Why some spiritual theories are stupid

Here’s an article by Dr Paul Linden, an embodied training teacher who we recently hosted here in Brighton on why some supposedly spiritual theories are stupid and harmful. Ken Wilber also discusses such theories in his book about his wife’s cancer and I’ve blogged about things that aren’t as spiritual as they’re supposed to be here.



By Paul Linden, PhD

There are some interesting spiritual ideas out there. For example, a rape victim or a person with cancer may be told that before they came to this life, before they were born, they agreed to pain and suffering in order to grow spiritually.  They agreed because there was something in the situation that was necessary for their growth. In some sense, they were lacking in some personal quality. Perhaps they needed to be more courageous or more compassionate, and working out the situation would give them the opportunity to develop that personal quality.

As another example, it is said that if you focus your intentions and your thoughts correctly on some goal, that goal will manifest itself and come into existence.  If your thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, are positive, then you will be able to successfully manifest your desires. And if you can’t manifest your desire, then you were not completely or correctly focused on your goal.

Well, I understand the ideas, but how do I know that they are true? Such ideas are essentially pictures or theories of the world. They state that the world works in a certain way. The question is how to determine if a theory is accurate.

Theories can be roughly divided into two different kinds. Empirical theories are those that we accept because facts bear them out, and non-empirical theories are those that are we accept because of other forces. These other forces are generally emotional or social pressures. Some of our ideas we accept because they are beautiful or satisfying or because they feel right to us. Some we accept because we have high esteem for other people who recommend them. Some of our ideas we accept because they have been part of our familial upbringing or our cultural milieu. Some ideas we accept because of pressure from peer groups or authorities.

There are many forces pushing us to accept or reject various pictures of how the world is, and some pictures are better for achieving useful results. One way of putting the issue into perspective is to do a thought experiment. You are taking bids from construction companies for a project to build a bridge across a river. One company submits a design backed by calculations showing what support structures would be needed given the nature of the soil and the weight of the bridge. Another company based their design on a poem that came to the head of the company in a dream, and they have no measurements of anything. Which bridge would you feel safer driving across? Which company would you hire? I would hire the company that brings some practical evidence that their bridge would stand the forces that it would be subjected to.

Both of the spiritual theories stated above have some commonsense truth to them. Whatever may come your way, you can learn something from it. If it is painful, there are things to be learned about better ways to handle pain, about keeping up your courage, and so on. But to say that you caused your own pain as a learning experience, what evidence is there for that? Can there possibly be any concrete evidence whatsoever about what you did before you were born?

It is equally reasonable to say that what you pay attention to will loom large in your perception and your actions. What is on your mind will tend to be the focus of your actions, and if you keep focused on a goal, that will help you achieve it. But say my goal is to run Niagara Falls backward. There isn’t a ghost of a chance that my focus, however positive and however clear, will manifest water falling up the falls instead of down. But because there is a fudge factor, that doesn’t disprove the theory: if I can’t turn the falls around, that is simply a sign that I wasn’t focused enough. And what happens if someone else is simultaneously wanting the falls to run sideways? Does the theory work when there are two incompatible goals to manifest?

What the two theories have in common is ascribing immense power to the individual. My will is binding upon the universe! I can cause cancer or control the weather just by my thoughts.  How reasonable does that sound? In a minimal way it is reasonable: thinking about moving my hand will start the muscles moving. Thinking about throwing a ball will start the throwing movement. In some way, the mind does control some matter. But that is completely different from thinking about running the Falls backward.

However, the idea of immense power is a two-edged sword. Both theories hint at blaming the individual for the suffering in his/her life. You caused your cancer. You failed to manifest your dream house. You’re bad!

There is another thing that the two theories have in common: each is completely untestable. There is no possible way to check on their accuracy. We can’t go back before we are born and change our decisions about what to be and then observe how the life we lead becomes different. And since there is the fudge factor escape clause in the law of manifestation, we can never pin the theory down and say it didn’t work so it is not true. But the fact that we can’t say it isn’t true doesn’t prove it is true. Even when the two theories seem to be borne out by events, that isn’t enough to prove them true. For a theory to be properly testable, it must be possible to specify what evidence will count as supporting the theory and what evidence will count as disconfirming it.

Why does this make any difference? It makes a difference in a broad sense in that these kinds of spiritual theories teach people to accept ideas without clear logical support, and that can allow all kinds of unsubstantiated ideas to gain strength in the marketplace of ideas.

More specifically, each of the spiritual theories do contain a kernel of important truth that would help people in their lives, and I would guess that there are a lot of people who would not pay attention to the theories as stated who could be reached with a more common-sense expression of these ideas.

And most specifically, many of my clients are abuse survivors, and it would cause a lot of needless pain to say to someone something that amounts to “Cheer up, you chose to get raped so you could learn from it.”

PAUL LINDEN, Ph.D., is a body/movement awareness educator, a martial artist, and an author. He is co-director of the Columbus Center for Movement Studies:  at which he teaches Aikido, Being In Movement® mindbody education, and the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education. Paul is the author of “Comfort at Your Computer” “Embodied Peacemaking” and “Winning is Healing—Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors.” His work focuses on the application in daily activities of an integrated mindbody state of awareness, power, love and freedom.