The problematic relationship between integrative science and integrative spirituality

Dr. Mark Edwards

Meta-studies are integrative endeavours.  But when does the search for integration and integral become a colonising endeavour?  Where are the boundaries that distinguish a holistic integration from and a totalising meta-narrative?  

Science, philosophy and religion are all very different realms of human endeavour.  They have some things in common but they are not the same thing.  They are constructed, evaluated and experienced in fundamentally different ways.  They have very different institutional bases and their constituent communities behave in different ways and follow different cultural norms.  There are shared characteristics but these commonalities are best seen within the context of core differences that each contribute uniquely to the human story.  Given this when we derive scientific metatheories what is their relationship to the domains of religion and philosophy?  In particular, what role might scientific meta-frameworks play in the world of religion and spirituality? I think it a great mistake to take the metatheories and meta-philosophies developed within the discipline of science and rational learning and apply them to spirituality.  Many dangers lie in this indiscriminate application of metatheory to the way we experience religion.  

What is of particular relevance here is the application of integral approaches like AQAL that purport to be "all embracing" to other domains of human experience.  Can an integral theory be used to structure and develop spiritual practices and techniques be used to guide spiritual development and growth, be used to promote one form of spirituality over another.  It seems to me that that the exportation of scientific models into other territories of human experience needs to be very consciously and cautiously done, and the due regard for the dangers and fragilities of that process be clearly kept in mind.  If not then the no boundary assumptions that I see as plaguing the development and use of AQAL in the scientific domains will be reproduced within the spiritual domain with disastrous impact.  I see the ongoing parade of scandals (including the very recent dramas) involving several spiritual teachers associated with forms of integral spirituality as being closely linked with the “all-embracing” myth that surrounds AQAL and with the lack of domain boundaries that accompany this form of metatheory.  

When the scientific map of and “all embracing” “theory of everything” form of AQAL (which makes strong claims that it possesses scientific validity and that it has been developed on the basis of scientific theories and empirical evidence) is exported into the spiritual domain all kinds of relational boundaries can get lost – interpersonal, philosophical, and cultural.  That some spiritual teachers who take on the boundaryless AQAL map may also lose a clear sense of boundaries does not surprise me.  The wholesale and uncritical transportation of scientific meta-studies into other, very different, domains of human experience is not a good thing. When those meta-theories claim and all-embracing relevance and application, their transposition onto other areas of cultural life is doubly problematic.  

There need to be many conversations around these issues if the relationship between scientific big pictures and their use in such areas as spiritual practice are even begun to be understood.  Without those conversations and critical investigations the relationship between metatheories and how they inform spiritual models and practices will continue to be an area of ethical concern.