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Darwin, Saints, and the Instability of Certainty, Or, The Soul of Science is Uncertainty, and Uncertainty is the Science of Soul

2009 is the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the naturalist and scientist whose impact on human culture and thought may exceed that of any other scientist in history, and may exceed the impact of any single human being in the modern period, including Newton, Copernicus, Napoleon, Marx, Einstein, Picasso, etc. The influence of Darwin’s work upon religion continues to reverberate prominently 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, most noticeably within Christianity, but there have also been recent discussions in the Muslim world debating the impact of Darwin upon Islam. In this posting, I want to consider the relationship of Darwin’s work to spiritual practice, as distinct from religion.

First, let’s distinguish between a spiritual tradition and a religion. Tayu founder Robert Ennis used to call religion the skeletal remains of a previously living spiritual practice. This metaphor aptly depicts the relationship between the two phenomena. A spiritual tradition arises when someone has a profound and sustainable realization about the nature of reality far beyond the capacities of the egoic mind, and can skillfully transmit that realization to others. Such a realization has profound effects upon the moment-by-moment experience of life. A spiritual tradition remains alive as long as a fully-realized practitioner of that tradition can demonstrate its principles in daily life. When an incompletely-realized successor seeks to continue to promulgate the teachings without full understanding of their underpinnings, then we can speak of the birth of a religion.

At its foundation, a religion consists of ossified, more or less unvarying rules. These may be ethical codes (e.g., “Honor thy father and mother” and “Do Not Steal”) or prescriptions for producing particular results (e.g., “Pray to Lakshmi for abundance” or “Meditate to realize your Buddha nature”).  The rules of a religion tend to be frozen because the mind of a religious adherent (as opposed to a spiritual adept) is itself more-or-less frozen, and such a mind naturally clings to, and reverences the preserved words of the founder. In contrast, the mind/heart of spiritual realization comprehends without thought that conditions and contexts of practice necessarily change; hence appropriate change is not simply enabled, it is embraced and executed.

Back to Darwin and religion: Interactions between Darwinian thought and religion are often seen as a competition between two more-or-less incompatible idea systems. This is the basis for the religious fundamentalist rejection of Darwin. Or more generously, the interactions between Darwinian thought and religion have also been viewed as an opportunity to expand the relevance of each separate system through cross-fertilization and a general broadening of perspective. But the focus either way has been on interaction between two differently constituted ideational systems. Some people insist that only one can be right; others prefer to try to make both correct.

In contrast, there are some very interesting points of congruence between Darwin’s work and living spiritual practice. Darwin sought a comprehensive explanation for the observed distribution of differing species of life across time and space. Natural selection was a brilliant insight because it was based upon deep observation of the ways that organisms live, reproduce, and die, and because it enabled immediate comprehension of relationships between phenomena whose linkages had not before been obvious. But the true scientist understands that even the most stunning theory must, in a fundamental sense, always remain provisional. Evidence – the observed facts – must always come first before any explanation to account for the nature of evidence, because without that attitude, newly-observed data that might support another explanation may be ignored or jettisoned from a desire to save a cherished theory. That attitude – the priority of evidence over theory – is the essential core of the scientific enterprise.  It is even more important than the ideal of “controlled experiments” because in many cases, and Darwin’s naturalist observational data is one such case, establishing and conducting meaningful controlled experiments with certain types of evidence is completely impractical. It’s quite hard to do with species of finches, to use one of Darwin’s examples. It is only in recent years that Darwin’s scientific successors have been able to directly demonstrate the action of natural selection upon species of microorganisms under laboratory conditions.

Like Darwin and other scientists, practitioners and adepts in living spiritual traditions seek comprehensive, meaningful answers to important questions. Who am I? What am I doing, and why am I doing it? Is there some aspect of experience greater than the ordinary experience of life that people commonly agree upon, and if so, what is it, and how can I obtain reliable data about it?

Like the best scientists, practitioners and adepts in living spiritual traditions strive as part of their endeavor to always remain open to new data that might call for revision or replacement of even the most profoundly beautiful answers so far attested. One could even characterize the achievement of a true spiritual adept as the creation of a reliable habit of interior openness, of deliberate instability of certainty, operating simultaneously along with a full, richly wholehearted and unimpeded appreciation for the beauty of reality so far revealed.

So it is the inscription within consciousness of the instability of certainty that marks the best scientists and the best spiritual practitioners. Our ordinary discursive minds compulsively seek to eliminate uncertainty; but the wise recognize the futility of grasping after false assurances as the egoic mind insists. Because the habit of grasping after ideas is so strong, people assume that replacing one dogmatic system of ideas with another represents profound change. But the opening of heart and mind to whatever the universe has to tell us takes us farther still, as great saints and scientists demonstrate. Great scientists and great practitioners do not just leap once or twice into the unknown. They make careers of leaping into the mystery at the heart of existence. What career do you seek to create with your life?

© 2009 Tayu Order, Incorporated

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