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The Enneagram, Science, and the Law of Three

einstein-tagore“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” - Rabindranath Tagore

Over the past couple of years I’ve been hearing some people in the Enneagram world talk about how there is a need for an integration of science and spirituality in the use of the Enneagram, and that this can be achieved through the so-called “Law of Three.” While each of us needs to integrate what we learn through science and and what we learn through spirituality into our own lives, integrating the principles of underlying the practice of science and the practice of spirituality into one synthesized practice is a very bad idea.

Years ago a friend said to me, “I’m a scientist by training, and a materialist. I believe that if you take all the matter out of the universe, there will be nothing left. But I am also a practicing and believing Christian. These two may seem to be in conflict to others, but I don’t care. They are not in conflict inside of me.”

It took me a long time to wrap my head around the duality I saw in Dave—his attitude did seem contradictory to me but I was fascinated by how my friend could so cleanly separate two sides of himself. One side helped him understand the natural world; another helped him understand his inner, subjective world, and he had the intelligence and discipline not to mix them. I would marvel to watch him go back and forth between his “spiritual self” and his “scientific self.”

I came to learn, however, that these were not two separate selves, there was only one self but it was using different tools for different tasks. Dave understood that one uses a hammer for some tasks and a saw for others. He was careful to identify any of the objective fact claims sometimes made in his religious tradition, evaluate them based on science, and either reject them or see them as metaphor, but he used the framework of his faith tradition to guide his subjective moral principles. What he did not do was try to fuse the two into some kind of hybrid, creating a metaphorical “hammer-saw” that might be attractive in theory but which would be counterproductive in practice.

Many in the psycho-spiritual world—the Deepak Chopras and Rupert Sheldrakes and countless others who frequently call for “new paradigms” of science and insert the word “quantum” wherever possible—seek a fusion of science and spirituality and usually do so in a way that denigrates or distorts science in order to protect their metaphysical assumptions. Thinking we can transcend this problem via the “Law of Three” will lead to the same problems.

I wrote “so-called” before “Law of Three” at the beginning of this article because this “law” is not a law; it is a heuristic or mental model. A law applies all the time and in all circumstances. Gravity–the bending of the fabric of space-time that causes bodies of lesser mass to move toward bodies of greater mass–is a law. That matter cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system is a law; the “law of three” is not a law. And as with any heuristic, applying the “law of three” at the wrong time can cause more problems than it solves.

The “law of three” as understood in the Enneagram world comes from Gurdjieff’s teaching that every whole phenomenon consists of three elements—an active force, a passive force, and a reconciling force. In application, many seem to interpret this such that when there appears to be conflict between two forces, a third force is needed to come in and reconcile them.

This is a nice and useful heuristic, and it is derivative of what is commonly understood as “Hegelian dialectics,” the principle that the opposites of a “thesis” and “antithesis” are reconciled by a “synthesis.” In reality, however, Hegel rejected this formulation as too simplistic for what he was trying to achieve. It was actually Johann Fichte who popularized this wording and attributed it to Hegel, much to the latter’s consternation.

Hegel’s actual terminology was “abstract,” “negative,” and “concrete.” His view was that any thesis or assertion is likely to be incomplete or flawed at first; it is thus “abstract.” The flaw(s) in the thesis are exposed via testing (the “negative”) and the thesis is revised accordingly. Through this process of testing or negation, an abstract concept or incomplete thesis becomes more robust or “concrete.” Still, Hegel was not claiming to have established a law and he would have been the first to admit that his was a heuristic for use in specific circumstances.

(Anyone familiar with science will see the similarity between Hegel’s heuristic and the basic scientific method—start with a hypothesis based on empirical observations; test the hypothesis by trying to falsify it; refine the hypothesis based on what the tests show or reject the hypothesis if appropriate, no matter how much one would like to believe it.)

When it comes to science and spirituality, we should no more seek to synthesize the practices than we would create a hammer-saw, measure temperature with a ruler, or listen to chocolate. If there is a conflict it is probably because someone is making a mistake of application and using science to assess a value claim or using spirituality to evaluate an objective fact claim.

Instead of seeking a synthesis, we need to apply Hegel’s model to our practice in each domain, growing more and more confident in the firmness of our assumptions through rigorous testing of them according to the methods of the relevant domain.

We should recognize that science and spirituality are separate tools for separate aspects of life.

Granted, they can inform each other, but this informing is upon us, the person, and how we apply the tools rather than what shape the tools take. We cannot, or at least should not, implement what we learn via science without a solid grounding in ethics and moral philosophy—“spirituality” if you will. Doing so can lead to sins like the Social Darwinism of the early 20th century. However, just because people made flawed value assumptions (a matter of insufficient ethics or spirituality) does not mean the science of evolution is flawed or we need a new scientific paradigm for understanding it.

Likewise, we cannot fall back on the irrelevant statement that “there are other ways of knowing when a finding from science proves inconvenient to our beliefs—of course there are other “ways of knowing.” But they are ways of “knowing” other things, not tools for establishing confidence in objective fact claims about the natural world. Assuming that we can use whatever tool we want or distort the tools we have when it would safeguard our beliefs is to skip over Hegel’s second force and leaves us with shallow and shaky assumptions.

Further, we should not make claims about how science supports our spiritual views unless we are following the rules of science and have a knowledge of the topic we are talking about. (I can’t count the number of smart people I see distort quantum physics and biological evolution in order to make a spiritual point. They are errors nonetheless.)

There are two things we can do to start getting better at using science and spirituality in the appropriate ways to grow as fuller and richer human beings.

First, we should get disciplined at asking ourselves whether the assumption in question is a matter of fact or a matter of subjective opinion, belief, or value. The former is something that is true no matter what you feel about it; the latter is something that may be true for you but not for me.

Once you’ve made this distinction, use the standard tools of science to evaluate a claim about a matter of fact and use moral or ethical philosophy or the collective wisdom of your spiritual tradition to evaluate a claim about subjective values.

Second, equip yourself to understand and apply the principles of science and defend yourself from pseudoscience or outright bunk.

Unfortunately, science is hard. It is endlessly fascinating, but it is hard work to understand. This is why so many people can add “quantum” to the title of anything and fool most of the people in their audience into believing nonsense. (In fairness, it seems that many who pitch quantum this or that truly think they understand physics and are making well-intentioned errors.)

Here are a few resources for those who wish to build their science muscles:

Finally, if we want to really be people who have integrated the rigorous (but separate) practice of science and spirituality in our lives, we could do worse than emulate Albert Einstein. I started this article with a line from the Bengali poet Tagore because his conversation with Einstein is a great example of two brilliant minds exploring the boundaries between the metaphorical and indirect language of spirituality and the concrete and unambiguous language of science while valuing both and not mixing them to ill effect. Einstein’s “Ideas and Opinions” is also a must-read for anyone seeking a glimpse into a great mind that could inhabit both science and spirituality without feeling the need to synthesize them into a muddle.

We should follow his example.

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