Spirituality & Development

{bit.ly/AZSpirit} Friday, 26th Jan 2017: Lecture by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE to students at University of Cambridge, Center of Development Studies for Religion & Development paper. 40 minute video recording of lecture on you-tube. For related posts, see: An Islamic Approach to Humanities.

Part 1: “What Is Spirituality?”:  Modern Secular thought takes spirituality and religion to be diseases which affect weak minds not properly trained in the scientific method. Part I of this lecture explain why this view, which is based on positivist ideas, is seriously mistaken. OUTLINE of this lecture is given below

Separate Lecture Part 2:“What is Development” focusing on how spirituality affects how we think about development and how to achieve it.

  1. Standard Modern Answer
    1. Spirituality is a literary term, used to spice up poetry and novels.
    2. It is like Phlogiston, Unicorns, Ghosts, Souls, God
    3. It is one among many medieval beliefs, like flat Earth, which have been proven wrong.
  1. Why don’t we understand spirituality?
    1. Because we have been trained to think like Logical Positivists, EVEN though this philosophy has been proven wrong! Key wrong positivist beliefs:
    2. Unobservables do not matter for science
    3. Science explains the observable patterns. It may postulate things like atoms, gravity, but this is just for convenience. Existence of gravity is not part of scientific assertion.
    4. Kant: Thing-In-Itself is not knowable, not relevant for science. Wittgenstein: Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. ALSO, The human body is best picture of the human soul (That is, observables matter, unobservables don’t)
    5. SCIENCE is the ONLY source of valid knowledge.

  1. Million Dollar Question: What is Knowledge?
  • Modern Definition of Knowledge arrived at by a revolutionary paradigm shift over pre-modern ideas. Understanding spirituality requires another revolutionary paradigm shift.
  • To shift paradigms, we need to change perspectives, point of view. For example, shifting from seeing the young lady to the old lady – Reason or Logic cannot help us achieve such shifts or help us to decide which picture is “right”.


  1. Kn0wledge is True, Justified, belief – that is, it should be possible to prove using facts and logic.
    1. What about Intuition? hunches, guesses are not knowledge and certainly not scientific knowledge
    2. What about unverifiable statements? Visions for the future, that if we all cooperate on plan X, we can create a better world? Again, since truth value cannot be verified, this is not knowledge.
    3. According the modern understanding, Intuition and unverifiable statements are: NOT knowledge, NOT scientific, NOT important
  1. Current Dominant Positivist Paradigm (articulated)
    1. Central positivist idea: sentences must be true or false, in order to be meaningful. If sentences cannot be assigned truth values using empirical methods, they are MEANINGLESS.
    2. Intuitive and Un-Verifiable statements with unknown and unknowable truth values are MEANINGLESS.
    3. Spirituality, Soul, Morality, God, Angels, Heaven, Hell are all meaningless concepts.
    4. AJ Ayer (1936) Logical Positivism

We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements … because they have no objective validity whatsoever . . . They are pure expressions of feeling and as such do not come under the category of truth and falsehood. They are unverifiable for the same reason as a cry of pain … is unverifiable.

  • “Cry of Pain” is meaningless to Ayer, but the most meaningful thing in the world to ordinary human beings !
  • We have been trained to believe in OBJECTIVE reality, and to denigrate, de-emphasize, and treat as secondary, SUBJECTIVE realities. “Just give me the facts – I don’t want your opinions.”
  1. BUT: The World we live in is our subjective reality
    1. I live in a world in which civilization started along the rivers of Euphrates and Nile.
    2. There was global conquest and colonization by Europe, two world wars in the 20th Hiroshima & Nagasaki were bombed.
    3. Global Financial Crisis occurred in the 21st
    4. I did not experience any of these events – they have been reported to me.
  2. My experience of the world is mediated by my recreation of a picture of the world within my mind. This picture is HIGHLY subjective.
    1. Objective and Subjective: “Inextricably Entangled”
    2. How do we taste food, drink? Chemicals in food, taste buds in tongue, interpretative apparatus in brain, and Social Norms.
    3. How do we see the world? Replication of picture (inverted) on our retina, interpretation using brains and experience!
    4. The reality we live in cannot be partitioned into a subjective part and an objective part, and separately analyzed.
    5. This is even true in Quantum Physics. Our Observation is entangled with the Observed. I am an integral part of the objective reality out there, my observation of this reality shapes reality, just as reality shapes my observation of it. The two — observer and observed — cannot be neatly separate.
  3. Fabric of our personal lives woven with: Intuitive & Unverifiable Knowledge
    1. Communication skills: “What do you think about what I am saying?” – I make guesses about this, as I lecture, based on experience
    2. We got dressed, cleaned up, took care of our appearance: what other people think about us is of extreme importance in our lives.
    3. I can never know or verify how you feel about me. Yet it can be of supreme importance to me in conduct of my life.
  4. Uncertain, Unverifiable Knowledge of Essential Importance:
    1. I have never met you, BUT I know a lot about you!
    2. I know that you enjoy laughing.
    3. I know the kinds of things that can make you happy.
    4. I know about the things which can make you sad, angry, excited.
    5. Under suitable circumstances, I could use this knowledge to build a deeper relationship with you.
    6. The bonds of humanity we share are very powerful, very strong. Just the knowledge that you are a human being means that you and I share a huge amount of common thoughts and feelings.
  5. Human Knowledge is built on Paradoxes – these cannot be assigned truth values.
    1. Vast majority of humans on the planet live, laugh, cry, love, hate, despair, hope and die. We are all the same.
    2. Each human is completely unique – no one like her/him ever before or ever after.
    3. Snowflakes – all the same, and all completely different.
    4. Our human lives are built around understanding the SIMULTANEOUS truth of our sameness and our uniqueness. Zen Koans designed to teach us these truths which go beyond the capabilities of binary logic. The truth/false binary is completely incapable of capturing human knowledge about the complexities of our self-awareness, and our entangled web of relationships with others and our environment.
  6. Search for certainty & truth (Science) can blind us to our infinite potentials
    1. Every moment in time is unique, ephemeral, transient
    2. Offers possibilities which shimmer with the possibility of being realized. Rare, exceptional, once in a billions years opportunities
    3. Reach out to grasp these possibilities requires intuitive hunches, BUT if we think about our experience, use logic, reasoning, we will never see the unique.
    4. How many possibilities came up, and vanished, unseen, unrealized, unappreciated?? Science is based on replicable patterns in the past, and fitting the future onto these patterns. Science cannot deal with unique, rare, exceptional events.
  7. What makes us human? A thought experiment
    1. Would you kill a baby for a million dollars? [No one will know]
    2. I would bet a huge amount, that you wouldn’t. That is, I (know) that you won’t.
    3. Why? It is totally irrational for me (and also for you).
    4. I cannot JUSTIFY this knowledge. Empirical evidence, Real Politick, human experience, teaches us otherwise – People have killed others, even mothers have killed their own babies, for little or no gain – happens every day.
    5. Not justified, Not provable/verifiable. Yet I would still stake my life on it.
    6. MORE STRINGENT Thought experiment: so would you
    7. Consider the following (difficult) situation: You have to guess what a stranger offered this choice (kill a baby for a million dollars) will do? If you guess wrongly, you will die!
    8. I think that you will bet that stranger will not kill baby for a million.
    9. We all believe in the humanity of others, despite our bitter experiences to the contrary on numerous occasions.
  8. WHY do I believe in you? Why do you believe in me? This (knowledge) is not based on logic, empirical evidence, and cannot be verified. We will never know whether it is true or false, because the experiment will not be carried out.
    1. It is not so much that I have infinite trust in you. For me, it is part of what it means for me to be human. To continue to believe in humans, despite repeated experiences to the contrary, is not rational, but is very human (Charlie Brown kicks the football for the 1000th time, as Lucy pulls it away).


  1. Knowledge: Uncertain, Unprovable, Feelings: not Justified, Not True/False
  2. To love, care for and believe in the infinite potential of all human beings – this is an essential part of being human.
  3. Uncertain, Unverifiable, Unjustifiable knowledge makes us human
  1. Knowledge about how others react to us – uncertain, unverifiable – is central in our lives.
    1. Sometimes, we guess at our own internal psychological state.
    2. OFTEN, these guesses are not justifiable, and not true/false.
    3. Our lives are CRUCIALLY and CENTRALLY dependent on this knowledge. This knowledge differentiates us from “Siri”
    4. AJ Ayer eventually realized that logical positivism was “all wrong”. Emotions of others are unobservable, and positivists deny existence of emotions, and of our own sensitivity to the emotions of others. Which is equivalent to “feigning anesthesia”.
  2. This knowledge is not confined to personal realm. Our Decisions and Actions depend on guesswork about future possibilities.
    1. Choices we make depend on our Visions – Imaginary Futures.
    2. “I have a dream” – many have died for these dreams.
    3. Vision of Marx for a classless society, where laborers would not be exploited by capitalists, shaped the twentieth century
    4. Our dreams, entirely without material substance, are very powerful in shaping the world.
  3. What is spirituality?
    1. It is a capacity of the heart to feel for others.
    2. This allows us to sense our collective humanity.
    3. Joins us at the root, allows us to rise above individuality, selfishness.
    4. Like other human capabilities, requires nurturing
    5. With growth, spirituality can sense the presence of God.

17.Love, Courage, Strength: Spiritual Qualities: Unmeasurable, Unquantifiable, Unobservable

  • “The believer loves, and is loved” Prophet Mohammad peace & blessings upon him.
  • “Being deeply loved gives you strength, Loving gives you courage” Lao-Tzu
  • How can we have the strength and courage to love and be loved?
  • Directly in conflict with Lord Kelvin’s dictum that knowledge is based on measurability and quantifiability. This poisonous and wrong idea influenced psychologists to try and measure emotions, intelligence etc. putting them on the wrong track about what it means to be human.
  1. Multiple Stages of Spiritual Growth
    1. Primitive Egotism – (homo economicus). Conventional economic theory is about world of spiritually stunted people – midgets.
    2. Awareness of others. Concern about doing things which please others. Guilt and shame when doing actions (like theft) which are individually pleasing but socially harmful.
    3. Empathy, Compassion.
    4. Feeling of Unity with the Creation of God
    5. Feeling of Union with God
    6. Aldous Huxley: The Perennial Philosophy – introduction to spirituality for rational skeptics.
  2. End of Part I of talk
    1. I hope that we have provided an answer to the question of “What is Spirituality?”
    2. And differentiated it adequately from Phlogiston, Ghosts and the theories that the Earth is flat.
    3. We move on to the question of What is Development? (and also how spirituality matters for understanding development) In the second part of the talk.
  3. Ending Notes: Not relevant for present topic, but very important
    1. It is widely believed that science leads to Knowledge (JTB style)
    2. In fact, science is also based on intuition, and un-verifiable hunches.
    3. Think about Newton’s apple – intuition about gravity. Plus, since it is unobservable, it can never be verified.
    4. Similarly, Godel’s Theorems on Undecidability show that the set of provable statements is much smaller than the set of truths. Only intuitions can guide us about mathematical theorems which are true but unprovable.
    5. Knowledge about mathematics is also based on unprovable intuitions.

7 thoughts on “Spirituality & Development

  1. Asad Zaman Sahab i listened to your lecture throughly. It seems logical & contains both normative and positive approach to the hidden philosophy of spirituality. The reality is that the “logical reasoning” coupled with “scientific knowledge” are to a great extent deviations from the natural, intuitive, and innovative inner thinking of human being. The humanity is more in need of morality and compassion, rather than scientific methods of killing and making money from the misery of the masses. This is the time to open the real and rational window of natural order (God guided principles and practices) to both developed and less developed world. Loss of moral fiber and spirituality have led to the bottom 3.5 billion having less than the top 8 individuals in wealth, and the maximum number of innocents killed and refugees created for corporate profits. Encouragement of greed has led to looming environmental catastrophe and collapse. Cultivation of spirituality and morality is the solution of so called human error and terror , and other environmental , social and economic problems.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this, including text of the slides. I hope you do the same with further lectures in this series.

  3. Asad, excellent lecture. Two comments. First, I think the view of science in the piece is simplistic. Science is not of one version or structure. All sciences share some commonalities (e.g., detailed and repeated observation, theories to summarize and connect observations). But the subjects of observation vary for each science as do ways of observing. And in all sciences observations are always guided by hunches, guesses, and expectations. Per Stephen Hawking, “Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion.” And since with its unique gift of imagination among the human species, Homo Sapiens invented all these, we can say quite rightly that in science Homo Sapiens takes every route available to it to grasp and deal with the world in all its aspects. Second, I think you understate the importance of Homo Sapiens’ collective life in humans’ relations with the world and one another. Many Anthropologists believe one of the unique things about Homo Sapiens is its brain. A brain often described as communal in design and function. That is, humans do their best, most imaginative, and most productive work as a group. A group that is genetically linked. It’s this, not intelligence or reason, as the story is most often told that gives Homo Sapiens its evolutionary advantage.

  4. Asad, when I was asked to teach comparative world civilizations at the University off Hawaii, a core course required of every student attending the university, I was forced to ask myself, in order to conceive a course of lectures, what is civilization, and it did not take me too long to figure out that each civilization I had to discuss had a physical and spiritual component, the latter of which answered the big question about the meaning of live and community. Each of the civilizations I discussed, Egyptian, Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamian, Green, Roman, presented different spiritual explanations, which usually were entwined with the organizational structures of their productive and defensive life. People who study the humanities are very aware of the spiritual aspect of our existence, we haven’t forgotten it, which is one reason we study humanities instead of physical and so-called social sciences. When I read your lecture, I get the impression that you do not know very much about human studies in our educational networks. At the University of Hawaii, when I set out to work up lectures on World Civilizations, I could draw heavily on my fellow teachers in the history department, to learn about Japan, China, Indonesia, Greek, Roman, and European cultures, Hindustan, and Islam. Go to the people in history departments, and you’ll learn a lot about religion and spirituality. Our US universities have enriched the study of humanities for a hundred years.

    1. Robert: Julie Nelson in her book — The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality — has described how these topics were central and core in the university curriculum in the early twentieth century, but were gradually removed from the books, partly due to the influence of logical positivism, and Max Weber’s conceptions of Social Science. In early 2000’s there were several debates at Stanford which showed how the concepts (which may have been present when you received your education) are no longer present in the curriculum. One of them was a debate about whether the Great Books course was too Euro & White Centric or not. More significant, there was a discussion about how despite overall rising enrollments, interest in humanities was declining. To address the problem, humanities departments decided to create campaign to show how humanities degrees could also lead to successful jobs!! To me, this seems to me a betrayal of the mission of humanities, which teach you how to be a better person, something science cannot do. Anyway, Rhonda Kovac has remarked that these ideas are now making a comeback.

    2. The first question on humanism and the humanities for anthropologists is how did Homo Sapiens invent humanity, when, and why? Homo Sapiens’ evolution included imagination. This proved an evolutionary advantage. It helped Homo Sapiens out perform Neanderthals and other human species. Why would Homo Sapiens use this same ability to invent something called humanity and then add the study of the life and art of that invention, the humanities? In more general terms when and how did Homo Sapiens invent culture? Many seem to think the question is unnecessary; it’s just the way Homo Sapiens became fully human. This is nonsense. This was part of an evolutionary process, not a project in some art history class. In terms of the comments here, what is spirituality, how was it created, and what’s its role in the evolution of Homo Sapiens. So, what do you think? There are other human inventions about which the same questions need to be asked. For example, history, art, and marriage.

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