MarioPart One (Part Two will be published next week in NPM)

Two recent sessions at Enneagram conferences have me thinking a lot about the intersection of the Enneagram, spirituality, science, and rationality.

At the IEA conference in San Francisco at the end of July, Jack Killen, Eric Meyer and CJ Fitzsimons conducted a delightful session called “How Can the Enneagram Stay True to Its Roots AND Embrace Science.” During his endnote speech at the April European Enneagram Conference in Portugal, Uranio Paes challenged the audience to strive to integrate science and spirituality in a mature and mutually supportive way.

In this article I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to resolve the tension caused when different ways of understanding our world come into conflict and how this resolution can lead to a more-mature spirituality.

I’ve written a lot about science, critical thinking and the Enneagram, and have delivered two keynote addresses on the topic of a “more scientific approach to the Enneagram.” I’ve urged people to be more scientific in the way they think about the Enneagram, but I have never felt that the Enneagram has to be “proven” scientifically. In fact, I doubt we will ever find sufficient scientific evidence for the validity of the Enneagram, but I also don’t think this lessens its value and utility. The Enneagram is a map or a heuristic (a mental model), and maps and models need only to be useful, not necessarily “proven.” As people who are searching for truth, however, we have an obligation to make certain our assertions about the Enneagram, if not demonstrated to be scientifically valid, at least don’t contradict established science or logic and reason.

The way to ensure this is not necessarily to find ways to combine or conflate spirituality and science, however, it is to develop greater epistemic clarity.

So what on earth does that mean?

“Epistemology” is the branch of philosophy that focuses on the study of knowledge and how we know what we know. While “epistemology” is a big and eye-glaze inducing word, it is an important word; we are all amateur epistemologists, at least if we have any interest in trying to make sense of our world.

The tools we use for knowing vary, and there are appropriate tools to use for specific epistemic tasks or domains. Any carpenter will tell you that any tool box must contain both hammers and saws, but that if we use a saw to drive a nail or a hammer to cut a piece of wood we will end up making quite a mess. A good carpenter uses the right tool for the right task, and we should try to do the same when it comes to knowing about our interior and exterior worlds.

But before a carpenter can know what tool to use, he has to clearly understand the challenge he is trying to solve or the goal he is trying to achieve. If he can’t tell the difference between the challenge or goal of driving a nail or of cutting a piece of wood he has no hope of using the right tools with any regularity. In order to help become more efficient, he can put the tasks and goals into categories, such as “binding” or “separating.” When he knows that he needs to bind two things together he can narrow down his choice of tools to hammers, nails, staplers, etc. and choose the specific tool that is most effective; when he knows he has to separate two things he can choose shears, a saw, a razor blade, etc.

Likewise, we as amateur epistemologists need to understand what we are trying to accomplish before we can decide what “way of knowing” is appropriate to use. This is what I mean by having “epistemic clarity”:

  • Understanding that there are different epistemic categories—or groups of knowledge challenges or tasks that have enough similarity to be grouped together in a particular way;
  • Choosing the correct tool or way of knowing for the correct task;
  • Avoiding the tendency to conflate (or mix together) ways of knowing and creating an intellectual mish-mash.

The biggest challenge when it comes to negotiating the intersection of science, spirituality, and the Enneagram is not trying to figure out how to “bring together” science and spirituality, it is understanding that there are different epistemic domains and that the pursuit of truth and mature spirituality require understanding the uses and limitations of each of them. In philosophy, this is referred to as “epistemic pluralism,” understanding that different domains require different methods and tools. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the science/spirituality debate keep (unwittingly) calling for “epistemic monism,” mashing together domains into a one-size-fits-all way of understanding the world. An epistemic monist is like a carpenter who can only use a hammer.

Epistemology is a very broad branch of philosophy and there are many ways to approach it. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would like to suggest these as broad but useful epistemic categories: mathematics, science, philosophy, subjective experience, and beliefs. These are not hard and fast categories and there is often overlap (beliefs are often based on or influenced by subjective experience or philosophy, for example, and our subjective experience is often influenced by our beliefs), but I think these categories serve as a good starting point for exploration.

Mathematics is the only way of knowing in which we can find complete certainty—two plus two equals four no matter what I believe or how I feel about it; a triangle by definition has three internal angles measuring 180 degrees. Despite some people’s affection for the mathematics of the Enneagram symbol and because math is the only field in which there can be complete certainty, I won’t discuss it further here.

You may also notice that “spirituality” is not one of the epistemic categories I’ve identified. Spirituality is not a way of knowing, it is what we do with what we know. “Spirituality” is a word that is notoriously hard to define and it means different things to different people. For me, the word it describes an attitude and approach to life that seeks the cultivation of wisdom, compassion, efficacy, and a feeling of transcendence. For some, “spirituality” includes the religious or supernatural (i.e., “beyond the natural”); but it is also possible to be spiritual without being religious or embracing supernatural metaphysics. Our spirituality is informed or shaped by these other epistemic categories, but it is not a particular “way of knowing” independent of the other categories.

So, to talk about combining spirituality and science is really a category error. I repeat: Spirituality is not a way of knowing, it is what we do with what we know. Science is a way of knowing about how the natural world works that stands independent regardless of what we do with that knowledge. We can talk about a scientifically informed spirituality, but it doesn’t make sense to talk about a spiritually informed science. And this is the mistake that many spiritual communities or spiritually minded people make—they try to bend science to meet their spirituality when they should be doing the opposite and, when necessary, modifying their spirituality based on science.

The Dalai Lama understands this well and wanted against it. In an article in the Nov. 12, 2005 New York Times he wrote: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change… By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.”

If we wish to have a mature spirituality need to adopt this same approach—recognize the areas in which science is the appropriate epistemic tool and, if necessary, modify our spirituality and approach to the Enneagram accordingly. We have to recognize what way of knowing or epistemic category is appropriate for the issue we are considering and use the tools of that epistemic category.

Let’s look at each of the other four epistemic categories and some of the tools that can be useful when applying them.


Science is “knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation,” according to Merriam-Webster online, as good a definition as any for such a broad field. The tools of science are the best tools there are for understanding how the natural world works. Science is based on the meticulous gathering of evidence and rigorous evaluation of that evidence. While there is no one “official” method of practicing science (it is too broad a domain for that), we can generalize and say that the scientific method involves:

  • Observing phenomena and gathering data.
  • Forming a hypothesis (But not a “theory”! A theory is not a speculative idea—as in the colloquial usage—but an overall explanation for a series of facts).
  • Testing the hypothesis by attempting to disprove it rather than merely seeking evidence to support it.
  • Revising the variables if the hypothesis passes the test to increase your level of certainty.
  • Revising or abandoning the hypothesis if it fails the test.
  • If the hypothesis survives enough testing it may become part of a theory.

It is important to note that science is an ongoing and self-correcting activity. It is not, as postmodern relativists would have us believe, a belief system, it is a set of tools and methods applied according to specific rules. Science is a humble, and humbling, endeavor. The vast majority of hypotheses turn out to be wrong and abandoned. A good scientist or science-minded person will never say we know something to be absolutely true, they will say that “based on the existing evidence, such and such is reasonably certain” and the degree of certainty will be relative to the amount of evidence available. At a certain point, however, the evidence is so overwhelming that it is reasonable to talk as if something were absolutely “true.” That gravity exists, that the earth is round and revolves around the center of gravity of the sun, and that humans have evolved from other life forms via natural selection and random mutation are examples of such “givens.”

I was surprised by the reaction to or beliefs about science by a few of the participants in Jack, Eric, and CJ’s session. One participant went so far as to call the whole conversation “elitist” (?!); others said:

  • “Science concretizes things.” (No, it doesn’t, it describes and explains them.)
  • “It takes away awe and wonder.” (No, it does the exact opposite—for every question answered more questions are created; scientists are fueled by curiosity, awe, and wonder.)
  • “Well, there are other ways of knowing.” (Yes, there are, and no scientist would say that there are not. This last comment is one of the reasons I am writing this article…)

I shouldn’t have been surprised; these misconceptions are understandable. Science is hard work. It can be complicated and intellectually challenging. It is generally not taught well in schools and many of us cringe when we think back to, say high school chemistry. And, not least, it can challenge some of our most cherished beliefs. This causes avoidance, and few people truly understand topics they avoid.

I’ve often also heard spiritually inclined people talk about the arrogance of science or scientists. Scientists are humans and, yes, some of them are arrogant. Much of the work of science involves the attempts to disprove your hypotheses or those of others. It is not for the thin-skinned and, people being people, tempers flare and arrogance comes to the fore. But a good scientist will exercise non-attachment to their hypotheses and eventually be persuaded by the evidence. A good scientist understands that when they have learned that they are wrong about something they have actually gotten closer to the truth and they have found something else to explore.

In addition to non-attachment, skepticism is one of the cornerstones of science. The philosopher David Hume said that the wise person apportions his or her belief in accordance to the evidence; others have reworded this as “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” A scientist, in their pursuit of truth, will hear a claim and immediately set out to disprove it, with the perspective that you can only truly trust the claim if it survives testing.

Many spiritual seekers, however, in their pursuit of truth are too quick to latch onto an idea that fits their worldview and belief system, often embracing the teachings of charismatic teachers without question. Ironically, all the wisdom traditions teach us that we can’t automatically trust our perceptions and naïve intuitions because they lead us into illusion. The Enneagram, if nothing else, teaches us this same thing—that our worldview is the product of habitual conditioning that can be overcome through the rigorous challenging and deconstruction of our assumptions.

Rather than seeing science and spirituality at war with each other, a mature spiritual seeker realizes that the non-attachment, rigor, and skepticism of science can profoundly enhance one’s spirituality.

Basic scientific literacy is much rarer in our society than it should be, and I often see spiritual seekers seduced by science-y sounding ideas that are actually pseudo(i.e., false)scientific.

The quickest way to tell when someone is practicing pseudoscience is that they claim the mantle of science, but as soon as its conventions become inconvenient they claim that science needs to change or start talking about “other ways of knowing.” At the risk of harping too much on a point: intellectual integrity, and good intellectual practice, require that one use the conventions of the epistemic domain in which one is operating. If one is doing science, the rules of science apply no matter how inconvenient they are.

The biggest culprits in this regard are attempts to associate quantum physics with consciousness; assertions about intelligent design (even in its allegedly sophisticated forms); and the alleged science around psychic phenomenon and near death experiences. This is not a cynical call to immediately dismiss these ideas, but one should be cautious and rigorous in these areas and sure that claims are supported by the evidence.

For some excellent primers on basic science that are both approachable and enjoyable, I recommend Natalie Angier’s “The Canon” and Robert Hazen and James Trefil’s “Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy.” I also recommend Massimo Pigliucci’s “Nonsense on Stilts” for an accessible introduction to the philosophy of science and how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

Part Two will continue next week in NPM.