for medicalizing people’s experience, but these people are already in clinics, they’re just not getting the right treatment.

So nothing like the NHS’ psychotherapy service exists here?

Nothing remotely like it. We recently published a trial of psychotherapy in the Lancet- that was the first ever trial of psychotherapy in India. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the NHS’ therapy service, which was too professionalized. We want more self-care and community care – my dream is to be able to train someone off the street to treat someone else for depression.

Do you think computerized-CBT apps could be a way of getting therapy to more people?

Yes, I’m bullish on technology, it will transform healthcare in general. But there are limits on access to the internet, particularly for the poor and women. But we’re beginning to see things like Facebook pages for people with schizophrenia.

Are there charities and NGOs lobbying for improved mental healthcare?

There are, but they’re small, very local, and not yet working effectively together in the way we’ve seen, for example, in the treatment of HIV.

Could online media – blogs etc – play a role in opening up the conversation and getting rid of stigma?

Definitely. In fact, we’re launching a website in April which will encourage people to share their experiences online through various social media.

You can watch Vikram’s TED talk here: