Even though mindfulness advocates often cite scientific evidence for the positive effects of mindfulness, the religious and ideological nature of the mindfulness movement can be at odds with the values of science. Mindfulness enthusiasts may welcome findings that appear to validate their beliefs but I haven’t found much hand-wringing in the mindfulness community about null or negative findings. To paraphrase Kabat-Zinn: the scientific support is great but we don’t really need it to value mindfulness; we know the truth from the inside.

Of course,  all of us are prone to embrace or ignore evidence according to our preexisting biases. This tendency is simply stronger if the biases are religious or ideological. As William James noted long ago, the “truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion….” (p 77, Varieties of Religious Experience)

In addition to tendencies not unique to mindfulness, there are specific elements in the mindfulness movement that appears incompatible with a scientific perspective. Before elaborating on those elements, I will first discuss what I mean by a “scientific perspective”, starting with a couple quotations.

“Science is not just another enterprise like medicine or engineering or theology. It is the wellspring of all the knowledge we have of the real world that can be tested and fitted to preexisting knowledge. It is the arsenal of technologies and inferential mathematics needed to distinguish the true from the false. It formulates the principles and formulas that tie all this knowledge together. Science belongs to everybody. Its constituent parts can be challenged by anybody in the world who has sufficient information to do so. It is not just “another way of knowing” as often claimed, making it coequal with religious faith.” EO Wilson, Social Conquest of Earth p 4151 (Kindle version)

“The values of science: to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.” Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature p 4112 (Kindle version)

For me, science is about the pursuit of truth combined with an appreciation of one’s own fallibility and the ever-expanding ignorance that each advance of knowledge brings to our attention. To paraphrase David Eagleman: The 3 words that science has given humankind: “I don’t know”.

Science is about loving the questions (without denying that answers are nice too).

Science is also about maintaining a balance between skepticism and openness. As Carl Sagan put it:

“If you’re only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never can learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. …At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis.

No one can be entirely open or completely skeptical. We all must draw the line somewhere. An ancient Chinese proverb advises, “Better to be too credulous than too skeptical,” but this is from an extremely conservative society in which stability was much more prized than freedom and where the rulers had a powerful vested interest in not being challenged. Most scientists, I believe, would say, “Better to be too skeptical than too credulous.” But neither is easy. Responsible, thoroughgoing, rigorous skepticism requires a hard-nosed habit of thought that takes practice and training to master.” Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (pp. 304-306).

In the coming posts, I will discuss three manifestations within mindfulness discourse that go against the spirit of science: triumphalism, the devaluation of cognition, and magical thinking.