23 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part I

In this essay (in several parts) I will deconstruct the so-called Perennial Philosophy and present an argument that we have, in effect, been looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope, at altered experiences. Rather than a single metaphysical truth, there are, in fact, a range of epistemic facets and subjective phenomena that point to common features of the human brain and human societies. In effect, God is made in man's image. However, I will argue that we are not constrained to accept the narratives of mysticism on their own terms. We can choose a different framework and find meaning and value in the absence of the articles of faith that drive the Perennial Philosophy.

Returning to the telescope metaphor, it can be entertaining to look through the wrong end, but the revolution in knowledge comes when we look through the right end. Distant objects are brought virtually closer, enabling us to discern with greater accuracy the features of the world around us.

I begin, in Part I, by critiquing the premise of the Perennial Philosophy as a form of eclectic and syncretic religiosity based on perennial misunderstandings. In part II, I will propose that experience forms a spectrum along an axis defined by two poles: subjectivity and objectivity. I've been wary of these terms in the past, but I think we can employ them here to good effect. The spectrum will provide us with a unifying construct or hermeneutic with which we can understand different approaches to religiosity. In Part III, I will apply this hermeneutic to subjects of interest to Buddhists: meditation, egolessness, and mystical experiences. I try to show that a purely subjective method cannot lead to ontologically objective facts. However, the experiences that arise in the process of pursuing these methods, can help us draw inferences about the human brain and human societies.

We can sum this up as "We are human beings having human experiences. Nothing more, nothing less." 

The Perennial Philosophy

The Western roots of the Perennial Philosophy are often traced to the Renaissance and the renewed interest in Neoplatonism and alchemy at that time. The central idea is that there is a single metaphysical truth to which all religions and mystical traditions point: "The One" of Neoplatonism. The term philosophia perennis seems to have been coined by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716).

Of course, this project is helped when the main religions that intellectuals have to examine are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All of these emerged from Semitic cultures and thus share not only ideas, attitudes, and practices, but have considerable overlap in their holy books and even, to some extent, recognise each other's prophets. The God of all three is essentially the same god (El) under different names. Additionally, they were all influenced by Zoroastrianism, particularly in adopting the combination of one god and one prophet.

Perennialism got a boost in the 18th Century when Westerners began to explore Indian religions. The Vedantic abstract, absolute being, or Brahman, seemed to be much the same thing as the abstract, absolute being, the One, of Neoplatonism. Looking at summaries of Neoplatonic ideas, they look suspiciously like Vedanta and some scholars have suggested a real influence which seems prima facie plausible.

Unlike European Christianity, the religions of India have always been very open to ideas, attitudes, and practices from other religions. There has long been a general attitude of eclecticism in Indian religions. Islam and Christianity have both taken root in India, but are not Indian religions. For example, Vedic and chthonic gods appear in the early Buddhist texts, while Śiva appears in several later texts. In the Vaiṣṇa religion, the Buddha is an avatāra of Viṣṇu, while Vedanta is influenced by classical Buddhism. The eclecticism and syncretism of Tantra is even more pronounced. While such observations and the terms "eclecticism" and "syncretism" carry negative connotations in Abrahamic religious contexts (and thus in Europe and its colonies), we have to see them as virtues of Indian religion.

Some Europeans, being blind to historical processes in the evolution of religion, especially the lateral transfer of ideas, and primed by Neoplatonism, saw similarities as confirmation the idea that all religions point to a single metaphysical truth. Once the idea took root, then all kinds of cognitive biases kicked in to make it seem increasingly likely.

This is the problem that we face again and again in trying to understand religion. Theologians seek supernatural explanations; they do scholarship to confirm their faith, rather than to discover the truth. Buddhism Studies has the same problem. We know the outcome of this method because we know the articles of faith from which it sets out. If anyone adopts the axiom that all religions point to the same truth, they filter the evidence to highlight anything which supports this view and to eliminate any contradiction. The exact shape of the articles of faith is of secondary importance in this process. Belief persists for reasons unrelated to the external forms of religion. For example, in a previous essay, I adapted Justin L Barrett's argument about why people believe in God, to a Buddhist context by applying it to karma and rebirth (the twin myths of the afterlife and the just world).

As well as commitments to the supernatural, to an afterlife, and to a just world fallacy, humans also have a strong desire to discover unity in diversity, convergence on a single entity, event, or cause; a single overarching truth; the nature of reality; a prime mover; a first cause; a creator god, and so on. The problem is that, as with technical standards, there have always been many singular absolute truths to choose from.

Like many subjects in the modern philosophy of religion, the Perennial Philosophy really begins with a horrified reaction to the notion of a mechanistic universe that emerged in the early days of the scientific revolution, but throws the baby out with the bath water. This reaction took slightly different forms in different places: English Romantic poets, German Idealist philosophers, and American Transcendentalists. All contributed to shaping the Perennial Philosophy.


It is because of the Transcendentalists, in particular, that we discuss "spirituality" as a distinct subject. Before the Transcendentalists, and particularly Emerson, the word "spiritual" really only applied to the church. But now we all have a "spiritual dimension". And hence the French Idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin could assert in the 1960s:
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."
This could be straight from the mouth of Vivekananda or Ramakrishna. It fully embraces Cartesian mind-body dualism, but in metaphorical terms is framed more as a matter-spirit dualism. On the cognitive metaphors and entailments of this kind of dualism see an earlier essay of mine Metaphors and Materialism. (26 April 2013). We can sum up the kinds of metaphorical language used by citing pairs of terms that describe each substance:
Matter is: cold, dead, inanimate, fixed, passive, low, below, dull, opaque, dark, heavy, dense, viscous, illusory, material, limited, finite, mundane 
Spirit is: warm, alive, animated, changing, active, high, above, bright, translucent, luminous, light, airy, fluid, real, immaterial, unlimited, infinite, transcendental
Matter is associated with the earth, the nadir; with the body, with physical laws, with death and the non-living 
Spirit is associated with the sky, the zenith; with the mind, with mental agency, with life and the afterlife
Religion and religiosity employ these dual cognitive metaphors unconsciously and it shapes the attitudes of religieux. Heaven is above and Hell below. Matter is all about constraint and suffering whereas spirit is about liberation and bliss. And it leads a hatred of the body and bodily functions, a rejection of the material world, and this life. And by contrast a love of the immaterial and imaginary and a longing for the afterlife (in which everything has the qualities of spirit).

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was around near the beginning of the mechanistic universe idea. It made a lot of sense and he could not simply ignore it. But he was constrained in his acceptance by a desire to leave open the door for God. And he did this by formalising an intuition that almost everyone has, what we now call mind-body dualism. Yes, he said, matter does follow a mechanistic pattern, but spirit remains free from this and the acme of spirit is God. Even with the decline of mechanistic thinking, it was clear that matter was far from inanimate and that the supernatural realm of spirit had nowhere to hide. The line between chemistry and biology became thinner and then disappeared, leaving Vitalism (the theory that spirit animates matter) completely discredited amongst intellectuals. Folk Vitalism, along with folk Dualism continue to flourish amongst ordinary people.

I cited Teilhard de Chardin earlier. What he intends to say is that we are not "mere matter" attaining the qualities it supposedly lacks from the ground up, but that we are spirits trapped in physical bodies.  Such virtues as we have come from wholly from spirit. In this dualistic view, spirit is the animating substance—the life's breath—that brings life to dead matter. Matter can never have the qualities of spirit, and where those properties are present, then the conclusion is that spirit must be present. Human life is seen, egocentrically, as the paradigm for where matter and spirit overlap. Animals (literally, "that which breathes") have considerably less spirit.

In the essay on matter-spirit dualism, I pointed out that as a chemist, I saw matter as typically having most of the attributes of spirit: light, colour, energy, etc. Chemistry consists partly in studying these qualities and partly in persuading different atoms to interact and form new compounds. I grew up around volcanoes and they also force one to think about matter rather differently: hot, active, high, light, fluid, and so on. The matter-spirit dualism is dependent on seeing stone as the prototype for matter - dull, grey, cold (to touch), inanimate, hard; very like a corpse in rigor mortis (though if we only waited a few days, we would find that a corpse continues to change as life at a different scale recycles the components of the body). In effect, the dualist has to be ignorant, or to deliberately blind themselves to the animated qualities of matter. Some dualists attribute those qualities in matter to the presence of spirit everywhere (a theory called Panpsychism).

The monist view is that there is only one kind of stuff in the universe. Mind and matter might be epistemically different, but not ontologically. As John Searle pointed out, the usual definition of "materialism" accepts a dualistic split of the world into matter and spirit, and then proceeds to define one as real and the other as unreal. This is not monism, this is just lopsided dualism. Most of the critiques of materialism that I have seen take this straw man approach.

Monism proper does not accept a matter-spirit ontological distinction at all. Therefore, a monist cannot reduce one to the other (since that is still lopsided dualism). The qualities that we would like to separate are, in fact, found everywhere. All light is a perturbation in the electromagnetic field, it is not a quality of spirit. If we see light it is because photons are hitting our retina. If we experience light in the absence of this it because the visual centres of the brain are active on their own and we are hallucinating. Meaning comes from interpretation and we are not constrained to interpret experience according to any paradigm.

But these metaphysical observations are complicated by epistemic distinctions that pervade our experience as a result of our different sensory modes. For example, we perceive mechanical vibrations differently than we perceive vibrations in the electromagnetic field. We might conclude, as the ancients did, that light and sound are two different things. But on examination we realise that the different perceptions are due to senses tuned to respond to vibrations at very different scales. In other words, the major difference in our perceptions of light and sound are epistemic, not ontic. Light and sound do not point to two different substances, but to the different behaviour of one substance at different scales. And our perceptions themselves, according to monists, are not because of two substances (mind and body) but are due to two modes of perceptions: perceptions are stimuli represented in the brain coming into relationship with our virtual self-model. Thoughts in the form "I see you" are representations rather than realities, even though there may well be real entities corresponding to "I" and "you" (by which I mean two organisms).

The legacy language matter-spirit dualism still has a strong influence on how we discuss such subjects and it is all too easy to mistake the epistemic use of terms such as "mind", "body", or even "I" as indicating an ontological commitment that was not intended. Since the epistemic/ontic distinction is seldom made clear (or clear enough), confusion about what monism says is rife. The continued popularity of ideas like the Perennial Philosophy is partly dependent on this philosophical and linguistic confusion. Professional philosophers have no vested interest in clearing things up. Their job is to undermine certainty by producing alternative explanations whether or not it is helpful to do so. The nature of intellectual discussion unconstrained by evidence allows for this to continue indefinitely, even in the face of our complete understand the physics of everyday experience. What philosophers don't seem to realise is that you can win the argument and still be wrong.


Perennialism is part of a trend that included Theosophy. They were both eclectic and syncretic approaches to religiosity that drew especially on Vedanta. They both suggested the possibility of a rational religiosity opposing it to irrational religion. The idea of a rational alternative to religion is a theme of religiosity in Europe and to some extent America from the mid-19th Century onwards. This is because of the inroads made by science. Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 and has come to represent a broader seachange amongst English speaking intellectuals. Edwin Arnold's epic poem about the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, became a bestseller just 20 years later, even though in the early 19th Century Buddhism was roundly denounced as a heathen religion.

The publication of Aldous Huxley's book The Perennial Philosophy in 1945 took the subject to a much wider audience. The novelist's book has the characteristic eclecticism and syncretism of other expositions on the subject and was particularly inspired by his reading of Neo-Vedanta, a form of Hinduism which itself incorporated ideas from the Perennial Philosophy. Again, the unacknowledged lateral transfer of ideas contributes to the impression of a deeper unity that would be better categorised as syncretism.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was the grandson of Thomas Huxley, the infamous champion of evolution who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest". He was educated at Eton, the elite private school, and attended Oxford University (at that time also an elite private institution), and was from that generation who saw Europe almost destroyed by two all-out wars that killed millions of people and consumed vast amounts of resources for no obvious benefit. In WWII both sides specifically targeted civilians, killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants. He himself could not fight due to his poor eyesight. Traditional forms of authority were falling apart, the Church had lost its relevance, and the sun was setting on the age of European Empires. The various churches continue to struggle to be relevant on many fronts: the discrediting of the supernatural by science, the scandal of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests, the failure to treat women and men as equals, the failure to accept a spectrum of sexuality as valid, and so on. Huxley was known as a social satirist, but soon descended into writing dystopian novels beginning with Brave New World in 1932. The Perennial Philosophy thus strikes a rather optimistic note in his oeuvre.

The desire for diverse religions and traditions to be unified under one rubric reaches an apex with the theology of Ken Wilber, termed "Integral Theory". And it is not an unworthy goal. After all, the divisions of religion are implicated in many intractable conflicts around the globe. On the other hand, pinning the blame on religion is often a false flag operation for what are effectively economic or political wars. However, Perennialism and the desire for human unity is not a purely Western phenomenon. From time to time, new dispensations which unify and supersede existing religious traditions have emerged in many different places. I've mentioned Neo-Vedanta. We could add Sikhism and Bahá'í. Note that early Buddhism is not perennialist. It does assert the Four Noble Truths, but it also asserts that all other religions are mistaken about them. The Buddha of the early Buddhist stories does not suffer fools or contrary views gladly. On the other hand, many modern Buddhists are also Perennialists. 

Perennial Philosophy has leaked from its container and contaminated the groundwater of popular culture. Common tropes like "all is one", "everything happens for a reason", "what goes around, comes around" may also have roots in specific religious traditions, but they were popularised by Perennialism. New Age approaches to religion seem less popular now than 20 years ago, but they were a manifestation of the same impulse to a unified religiosity without religion. There was a vast reservoir of people who felt the need to be healed. Too little was made of this, I think: the profound alienation of modern life, especially since the rise of Neolibertarian/Mercantilism, creates distress and disease that can't be treated by doctors. What is lost is a sense of connection to people and the world around us. Regaining that without knowing that it is missing is difficult. The current generation have moved on from the need for healing, to the need for protection from harm. This is especially true in America where mass school shootings are now an almost daily occurrence. University students now routinely deplatform speakers, demand trigger warnings, and so on. I find it quite understandable that they do not feel safe, but it is a shame that it has manifested as a closing of their minds.

Twin claims

Thanissaro makes an interesting point about the claims of Perennialism actually having two parts:
Perennial philosophers base their thinking on two claims. The first is a fact-claim: All the great religious traditions of the world share a common core of beliefs. The second is a value-claim: The commonality of these beliefs is proof that they are true. (Thanissaro. "Perennial Issues" Insight Journal. Summer 2010). 
I'm not entirely convinced about the distinction between as "fact-claim" and a "value-claim". Both of Thanissaro's claims are truth claims, one is based in an article of faith, the other on a deduction from the article of faith. Though there are two of them. This kind of reasoning is quite common and I want to briefly discuss two parallels.

Carl Jung makes a similar truth claim when he asserts the existence of the "collective unconscious". Myths around the world share a number of common themes and symbols. Jung sees mythic symbolism as common with dream symbolism and both as emerging from the unconscious mind. He reasoned, without a shred of evidence, that if there are collective symbols then there must be a collective unconscious in which these symbols reside (btw this is very similar to the reasoning that underpins the Yogācāra version of karma doctrine). However, in his book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, Michael Witzel has shown that if we look at the evidence more broadly there is a more plausible explanation. A relatively small group of story-telling people left Africa and populated the world beginning around 100,000 years ago.  They had a common core of myths, the story arc which they bequeathed to every human culture. Witzel's book represents the first comprehensive statement of a theory that is still in the progress of emerging. It is a rational explanation for something which previously only had an irrational explanation. Similarly, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's explanation of image schemas and how they influence thought via cognitive metaphors also explains why all humans have symbols in common. Our worldview is profoundly shaped by how our bodies interact with the world and how our brains present information to awareness.

The other example that comes to mind is the idea of universal values. Although the subject is a minefield, humans do seem to share a common set of values. These manifest in religion as common moral rules and ethical principles. For example, killing an in-group member is universally a bad thing under ordinary circumstances. For the killer, it creates an obligation or debt to the group (and especially to the family of the one killed) that must be (re)paid. Explaining this commonality in terms of an overarching metaphysical truth never satisfies. But it is not our only option. As I explored in my essays on the evolution of morality, all social mammals have two things in common, the ability to experience empathy and to practice reciprocity. Frans de Waal has argued that these two qualities are all that is needed to show how morality evolved in human beings and why it takes the form that it does. Morality, in the sense of having group norms, is universal in social mammals and at the same time specific to the group (and partly dependent on their environment). The basic principles that give social mammals a successful evolutionary strategy are the common core of morality and ethics. As Charles Darwin said:
"...the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts; and in the case of the lower animals is would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness, or for the happiness of the community. They have, however, certainly been developed for the general good of the community." (Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, 1871). 
Because of our common evolutionary history, all humans have recognisable forms of morality. And we can recognise something similar in other mammals, especially in those that are most similar to us, the chimps and bonobos. This is not a top-down morality imposed by a metaphysical truth or a god, but an emergent property of organisms living a social lifestyle that ensures their survival. Morality is naturally selected for. For example, a truly selfish species would soon die out because a social lifestyle requires individuals to put the group first more often than not. Any species where members put their own needs first would not benefit from a social lifestyle and would evolve a more solitary lifestyle (as some mammals do) or die out.

The common core of beliefs is an article of faith for Perennialists, but is it true in the way that they want it to be? That is to say, is it the result of an overarching metaphysical truth? In fact, this seems quite unlikely to be the case.

A Common Core?

I've already pointed out that a good deal of religious commonality is down to the unacknowledged lateral transfer of ideas, attitudes, and practices between different religions. Vedanta was influenced by Buddhism (and vice versa), and in turn influenced Neoplatonism, which influenced modern Christianity, which shared common roots with Judaism and Islam (variants on the same religion), which came full circle and influenced Neo-Vedanta.

However, focussing on the similarities also obscures the vast differences. As a Buddhist, I argue that there is no god, no soul, no creation, no prophet, and no messiah. These are innocent enough mistakes to make for premodern people. But they are not real and maintaining such beliefs when we know better is reprehensible for followers and dishonest of priests. As far as the core beliefs of Buddhism go, I have nothing important in common with Christians, Muslims, or Jews (to the extent that I understand these theist religions), beyond a human commitment to morality which fits the pattern described above; i.e., that is an emergent property of a social lifestyle.

I know, however, that a Buddhist who is also a rationalist and naturalist is rare. Many people who profess Buddhism, in fact, have a prior commitment to matter-spirit dualism. This opens the door to seeming commonality with other religions if only because the framing of matter-spirit duality entails certain core beliefs. Some of my colleagues in the Triratna Buddhist Order are very definitely in the Dualist camp. Most of the Buddhists I meet on the internet are very definitely Dualists, including those who assert some form of non-dualism.

This matter-spirit Dualism, framed using similar cognitive metaphors and image schemas necessarily takes the same form everywhere. If one is inclined to believe in metaphysical truths, then here is the obvious candidate. However, I would say that matter-spirit dualism is something that we impose on experience. It is not imposed on us by reality. In other words, this is not a metaphysical truth in the sense that is implied by the Perennial Philosophy.

Even if the facts are in evidence, the conclusions we draw are highly dependent on how we think. Axioms, for example, are inevitably reproduced by a process of deduction. Explanations that do not resort to magical thinking or mind-body dualism or any of the other faults that go with the Perennial Philosophy are generally better in the sense of providing more accuracy and precision. Where we do not yet have an explanation, it is better to admit we don't know than to make something up.

However, the example of the common core of empathy and reciprocity makes this discussion more complex because in these two qualities of social primate group interactions we do have something like a common core. We can easily see how a species with these minimal qualities might evolve a moral culture alongside its genetic evolution, if that meant living in ever larger groups, surrounded by and having to deal with strangers most of the time.

Moral rules do vary from group to group, even family to family within a large society, but the form that moral rules take emerges from a common background so there are similarities. For example, because it is based on reciprocity, morality is often framed as an accounting exercise (on this subject, I highly recommend George Lakoff's essay: Metaphor, Morality, and Politics). The classic religious image of an afterlife reckoning is the one from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (which I have mentioned many times before). In the image, Anubis is weighing the soul of the scribe, Ani, in a large balance. On the other side is an ostrich feather representing the law. Of course, Ani is armed with spells to make his soul lighter, but the principle is that one who has lived in accordance with the law (the moral norms of Egyptian society of the day) will have a light soul and will ascend to the realm of the gods ruled over by Osiris. Anyone with a heavy soul will be devoured by a hybrid animal monster. The idea, as with all such stories, is to encourage the living toward normative behaviour with a carrot and stick approach.

Thus the common ideas of God as absolute being, the human messenger who conveys the message, and the apparently similar moral rules can all be explained in ways that do not involve the supernatural at all, let alone a single metaphysical truth. But, and this is important, there are commonalities. There are shared ideas and qualities that give the impression of a common core of beliefs. These do not prove Perennialism; on the contrary, they show that Perennialism is simply a mistake as a result of not seeing enough of the picture and/or not seeing it clearly enough. Our commonalities are evolutionary rather than supernatural. Evolution emerges not as a single metaphysical truth, but as an embodied paradigm that explains how humans come to have common qualities both at the genetic (including phenotypic) and social levels.


Perennial Philosophy is simply bad philosophy. It ignores historical processes and evolutionary processes, it fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and it asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism. The supposed metaphysical truth that religions point to can be explained as confirmation bias. Calling such a belief system a "philosophy" bestows a veneer of respectability and rationality on a form of modernist religiosity at a time when organised religion is widely viewed negatively. It is ironic that Perennial Philosophy is quite individualistic given the central proposition.

That said, philosophy generally seems far too open to speculation in the absence of evidence and to be burdened by tooth-fairy agnosticism. Philosophy is all about prolonging arguments by introducing hypothetical objections to everything. It almost always assumes a solipsistic point of view. I have been talking with a friend about the trolley problem, for example, and as classically posed it eliminates the social context.  In fact, morality is irreducibly social. If we are weighing up moral choices we may ask questions like:
Who will see me act?
Who will know about my choice and who might find out?
How will my peers react to my decision?
Moral philosophers try to eliminate such considerations and leave a human being making decisions in isolation. Some of us may think of such considerations as themselves immoral, but this would be a distortion based on an idealisation that is far from the reality of being a social primate: we are moral  precisely because we are social, because we can empathise and understand reciprocity. Furthermore, we acknowledge that social isolation is detrimental to both mental and physical health and think of solitary confinement as a cruel punishment. Quite a lot of moral philosophy seems to be based on these kinds of false assumptions about the social nature of humanity. Contrast this with the idea of Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that reasoning is a group activity (explaining why individuals do poorly at solo reasoning tasks).

A pragmatic approach to knowledge, grounded in empiricism, and which takes account of the social nature of knowledge is more empowering for human beings. We can always change our minds, but mostly we need to get on with our lives using the best heuristics we have. Of course, we cannot agree on what the best course of action is a lot of the time. In any rational consideration of reality, this would undermine the Perennial Philosophy. However, because of matter-spirit dualism, it leads us to think of humans as evil, which is extremely counterproductive.

The subject I have not yet touched on is that some kinds of experience seem to support the bad theory of a single metaphysical truth, especially the so-called "mystical" experiences. These cannot be ignored, but again, we don't have to accept how Perennialists frame the discussion. In order to reframe the discussion, in the next part of the essay I will introduce a simplified model with characteristics that illustrate my approach. This aims to show that the supposed metaphysical truth of the Perennial Philosophy sits at one end of a spectrum and the methods used to try to realise that truth all point to the other. Then, in Part III, I will explore the example of meditation and how it moves us away from objectivity towards pure subjectivity. The goal we pursue in meditation is not reality or the discovery of the nature of reality. Instead, we pursue an understanding of the nature of sensory and cognitive experience and, in fact, the cessation of experience is the highest attainment of these methods.


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