Gnosis, Faith, and Reason: Using Epistemology to Analyze Any Cult Experience
Joseph Szimhart, 2016
Knowledge of existence remains a powerful attraction through which most notorious cult leaders tap into a seeker’s curiosity. Who and what am I, why am I here, where did I come from, and where am I going are common questions addressed by every religion and self-help guru. Unlike most modern philosophers from Descartes to Heidegger and beyond, cult leaders tend to evade the long debate by drawing seekers into experiential and social contexts that point to one source for answers.
True believers in totalist cults feeeze time and space. The final answer is in that teacher with that doctrine on that stage.
That source is an epistemological dance between a cult leader’s epistemic superiority and a seeker’s ontological experience that confirms the leader’s embodiment of deep knowledge. The experience of being in itself or God as the author of being has been called gnosis. The term comes from the Greek for “knowledge” or “understanding,” but later it became a catchword for sects that claimed to reveal ultimate knowledge of being or God and that formed behaviors to help believers sustain gnosis.[i]
The purpose of this paper is twofold: First, I aim to help the former cult member to address knowledge claims that appear to have come from good or evil supernatural sources as personal experience. Second, I offer the skeptic, who views faith (or woo) and reason as mutually exclusive, another way to appreciate why people persist in unreasonable claims to knowledge through faith and gnosis. I want to alert both ex-cult members and skeptics that no amount of reason will erase faith and gnosis as essential to healthy human functional awareness.
There has been a decline since the 1980s of the so-called “secularization thesis” or that notion that human kind is moving away from faith toward reason since Enlightenment times.[ii] Religion is not being marginalized as much as reinvented in New Ageism and the democratization of spirituality. Individuals continue to create designer spiritualities that meet personal tastes and tastes change. New cults and spiritual teachers continue to emerge because cult formation as devotional behavior has always attended culture and challenges to the status quo in society. Devotional behavior does not require a deity or spirit, but it tends to include that woo factor that skeptics see when groups lose it for some transcendent motivator—what Emile Durkheim called collective effervescence. The motivator could be stopping world hunger with positive thought, air conditioning the planet with Tesla’s “free” electricity, or belief in the revelations of a new messiah. It is the bad and unhealthy expression of woo that skeptics need to address.
Former members often have questions about what to believe if anything after leaving a bad group experience or abusive relationship. How can I know what is true or who to trust? To reduce painful cognitive dissonance an ex-member might sustain a familiar faith within the same religious milieu. For example, defectors from corrupt local churches that used the Old King James Bible might seek a safer fellowship that regards only that document as authoritative. Malcom (Little) X (1925-1965) chose out of Elijah Muhammad’s radical teachings after an awakening while visiting the Middle East. X’s conversion to a more traditional Sunni, non-racist Islam may have been the cause for his assassination. The price for knowing better can be dangerous. Others may find relief in no religion and seek a skeptical philosophy, one that avoids noumenal speculation in favor of empirical verification or seeks facts and avoids value judgments. Many avoid the risks of adopting any world view by immersing themselves in social adjustments, jobs, and family. After being deeply deceived, how to know what to believe can be a painful question, but it can also be an exhilarating challenge. Ex-members can enter the Great Debate in philosophy not to seek final answers but to find ways to seek reliable, pragmatic knowledge.[iii]
In the chapter “Fact and Value” by Hilary Putnam from his Reason, Truth, and History (1981) he argues pragmatically that fact is not wholly reducible by physics and value is not merely relative or wholly subjective. There is actual goodness to be agreed upon without risking a government that dictates absolutely what is good. Putnam is among modern philosophers who regard the “God’s eye view” as well as the “view from nowhere” as practically useless in pursuit of knowledge. Any number of cult leaders have claimed a God’s eye view, while others tout “emptiness” or “no mind” as if they know how to operate from nowhere. Journalists in recent history believed in a view from nowhere as if it existed objectively in that ideal world where fact is fact.
Joseph Margolis (born 1924) argued for a "robust relativism" that rejects the vapid "you create your own reality" slogan of many New Age channelers as well as the above mentioned God's eye view. Margolis holds that human beings can apply both bivalent kowledge claims (true or false as in math and logic) and cultural knowledge claims regarding aesthetics, politics, cuisine, etc. by examining the evidence. We may not say that a work of art is true or false save for plagiarism, but we can say it is apt, robust, excellent, challenging, or a sorry mess. We can assess a politician for leadership by applying a host of evidential factors, among them behaviorial history, health, rhetorical ability, and trustworthiness, none of which are bivalent choices but are important choices nevertheless. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Margolis
In a pragmatic approach, we strive for what is best using whatever means we have in language, justice, science, aesthetics, and history. We do not accept that each man should create his own justice arbitrarily in a relativistic, uncaring universe. The universe aside, healthy-minded human beings, given a chance, tend to care about goodness and beauty. We tend to believe that art works can be juried to represent the best entries despite the subjectivity of every artist. Talent, insight, execution, relevance, and taste all have a say why art products are not all equally good. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but we can all tell the difference between a good portrait that looks like our mothers from one of someone else’s mother. If we cannot, we are unstable, blind, or insufferably cynical. I have worked directly with patients in a mental hospital for nearly two decades and there are multiple criteria that work well enough to describe actual mental disorders. I am using the same pluralistic, pragmatic approach to examine expressions of knowledge by controversial gurus and teachers. No one with a mental disorder is totally insane just as no one walking free in society is totally sane about everything. Religions and gurus fall under the same spectrum.
The biological underpinnings of awareness find expression in evolutionary epistemology. This approach does not look for a ghost in the machine or a God to fill the gaps that science cannot explain or test. Rather than approach the specialness of a guru or cult doctrine as something separate or an ideal state as in Platonism and other dualistic strategies, an evolutionary approach eliminates the need for a special spiritual or metaphysical source of enlightenment. Enlightenment, whatever it is as a special state, is natural and not supernatural. Evolutionary epistemology allows us to explore what once appeared supernatural without resorting to reason-compromising techniques. It does not take away the belief in God but it does offer a way to avoid self-deception about spiritual ideas. In other words, we have no cultural reason or evidence to believe that more prayer is more effective or that a Jain prayer is better than a Presbyterian prayer.
Art and the spiritual world have been inextricably linked throughout ancient human history. Ellen Dissanayake (1995) in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why argues that art was central to human evolutionary adaptation and that the aesthetic faculty exists in every human being (back cover note). Dissanayake challenges dualistic views that have dominated Western thought since Greek philosophy was augmented by Christian teaching in which the body and mind as well as the world and the spirit are at odds if not at war. “The Christian attitude toward the physical can be summed up in the 17th Century admonition that the more abstract we are from the body, the more fit we will be to hold divine light.”[iv] Right or wrong, it has been rather easy for any number of cult leaders to fit their nutty if transcendent ideas into that space that apparently splits body from mind and spirit from world or to deny the reality and goodness of the material world altogether.
Philosophy typically explores problems of knowledge, conduct, and governance. Most criticism of controversial cults centers on conduct and governance. Problems of knowledge tend to be thornier issues surrounding irrational beliefs, private revelations, and devotional objects. Science-oriented skeptics tend to address irrational beliefs if not all belief critically, while sociologists of religion hold a more relative and tolerant, social science position toward belief systems. The crux of this knowledge problem lies in the democratic, legal approach that tends to tolerate nonsensical beliefs (people can be taught to levitate; Earth is 8,000 years old; eating pork will send you to hell) as long as those beliefs do not lead to dangerous or illegal behaviors.
Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that examines the nature and possibility of knowledge and truth. The discussion in epistemology meanders between explanation and description as my effort will in this paper. To recover from any cult experience, it helps to understand how ways of knowing have been manipulated. One model proposes that gnosis, faith, and reason are the primary categories through which human beings know anything. I will describe that model below.
We will look into the primal role of gnosis throughout human cognitive evolution and its attraction in cult and religious activities. I want to explore why this feature of human awareness provides the persistent bait for all kinds of social influence and for popular but shallow philosophies. The four-letter word cult has no negative charge in this approach. But cults can be unhealthy and harmful.
Unhealthy Cult: Self-sealing social system sustained by constricted cognition, unethical conduct, and autocratic governance.
The brief definition above echoes linguistic derivations of cult from the Latin cultus that meant “care for” and from which comes our word cultivate. Cultus deorum meant “care for the gods,” and it was used specifically by ancient Romans as the name for their religion.
Romans distinguished the proper Cultus Deorum as Religio Romana from superstitio Romana. Roman religion centered on orthopraxy or religious practice through attitude, rituals, prayers, and sacrifices as opposed to orthodoxy which centers on beliefs as spelled out in a creed or manifesto. Attitude and sophistication distinguished religio from superstitio, not proper adherence to a creed.
Cicero (106-43 BCE) urged Romans to follow the path of religio as the philosophers and holiest people did and not merely with unrealistic magical expectations. There was no fixed ritual in the Cultus Deorum, but rituals did adapt to the changing times, for example, in times of drought, famine, or war. Faith was more so common knowledge about worship of the gods than any fixed document or testament. Just as Cicero could distinguish superstitio from religio, we can also distinguish crude, unhealthy, or harmful cult behavior and belief from healthier and more sophisticated approaches to devotion.
Unhealthy cults abuse knowledge systematically, often through a bait and switch mechanism.
Transcendence or experience of gnosis (mind/self-expansion) is often the BAIT that switches into cognitive constriction.
• Transcendent attraction as bait: Self-realization, world salvation, or supernatural healing. New recruits might experience or hear about an ecstasy, miraculous event, or a financial boon that they readily attribute to group affiliation and techniques. Nietzsche’s departing from herd mentality. Becoming special. Knowing from within that something is true.
SWITCH: conduct and governance compromised by group immaturity, false or fantastic beliefs, and/or character disorder in leader.
• Exclusive authority: The Source has no living peers; an avatar of God; channel of Gnosis, charisma. Minimal to no checks and balances.
• Circular tension: Orbiting a central mission, struggle to believe mitigated by submission to leadership that is deemed necessary to sustain the way to a transcendent goal. Believers navigate between a contaminated or condemned world and an improbable or impossible goal.
• Exit perils: Once in orbit around the truth (interpretation of gnosis), one fears falling back into ignorance, sin, worldly or non-group contagion, or limited ego. Defection can mean loss of spiritual gain, salvation, supports, and investments.
We can use an epistemological model to examine specific examples of movements that misuse cognition and how that creates problems with conduct and governance. I want to examine cognitive constriction caused by cult managed spiritual experience. I aim to clear up some confusion about how and why people find cults of any stripe attractive.
In these ongoing cult debates, we regularly hear this exchange. “We have a right to our beliefs. Leave us alone.” Critics will often counter, “We criticize your behavior, not your beliefs.”
In a democratic country, freedom of speech is a double-edged sword.
The implication is that people have a right to believe in anything, in the reality of Bigfoot, a hidden civilization in a hollow Earth, or that human beings can levitate by chanting the right mantra. But we should question when someone charges $100,000 to invest in an expedition to prove that Bigfoot or hollow Earth folk exist. By the same strategy, some people may believe in a new religion that teaches them to realize themselves as God with superhuman awareness and powers, but we can question whether any guru or devotee ever exhibited superhuman powers. We can challenge them to prove how they know that their beliefs are true or even smart.
And faith may have nothing to do with it. Many new religious teachers (neo-shamans, Eastern gurus, Pentecostal preachers) eschew faith as outdated religion and ridicule skepticism as the monkey mind or the devil in favor of direct personal experience of what some call “my truth” or a “personal experience of Jesus.” Thousands will sit in rapt attention for high prices to a life coach or spiritual teacher spouting clever insights into being in the now or accessing the Source and non-dual states from which all life, change, and miracles come. Faith as creed is retrofitted to explain experience, but reason is not allowed to examine faith. If a seeker at a neo-shaman’s drug session has an incredible experience with the entheogen Ayahuasca, that seeker will entertain that shaman’s promotional explanation and tend to reject critics that explain the experience in another, more prosaic way. Compliance and investment will trump reason. In other words, the seeker will fall into a constricted approach to knowledge and call it pure gnosis. They can avoid thinking about it because gnosis is not about thinking.
All forms of knowledge, conduct, and governance are up for examination during an intervention. Therefore, I do offer to examine beliefs with clients, especially if they are demonstrably false beliefs or appear to be the expressions of delusion or grandiosity.
I take issue with this slogan: It is about behavior, not beliefs. My approach is from epistemology or the philosophy of problems of cognition. Beliefs are a form of knowledge and a motivating function of behavior. So is the function of gnosis, namely knowing without resorting to belief or reason. Beliefs are often confused or identified with gnosis.
We can use a model presented by Wouter J. Hanegraaff in his article “Reason, Faith, and Gnosis: Potentials and Problematics of a Typological Construct.”[v] My use of this model goes beyond Hanegraaff’s analysis, but I agree with him that reason, faith, and gnosis are categories of “knowledge claimed” that occur in science and religion as well as in art and literature with differences in degree of emphasis only. The problematics center mostly around the religious associations historically with gnosis within modern occultism. The academies of religion have tended to ignore neo-occult tradition as “a hopeless undertaking.”[vi] For my purposes, a treatment of gnosis as an essential aspect of epistemology is important to cultic studies
Typology of three basic areas of knowledge as reason, faith and gnosis
Reason: communicable and verifiable or falsifiable (the scientific method, logic, reality testing)
Faith: communicable; not verifiable or falsifiable (creed, foundation myth, doctrine, manifesto)
Gnosis: not communicable, not verifiable (Being in itself, the Tao, non-dualism, primitive awareness, direct apprehension).
Gnosis is typically and unfortunately overlooked in the modern epistemological battle between faith and reason. Hanegraaff (2008) describes it this way: Gnosis is not communicable and not verifiable. Utterly beyond words. Requires the suppression of all bodily senses. A “gift from God.”
My definition like Hanegraaff’s secularizes gnosis as primal cognition. In doing this I cannot avoid adding that primal cognition is active and not symbolically reflective, funded to human beings through evolution, more apparent in other living creatures that do not articulate creeds or reason through symbols and scientific methods. Gnosis is to know without struggle or moral judgment. Related terms are: Instinct, intuition, perennial wisdom, “grok,” Edenic awareness, I AM that I AM, satori, Samadhi, mysticism, or Being as such. Gnosis is the means and end of yoga. Gnostic systems are expressions of the experience of gnosis in symbols, signs, rituals, and revelatory language.
There is a stream of esoteric tradition in the West called Gnosis, but that historical label is not what is meant by gnosis here. I am not talking about Gnostic religion or New Age Gnosticism, although these derive from what they experience as direct knowledge without faith or reason.[viii]
To reiterate, gnosis in this epistemological model is primal awareness as funded by evolutionary processes into human awareness and is the very foundation of how we know anything. It is the nothing from which epistemology emerges from ontology; what the mystic Jacob Boehme called the Ungrund. Buddhas and mystics throughout the ages have interpreted this connection to being as connection to God or satori—the state of enlightenment. This special awareness later augmented by reason in human cultural evolution has been funded through our biological evolution. We can see this more clearly in animals and insects that appear to just “know” how to behave without instruction, manifesto, creed, or reference library. Ancient peoples often viewed wild animals as having godlike qualities. They just knew. Words including instinct, natural, intuition, and Tao indicate our awareness that knowing is operating without reference to faith or reason. This kind of knowing appears psychic or godlike to true believers that cannot find any other explanation.
There remains a serious problem here for skeptics and secularists who view reason as the angel in epistemology and faith as the devil. Hanegraaff’s typology is helpful. He offers three analytical categories of knowledge claimed as Reason, Faith, and Gnosis. Each involves two characteristics listed as Communicable and Verifiable/Falsifiable. Again, only reason has both communicable and verifiable characteristics.
We can approach extensions of knowledge as reason and faith coming from gnosis with a pragmatic strategy. I mentioned Hilary Putnam who has been one voice among modern pragmatist philosophers. Without faith we cannot easily navigate our daily lives. We say we believe that our car will be parked where we left it last night. We do not verify this until we see our car and where it is parked. Reason is the tool we use to separate belief from false belief. If our car is missing, we have entertained a false belief and we will rethink how to locate the car. Metaphysical propositions rely less on physicalist verification. We can believe the story or creed that the Buddha was enlightened about solving the problem of suffering, but we should not believe that his Eightfold Path solves the problem of suffering without reasonable application—what Buddha called right action and we might call ethical behavior. Jesus, another big name from what skeptics call the woo world, pragmatically indicated the same: By their fruits will you know them. In others words, we should be able to assess (reason about) the value of faith claims by examining faith behaviors.
My effort here is to help recovering abusive group members get past or under the false dichotomy of faith verses reason. I would want the ex-member to grasp that their guru or leader was spouting “truth” badly and not merely lying. Even lies come from somewhere in our awareness, so the possibility that any guru’s utterance comes from the essence of being is true. We want to call that essence God, the Universe, gnosis, or the perennial source. The problem with those incredible experiences we have that God or Spirit or Truth is somehow connected with our guru, preacher, yoga, breath work, or drug is that the claim is basically true. All awareness true or false in expression comes from That Source or Being. We cannot question that. We can question how and what is expressed and if it is reasonable, ethical, elegant, and not a waste of our time.
We are easily fooled by personal experience of God or Truth to leap into acceptance of whatever we believe stimulated that experience no matter how lame the source or teacher. Our brains can betray us. We have a “traitor in our skulls” according to neuro-scientist Kathleen Taylor (2006) who offers evidence of primitive brain functions of emotion and cognition that can bypass the executive function in the neo-cortex.[ix] Manipulative cult leaders behaving like hypnotists and mentalists have dozens of techniques that take advantage of this “traitor in our skulls” to usurp our wills to some degree if not totally. Taylor is certainly not the first to notice, but she has been among the few that view the problem through evidence of brain function. Cultural anthropologists including the eminent I. M. Lewis (1930-2014) have long noted how ecstatic rituals bond believers to a cause or leader. “Spiritual experience (ecstasy, hypnogogic state) takes on the characteristics of the environment in which it arises.”[x] Religion professor Wayne Proudfoot investigated a new Japanese Buddhist movement based on the teachings of Nichiren (1222-1282): “Chanting and proselytizing are strongly recommended to the prospective convert with only the most rudimentary justification. Try it. It will change your life. Curiosity about the belief system is initially discouraged...when [we] inquired about the meaning of the chant on a visit to a Nichiren meeting, we were told that this should concern us only after we had experienced the power of the chanting to produce benefits I our lives.”[xi] Again, experience here is about gnosis as bait; not faith or reason.
Strategies to connect to gnosis by abusing reason and compromising faith:
Jon Atack, a former Scientologist, wrote a comprehensive book exposing his old “new religion.” His title, A Piece of Blue Sky (1990), aptly describes what we really buy when we buy “gnosis” (Self-realization) at ashrams or workshops peddled by imperfect prophets. We learn that L. Ron Hubbard’s insane cleverness did not translate into healthy religious behavior. In his Dianetics, Hubbard crudely repurposed Freudian analysis to accommodate an old occultist maxim: All is illusion except your will to be (anything you want). In other words, like fantastic sorcerers of old, we have a capacity to transcend human biological limits and wield magical power if we follow and pay for unregulated techniques and teachings. Hubbard’s notoriously misbehaved acquaintance, the unruly occultist and adventurer Aleister Crowley, said it directly: Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law. Both men died in less than honorable circumstances, Hubbard injecting hydroxyzine hydrochloride and smoking cigarettes while hiding in a California motor home with a paranoid world view. Crowley died at a boarding house in England craving more morphia or opiates. Thus both men demonstrated that nothing they taught about will worked for them. Common men and women die peacefully with their wills not owned by paranoia or opiates. The two self-proclaimed gods may have engaged pure gnosis but neither were able to put it to good use or grasp its true value.
Gnosis like the sky is there for you in any way you want through sensual experience, art, scientific experiment, mythic stories, and so on. But can we ever own it like a magic health wand, a means for superpowers, or a predictive tool? Science and empirical valuation make use of sky by defining atmosphere, air currents, gases, radiation, pressure, and a host of other testable things. That inner sky we call awareness or the ocean of consciousness is the territory “sold” to us by mail-order, Internet, and workshop mystics. Regulated mental health industries struggle mightily with self-correction and a will to move toward evidence-based interventions. Groups like Atack’s Scientology claim to have superior techniques that bottle the sky and release the deity within which is that primal will the group calls an Operating Thetan.
This magical inner soul of man has been a fool’s gold mine for thousands of gurus, cults, and spiritual teachers throughout history. In our hyper-protean age of communication and easy travel the market for soul connection has expanded considerably. We will list some more examples that span nearly half a century of gnosis seekers.
Erhard Seminars Training emerged in the 1970s. Est = is in Latin, indicating that the trainings were about being or being yourself without judgment after stripping away all prior beliefs and hang-ups. John Rosenberg (Werner Erhard) the founder was called Source (sic). Training to get “it” (gnosis, enlightenment) helped people realize the leader’s slogan: Everything is perfect in the moment. Techniques of group influence over ego displacement and employing hypnosis with suggestions have been applied in similar mass trainings geared to strip the ego of faith and reason so that gnosis alone can flourish. The chronic problem with est and its offshoots has been a failure to acknowledge the proper value of faith and reason in human cultural experience. Converts, if not utterly confused, tend to be obnoxiously self-aware immediately after attending these workshops. They have been conditioned to recruit you. Any true gains are things people get anyway in normal life with normal effort. For most people who decline to return for more trainings, the high of experiencing a true self tends to wear off, much like the exhilaration after radical rides in an amusement park wears off in time.
A Course in Miracles (1975), created by spiritually troubled psychologist Helen Schucman and her boss at the psych department of a major hospital, medical psychologist William Thetford, has been a popular neo-Jesus revelation for decades touted by celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and singer John Denver. Examples from the Course exhibit its reliance on gnosis. Lesson 191: “I am the holy Son of God Himself.” 187: “I bless the world because I bless myself.” 338: “I am affected only by my thoughts.” 70: “My salvation comes from me.” 253: “My Self is the ruler of the universe.”
I researched ACIM shortly after it came out and found it to be an offshoot of 19th Century New Thought.[xii] Gnosis as knowledge of our divinity in ACIM resides in the “holy instant” or immediate presence of being. ACIM hypes this as a profound insight. I have to scratch my head at pithy revelations like this---where else would anything reside? Even our memories of the past are present. The problem with ACIM are its lack of application to anything but itself and its dreary repetition of self-awareness as if this is somehow a special state that is continually attacked by normal life. I imagine a fork contorting to fork itself when I read neo-gnostic tomes like ACIM. Why ruin a good fork by bending it like that?
Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998), reclusive but enormously popular novelist and cult leader, trademarked body movements called Tensegrity and applied neologisms like the nagual, second attention, non-ordinary reality, and dreaming to states of mind connected to gnosis. Sorcery and entheogens or psychoactive drugs were means to assist in the experience of gnosis. Castaneda’s Yaqui Indian character don Juan Matus was purely fictional. The author provided no evidence that he ever studied with an Indian medicine man and don Juan’s sorcery matched nothing in Yaqui language or tradition. Women from Castaneda’s inner circle wrote occult adventure books like his and they sold poorly. Since he died, Castaneda’s small personal cult appears to have dissolved from significance (one woman apparently committed suicide), but his version of acquiring gnosis called sorcery continues to sell.[xiii]
Leonard Orr (born 1937) co-authored Rebirthing in the New Age, 1977. Some quotes from the book: God is thou and me… You are the Creator (249). From Chapter 11, “The Ten Commandments by Leonard Orr:” VII—Adultery really means the adulteration of one’s own thoughts; As long as you honor yourself as God you are not adultering [sic] the truth and everything is OK; If you are God, you can decide that you are married today and that you are not married tonight (so you could sleep with another woman) and then you can decide you are married again tomorrow (256). There is no such thing as false witness (257).
On his website Orr appears pictured with a dozen or more “immortal friends” in Virginia in 2015 at his retreat.[xiv] To join Leonard Orr’s organization of 1008 Immortal Friends Club the annual fee is $3,300, but “Individual work with RBI [Rebirthing/breath-work] Staff and Leonard Orr, when appropriate could cost you more. You can buy Advanced physical immortality practices and special literature. There is no way you can fact check this “estimate,” but Orr’s website states, “It is estimated that more than 10 million people around the globe have experienced the healing power of Rebirthing Breathwork” after “ten” sessions with one of Orr’s trained staff. In Orr’s breathwork, we should reasonably question both fact and value.
Eckhart Tolle (toe-lee) was born 1948. He is the author of The Power of Now (1999) and A New Earth (2006). Eckhart Tolle is a public speaker and not a cult leader as such, but he has a huge if loose cult following of spiritual seekers. Tolle is a celebrity. He has been promoted by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. His books sell in the millions. Tolle claims that his insight represents “…an emerging new dimension of consciousness” (New Earth, 55). “The ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but I Am” (A New Earth, 57). Reason is useless in his view: “Intellectual agreement is just another belief and won’t make much difference to your life” (Power of Now, 71).
The Power of Now is Tolle’s 1999 memoir of his enlightenment. From The Power of Now: “Until my thirtieth year , I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression” (3). “What was left then was my true nature as the ever present I Am: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form” (5). “I spent almost two years sitting on park benches in a state of the most intense joy” (5). We can question whether Tolle’s bliss was dissociation, mania, or enlightenment. “Later [@1980], people would come up to me and say I want what you have…Before I knew it, I had an external identity again. I had become a spiritual teacher” (6).
The epistemological impoverishment of Tolle’s teaching stems from his emphasis on self-generated truth or gnosis while avoiding science and reasonable analysis to test and apply his ideas. Tolle avoids a clear statement of faith as do almost all teachers of neo-gnostic pathways. For millions, apparently, Tolle’s self-experience of I Am is intriguing if not profound. Mimicking the Buddha, Tolle offers insights and teachings, then expects seekers to work out your own salvations as Siddhartha directed his disciples at the end of his life. But Tolle is no Siddhartha and Tolle has offered little of substance beyond New Age best sellers and expensive workshops as evidence of being in the I Am.
Current Tolle conferences: Dates: September 29-October 2, 2016. Teacher: Eckhart Tolle and Kim Eng Location: Huntington Beach, CA. Tickets cost $1,497 after 5/1/2016. We are thrilled to invite you to Living a Life of Presence, the inaugural event of the newly created Eckhart Tolle Foundation retreat center at Huntington Beach, CA.
Power and Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior (2002) by David Hawkins, M.D, Ph.D. (1927-2012) was endorsed on the front cover by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, author of 10 secrets for Success and Inner Peace (2005). Power and Force has back cover endorsements by Mother Teresa, Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame, and Sheldon Deal, president of International College of Applied Kiniseology. Endorsements say a lot about the audience and milieu and this milieu is marked by magical thinking and spirtual fundamentalism (with all due respect to Mother Teresa's intentions if not her methods). Applied Kinesiology has nothing to do with the actual science of kinesiology--AK is to muscle testing as astrology is to astronomy. Dyer entertains seeker audiences with his books and lectures about how harmonious he is because of his heightened awareness of the Source of Being (gnosis). Dyer's lectures appear on public television regularly.
Power and Force by Hawkins delves into levels of consciousness as he rates the "integrity" of people, sciences, and documents according to an idiosyncratic system that Hawkins claimed had "twenty years" in development. His scale from 1 to 1000 places the vast majority of human beings from 1 to 600 with the general population of humans at 200. The US Constitution rates 700 or very "enlightened." The usual suspects like Jesus and Buddha rate well above 600 in the "realm of non-ordinary evolution--of enlightenment, sages, and the highest spiritual states" (52). The study (book) "correlates well with Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenic field hypothesis" (53). At level 700, all that can be said is "All is" when "one is in the state of Beingness" (316). Hawkins employs a bogus technique to calibrate the scale. Most Applied Kinesiology (AK) practitioners like Hawkins use a two person technique. One holds an arm out while another presses down on the wrist with two fingers. If the arm remains strongly up when, say, you name someone like John Lennon or show his picture, then you can give Lennon a positive or high mark. That's it. AK has been criticized as not only unreliable, but also as a quack technique to test anything. http://www.energygrid.com/spirit/2007/09ap-davidhawkins.html
As for me on the Hawkins scale? "Hawkins dismisses those who criticize his theories with the ad hominem argument, stating that they calibrate below 200, the basic level of integrity, and so are not in a position to criticize him."
Is gnosis enough? Can we ever bypass faith and reason? Can gnosis ever be pure as in “knowledge” or direct experience of Holy Spirit, Being, or Self as offered by gurus and preachers? The answer is no, we cannot bypass faith and reason if we care to flourish as knowledgeable human beings.
Based on my definition that knowing or “primal cognition” is “funded” to human beings through evolution and emerges in culture, it is no surprise that we experience gnosis through countless strategies offered by religions, cults, sciences, entertainment, and arts.
The experience of gnosis through ecstasy, trance, prayer, ritual, breathing, romance, hyper-verbal lectures, drugs or any other means is real. Gnosis is the experience of Being in itself in a timeless, infinite state. So what? What is the big deal? Meditate for five minutes, smoke a joint, shoot heroin and gnosis as mindfulness is available to you. A bacterium experiences being in itself, a form of gnosis. Looking back at our characteristics, gnosis can neither be communicated nor verified. A bacterium does neither. It just is aware. Does that make the bacterium God because it has gnosis? If so, what does that say of your conception of God and of yourself? Gnosis is an active characteristic of knowledge. The point is to use it well, sharpen it like a knife with reason and hold to what is good with faith. Deep awareness of being or cosmic narcissism is not going to make you a god or be God, no more than a knife can cut itself. That is not what gnosis is for and not what knives are for.
Human beings are not paramecium, sharks, or gorillas. Human beings exercise judgment in the moral and material world sharing information through behavior, signs, symbols, and complex abstract sounds—in a word, language. Unlike the less elaborate language of animals, human language is organized around logic, history, politics, education, art, and all manner of social and environmental engagement. We call that organization culture and we refine that organization through sciences. Animals like ravens and elephants are precise sign givers, not story tellers and scientists. No animal but man makes watches or spaceships. No animal but man does yoga or plays Parcheesi.
Epistemology in the Garden
To exercise judgment, human beings struggle to solve problems of conduct and governance within any culture. Animals tend to act on what we call instinct or the Edenic state, just as proto humans did when we were also “naked” among the animals.
Western cultures have formed around some ancient insights. Since we are talking about epistemology, I want to look at the mythic Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as an example of the dawn of epistemology in ancient Hebrew culture:
And the LORD God said, the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. (Genesis 3:22, New International Version of the Bible)
In other words, man cannot judge or decide how he wants to run his life and live forever in “sin” or conscious moral error. Adam and Eve’s judgments fell short of their seemingly perfect or natural state. Awareness of imperfection, not imperfection, is the key to grasping this myth from an evolutionary perspective. If man was not aware of dying, he did not “die.” Why was nakedness suddenly wrong? Because emotion evolved into ethics and it was reasonable for man to feel manipulated by nakedness. Ensuing behavior might include uninvited sexual contact leading to struggle and harm. With new awareness, Eve may have felt violated by Adam’s horny behavior and might have clubbed him. Adam then felt badly for “violating” Eve. Covering up was a signal to stop unwanted sexual attention as well as needed protection from environmental stressors. The human chose to cover up genitals to minimize bad judgment. Disobedience was equated in the myth with awareness when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit—their “eyes were opened.” This mysterious original sin has no more complex meaning than one animal in the story of evolution on this planet choosing to reflect on gnosis and to form it according to his own reasoning will and imagination.
Eden, Original sin, “the fall:”
Neo-Gnostic cults, Theosophists, and many New Agers interpret the Edenic myth of the fall of man radically differently than traditional Judaism. Among Gnostics, the talking serpent in the Eden garden is a symbol of wisdom and “the Christ.” The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would not cause death; rather, the fruit was an entheogen that stimulated enlightenment, the knowledge that the life in man’s body is from a divine, eternal spirit. Divine knowledge was central, not obedience, to the Gnostics who invariably rebelled against rules of state. As Orr insisted, if we know we are God, we can sleep with another man’s wife, then know that we are married the next day and nothing is wrong. In Werner Erhard’s view, everything is perfect in the moment as long as you have “it,” namely gnosis.
The early church fathers decided that knowledge of “it” is not enough. There are moral codes and ethical values that we should live up to no matter what we think we know. We must respect this world for what it is and not devalue it as all messed up by a false creator. Gnosticism had and has enormous difficulty with the real world and science. Neo-gnostics as New Agers are proverbial consumers of alternative medicine and useless supplements, for example.
To reiterate, the traditional interpretation of the Eden story is that disobedience caused the fall. “Original sin” signifies humans taking on God’s role as the judge of good and evil. For example, Adam covered himself after deciding that exposed genitals were troubling. This was not God’s decision for animals. For a Gnostic, this is man’s role to take the reins of decision and judgment because God is within him. To traditionalists, man’s role is to submit to God’s rules, which is dharma in the Hindu conception. Obviously, there are huge problems with both interpretations.
The Fall in an evolutionary model
The fruit of knowledge of good and evil symbolizes the evolution of the human brain’s neo-cortex and executive function that emerged from the mammalian ape-like brain. We “judge” reality through reason and express cognition in elaborate symbolic and imaginary ways that animals cannot.
In this sense, the Gnostic or Theosophist view is “scientific” by recognizing that the “fall” was a leap in consciousness, but that view becomes anti-science with the claim that man as a soul devolved from an angelic, non-corporeal state or from a state of pure gnosis that Gnostics can help you regain. We have no evidence to sustain that Gnostic belief, let alone that Gnostic techniques and rituals will get you back to divinity.
Another way to view this problem is through Evolutionary Epistemology (EE) that is a naturalistic approach to epistemology and so is part of the philosophy of science. Other naturalistic approaches include sociological, historical, and anthropological explanations of knowledge that view human culture as a product of evolution. What makes EE specific is that it subscribes to the idea that cognition is to be understood primarily as a product of biological evolution.[xvi]
A possible reason that we believe we have extrasensory perception or gnosis that bypasses faith and reason can be seen in an experiment with the Ouija board.[xvii] The Ouija board emerged at the peak of American and European interest in spirit contact or Spiritualism in the 1880s. At the time, Spiritualism was already compatible with popular American Christianity, more so as early as Joseph Smith’s scrying experiments prior to his dictating The Book of Mormon. But skeptics like Houdini soon debunked any actual contact with spirits. For example, no contacted spirit could read a simple message placed face up on top of an Ouija player’s head no matter how skilled or psychic the player was. Nevertheless, some answers given by Ouija workings seemed extraordinary, as if coming from the unknown, which is why people kept playing. Recent experiments with the Ouija proved that the brain stores memory that we might not consciously access without employing the board.[xviii]
“Their results replicated the findings of the experiment with the robot, that people knew more when they didn’t think they were controlling the answers (50 percent accuracy for vocal responses to 65 percent for Ouija responses). They reported their findings in February 2012 issue of “Consciousness and Cognition.”
Ouija boards work on a principle known to those studying the mind for more than 160 years: the ideo-motor effect. In other words, the knowing mind uses awareness in the guise of hidden memory and not faith or reason, thus accessing brain function below the level of conscious awareness. This Ouija experiment was not about psi or extrasensory perception. It merely demonstrated the natural sensory brain accessing what it already has. Since knowledge appeared mysteriously, we want to call it psi or gnosis or spirit or some other woo term. We might want to believe that this source of knowledge is unlimited, but it is not. That is a false belief. We can believe that faith and reason are not the only source of knowledge or wisdom, but we should not believe that gurus and shamans and their techniques contain more gnosis than your pet snake. Gnosis is not quantifiable.
Behind this Ouija study, brain science indicates lately that human intelligence has a biological basis for why we experience sacred or absolute union and a feeling of mystical wholeness. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief authors submitted an interesting argument for the God experience being hardwired, so to speak, into the human nervous-system, especially in the neo-cortex.[xx] Some call that region the “God spot” despite no evidence to prove a divine connection or that it can be precisely located in you. It stands to reason, mine anyway, that certain rituals and substances can and do trigger what we call God-awareness or limitless states if they are accommodated by the brain as described.
Western culture is imbedded with a two-thousand year Judeo-Christian tradition built on Jewish, Greek, and Roman philosophy, technology, and jurisprudence. Globally (2010), 2.2 billion people profess some form of Christianity with Islam second at 1.6 billion and 1 billion Hindus third. This strong Christian majority with the dawn of the university in education and private enterprise in Medieval Europe led to leaps in cultural strength. Modern Chinese scholars under the Communist regime asked this question about what led to western success? After a long study, their answer was “Christianity.”[xxi]
Now, I am not arguing from a religious view here and neither were the Chinese scholars. I am not about to rehearse what Rodney Stark so carefully expounded in his book, but I am trying to go back to an epistemological slant for why so many rather ridiculous and sometimes dangerous cults successfully tap this urge for transcendence in the human being. Stark argues that it was proper use of reason that enabled Christian cultures to flourish and not merely through faith or gnosis. When reason and ethical standards are bypassed or suppressed, faith statements can reach absurd if not meaningless ends. Enlightenment easily becomes entitlement when leaders claim to guide or rule primarily from gnosis. As I indicated above, being enlightened without being ethically and socially beneficial is merely cosmic narcissism. My list of folks with cosmic narcissism is very, very long—a reflection of my work in this cult field since 1980.
It is not that so many spiritual teachers and mystics have it wrong to claim gnosis, it is rather that they too often fail to mature in ethical expression and reasonable relationships with the cultural and natural environment and with the best of human knowledge.
To reiterate, the transcendent knowledge of self and the world that so many cults promise through engineered experiences that appear spontaneous have little value without properly formed and relevant faith statements and reality testing through reason. Reason always includes an ethical code and peer review with checks and balances. Unhealthy cult leaders typically refuse to submit to proper peer review. Good scientists can use a woo toy like the Ouija board to test for useful information about how we know.
The philosophical position recommended here is pragmatism which is less a fixed system than a smarter way to apply the knowledge available to us. As mentioned above, pragmatists eliminate the God’s eye view inspired from a transcendent Being that guides. The God’s eye view is akin to The View from Nowhere (Thomas Nagel, 1986) or objectivity independent of the viewer favored by journalists in the last century.[xxii] The flaws in a God’s eye view are readily apparent in divisions among fundamentalist interpreters of “God” books like the Koran or Bible. The advocates of a pointless universe, fundamentalist atheists, are equally stuck in an absurd position with anarchist, free-for-all ends that fly in the face of what we observe in nature. We observe limits to good and bad behavior among zebras as well as among Mongols. There is no totally objective view of Mongol culture despite our ability to get a better view that tends to be more objective.
Modern pragmatism has 19th century roots in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and his early advocate William James. We find it in the work of Oliver Wendell Holmes in law. Lately, we can turn to the work of Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, and Steven Knapp, to name a few. Thomas Nagel’s important books include his argument that life may have a teleological basis, not merely emergent through purely biological (materialist) means. I bring this up in the spirit of pragmatism which is not locked into any form of reductionism. The point is that we have a pluralistic advantage in how we can arrive at good ideas about being and reality. No guru, life coach, spiritual system, or holy book owns that point of view.
By grasping how cult leaders and techniques of transcendence tap and enhance our awareness of being in itself, we can better understand why the experiences seem so true and powerful. They just are. We can become so astounded that we end up like actress and self-appointed spiritual guide Shirley MacLaine in her 1987 film Out on a Limb, giddily jumping up and down on a beach yelling, “I am God, I am God, I am God…” Gnosis expressed without reason can appear grandiose and ridiculous. And in pragmatic terms, it often is.
[xv] I used this label of cosmic narcissism before finding this article by Wolfgang Spitzer who is primarily concerned with diagnosing religious fundamentalism. http://inebriateddiscourse.blogspot.com/2009/06/cosmic-narcissism-new-psychological.html
[xxii] Thomas Nagel (1989) The View from Nowhere
Graven oil 16x20 by J Szimhart (2016)