My mind is still not up to full speed after being on retreat, but I am thrilled by all of the back and forth on the topic of spirituality. It is, as we can see, a particularly charged area of discussion. And given that part of my purpose is to look at things through the lens of American Philosophy, it is good to mention that the topic of spirituality is particularly charged in this nation. Freedom of religious choice and the separation of church and state have left America much more religiously oriented than other developed nations with many more active religious denominations, sects and experimental spiritual communities of all kind.
In our discussion I would like to look into what spirituality is while remaining as intellectually rigorous and philosophically rooted as possible. So to start I would like to take a look at the nature of philosophy itself. I propose that philosophy in its most general sense can be understood as “The human endeavor to understand the nature and functioning of reality.” Human beings are thinking animals that use ideas to guide action. Philosophy is the human effort to create ideas that accurately describe the way things are so that we can use those ideas as a basis for acting.
In the development of Western philosophy there have been two approaches to the endeavor of philosophy that persist to this very day. These two ways of going about philosophy are sometimes known as Rationalism and Empiricism and in fact these distinctions existed long before the terms were created to describe them.
In short, Rationalistic thinkers put their faith in reason. They mistrust sense experience that is not mitigated by reason because they recognize that our senses can deceive us about reality. For this reason they believe that ultimate truth lies in the realm of ideas and reason. Empiricists, on the other hand, put their faith in our sense experience of the world. They mistrust ideas that are not grounded in sense experience because they see that ideas on there own easily fly into fantasy. Science as we know it today can be seen as a special case of Empiricism and Spirituality as a special case of Rationalism.
Science is an Empirical pursuit that makes use of the scientific method for determining the truth from our sense experience and has as its aim a complete understanding of the material world. The scientific method involves hypothesizing a theory and then testing the theory through experimentation. Only information that is obtained in this way is truly scientific. If a theory is not testable it is not considered scientific.
Spirituality is a Rationalistic pursuit that maintains the validity of “revealed truth” and that has as its aim the moral transformation of the individual to act in accordance with revealed truth. In traditional religious terms revealed truth was seen as the word of God – for instance as recorded in the Bible. In our own time revealed truth has come to be interpreted as personal “spiritual” experience which seems to “reveal” something of the ultimate nature of things to the experiencer. These revealed truths are generally seen as being self-evident and therefore no experimental testing is required to “prove” them.
Early in human understanding the distinction between philosophy, science, and spirituality was not clear and all three were intermingled. With the age of Enlightenment these distinctions became clearer. And over the centuries Religion has been largely usurped by Science as the dominant world view in the Western World.
So this question of “Does spirituality have any significance in the modern age?” is one that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time. In Christian philosophy the defense of religion is called apologetics. And you can see the arguments of apologists appearing and reappearing throughout the history of human understanding defending the validity of “revealed Truth” in an increasingly empirically driven world. So my question to myself and to all of you is “Does Spirituality have any validity and if so, what is it?”