>1) Correlation is not causation
The usual examples of this have to do with medicines, or therapies. It is also frequently cited by those arguing for the tobacco companies that it is simply unscientific to say that “cigarettes cause cancer”. We simply do not know enough about cancer to claim that any one thing causes it. Wikipedia has a great graph showing that the number of fatalities on US roads fell with the increase of fresh lemons imported from Mexico – clearly those things are correlated but no one would claim that there is a causal connection between them. Conspiracy theorists around the globe tend to make claims based on correlations.

2) Correlation is not identity
There is a correlation between a living person and a beating heart, but a beating heart is not the person (this example from “The really hard problem” by Owen Flanagan).

These two general rules allow me to steer clear of a variety of troublesome liminal discussions in spirituality, especially where it intersects science.

To begin I will say that there is no thought without a brain. You need to have some sort of neuronal firing for thought to occur. Having said this it is important to say that neurons firing are not thought. There is a correlation between thought and neuronal activity, but small electrical charges crossing a cellular gap are not in themselves “atoms of thought”…or even quanta of thought.

In Flanagan’s book he describes the Dalai Lama’s categorization of Buddhist theology as having three pillars, experience, reason and tradition. And they are ranked in that order. Personal experience trumps everything. This makes sense in a Buddhist perspective.

But it is a little disingenuous to say experience trumps everything. it is true that Buddhism is experiential, and that almost everything in Buddhism a sustained effort at bringing the individual to the experience of Buddha Nature.

But Buddhism has its sages, has its levels of enlightenment. The witness of the Dalai Lama that such and such a state of consciousness is achievable carries more weight than whatever I have experienced. If nothing else his witness inspires me to try.

Thus there is a strong authority of scripture and tradition in the shaping of reason and experience.

This, of course, is common sense. As Flanagan says even science is very much indebted to tradition, its own scientific tradition. While scientific methodology is, in theory, backwards compatible (that is I can go back and repeat experiments) in practice this is not done – why? Because if Newton says he did it, then I do not need to repeat the experiment – I can just move on from his results and develop new insights. Newton carries a lot of authority. As do Einstein and Heisenberg, etc.

I think at this stage of the game it would be very healthy for Christianity to find again the experiential approach of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were benefited by working from a non-canonical perspective (the canon of scripture did not coalesce until centuries later). So they had to rely heavily on personal experience as their guide.

If we read the Desert monastics with modern concerns we might see in their focused approach to spiritual investigation a perfect methodology for dealing with all sorts of pickles we get ourselves into when trying to do it “by the book”.

This is not to say I do not believe in the authority of Scripture. Of course I do. But I am trying to say that the point of Scriptural authority is to witness to me and inspire me to do what has been done before, to live the way I am told Jesus lived, to think the way I am told he thought. To allow the tradition to guide my thinking (theological reasoning) and my practice.

I think that Scriptures are an inspired summary of the practice of Jesus and the practice of the Apostles. We must focus on the practice and not on the summary. In this case the Scriptures are not God, and the Scriptures are correlated to God’s words – strongly correlated.

To put it another way – this blog has a record of my words, my thoughts. But the blog is not my thoughts. Even this writing is a sketch of my actual thought process, codified by the rules of English syntax. Were I writing in Portuguese the words would be different, and the tone might be different, though the general gist of it would be the same. Someone going with a toothcomb over my words in both languages might find plenty of room for contradiction.

The Bible thus is correlated to God’s words because it is the inspired record of the practice of Jesus as taught by the apostles and understood and interpreted by the early group of followers.

Back to science: in books where scientists try to figure out where God is in the brain I would say that it is the responsibility of every Christian to study the findings with much care. This is important stuff. We need to understand, for example, how words impact our brains, how prayer changes the neural pathways, how music and “smells and bells” can effect change in mind.

Most importantly we need to understand how we can bring all this information towards a renewal of our Christian practice. How can the understanding of prayer through MRIs help me see where I can change my prayer life so as to be more open to God? How can a diet (of food and sleep and stimulation) lead me to be more or less charitable?

In the end, I guess I want to live as Christ did, not simply know what Christ said.


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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