By Ken Ward
A student clutching a pile of books and rushing to a university class might not normally be compared with, say, a Buddhist monk meditating in a lotus position contemplating existence, or a Japanese Zen student studying a koan, or even with a high magician performing a Kabbalistic ritual, yet it seems all these students are progressing through the same four stages of growth and all are seeking their enlightenment.

For those interested in mental development, it is no surprise to read about exotic and religious systems that claim to enlighten, but they may be surprised, or even astonished that students in traditional education follow the same stages, seeking the same result.

Many systems refer to stages of development and of initiation, but here I am using the 4 stages proposed by a conventional psychologist, William Perry, Professor of Education at Harvard. Perry proposed that students in higher education pass through a number of stages, and the 4 stages mentioned here are a grouping of his 9 stages. These 4 stages relate (roughly) to each of the 4 years of a well-taught university course - one where students are encouraged to become researchers and innovators, rather than merely regurgitate facts and theories.

1. Dualism
In both traditional university education and in esoteric and religious studies, students arrive, ready to sit at their teacher's or guru's knee, and, wide-eyed (and bushy tailed), await answers to the mysteries (of science, art, or the spirit). They are in Perry's first stage -- Dualism. That is, thinking is dual -- there are only two rational views of a statement: it is right or wrong. There are only two ways to do something: the right way and the wrong way. There are only two aspects of artistic judgement: the beautiful and the ugly. And there are only two types of people: authority figures who know the truth (such as teachers, gurus and doctors), and others, who have nothing to contribute. The student believes that the teacher knows all the answers and is the final arbiter of right and wrong, true and false, etc. Although students may have a short respite, when the first year is used to consolidate their previous knowledge, by the second year at the latest, the wise teacher or guru begins to challenge the student's dualistic beliefs and knowledge.

Students expect to be taught knowledge and skills which will give them confidence and certainty. They expect to learn the laws of the universe, but they discover that this isn't exactly what they will learn.

An example of Dualism is the central argument in 'Language, Truth and Logic' by the philosopher A J Ayer. In this book, he argued that all knowledge is empirical. Everything else -- religion, art -- is nonsense. That is, there are two categories: empirical knowledge and nonsense. The only way to truth, according to the book, is through scientific method. And everything else -- literary theory, ethics, law -- is nonsense, insubstantial pondering. However...

While a first reading of the book might give us a temporary feeling of certainty, that this is clearly true, we might apply its principles to determine what material is worthy to be called knowledge and what is nonsense. The natural place to start testing this idea is the arguments of the book itself. We can ask ourselves, in what category are the arguments in this book: empirical or non-empirical (and therefore nonsense)?

Are they empirical? Of course not. They are philosophical. So, by its own principle, the book is nonsense. And our dualistic test for knowledge must also be nonsense. So, perhaps there is knowledge that isn't scientific knowledge, after all. What we previously believed clearly true, we now believe to be clearly false. Such contradictions also occur and are encouraged in other systems.

For instance, a Buddhist student may crave enlightenment above everything else. But he learns that in Buddhism, attachment and craving lead to human suffering. Is, then, the craving for enlightenment just another way to cause suffering! Such contradictions leave us confused, and challenge our dualistic way of thinking. In Zen, this confusion is actively encouraged by the use of koans.

In Zen there is a story of a master named Dongshan Shouchu who was asked "What is Buddha?" As the monks were making flax at the time, he said, "A ball of flax." Such an answer seems completely non-sequitur! Their task, like ours, is to unravel the ball of flax, and to understand or transcend the contradictions.

When confronted with contradictions, what can the student do? Of course, she might drop-out, and keep her duality by dulling her mind to any exceptions. Alternatively, she could move to the second stage.

2. Multiplicity
To do this, the student must give up the idea that there are right ideas and wrong ideas, and acknowledge multiple ideas. Also, the student give up the idea that teachers and gurus are infallible. After all, if there are no right ideas, the teachers or gurus cannot know what is right and what is wrong. They can no longer be teachers and gurus.

This stage is called Multiplicity. It refers to believing there are many viewpoints, all equally valid. Students in this stage believe:

In this stage, there are no standards. The students are concerned with collecting multiple viewpoints and criticisms, without any real comparison. They apply criticism to everything, but without a real intention to seek the truth. They mouth ideas and the support for these ideas to please their teachers (and get their grades), without any real belief in any of them. In the end, it's all opinion. Everyone's opinion is just as good and just as bad as anyone else's. The opinion of the janitor is as valid as that of the professor. In this stage, the students develop a kind of liberalism where adopting a fact, theory or viewpoint is as individual as choosing the flavor of an ice cream! For this reason, this stage is sometimes called the 'Cornetto', or 'Baskin-Robbins stage' (Both of which refer to ice cream.) There are no absolute truths, so there aren't any truths (only vanilla, strawberry, and infinite choices, including toffee crisp).

Here people can agree (and disagree) with anything. Even strange and weird theories! The students are still highly influenced by their teachers and gurus. But here they are complying with what the student thinks the teachers want from them. This is a stage of rejecting dualism and preparing the student for greater development, whether in traditional or esoteric education.

In Buddhism, the student may meditate on thoughts: how they arise; how they develop; and how they pass away. Ideas begin to be perceived not as inherently existing, but impermanent. This is also the stage of Multiplicity.

At Multiplicity (and later stages) students may be haunted by the ghost of dualism, where, although they believe ideas are multiple, they cling to the hope that one day the true answer will found.

This stage makes students less credulous, because they have learned there are many different viewpoints. Their craving for false certainty diminishes.

We should point out that some kinds of moral and social relativism are examples of multiplicity (not Perry's next stage of Relativism). In social or religious relativism, the student believes there are many types of behavior or good, and many religions and beliefs --all equally worthy and true. Beliefs are relative to the individual's society, etc. The student believes that beliefs are multiple and neither good nor bad. So this 'relativism' is the stage of multiplicity. There is also a plurality of things, and no unity.

The following illustrates the difference between dualism and other stages. Suppose a student is given the question: Which of the following is correct?

  1. 1+1=2
  2. 1+1=10
  3. 1+1=1
The dualist may answer this question easily, choosing 1 as the answer. The more advanced student may find the question unanswerable: all of these are correct.

A Zen master, Zhaozhou, was talking to a student when a dog walked by. "Has a dog the Buddha nature?" He suddenly asked.

The student tried to think quickly, but the master suddenly yelled, "Mu!"

While this story has many meanings that cannot really be verbalized, one interpretation is that the master caught the student being dualistic -- trying to think whether the dog had the Buddha nature or not -- and he made him jump to shock him out of that kind of thinking.

3. Contextual Relativism
After this stage of Multiplicity, where the student believes that there are many viewpoints, each of which is as good as another, the student begins to learn that while all theories are equal, some theories are more equal than others. Some viewpoints are nonsense or extremely weak; others are stronger; and yet others have almost universal application.

Perry called this third stage Contextual Relativism. Theories and beliefs are not mere opinion. Although there aren't any absolute truths, some ideas are better than others. They are more rational. They have more scope. They have more support from evidence. At the stage of relativism, students have a greater belief in the power of some tools to find truth. For instance, logic, scientific method, observation, historical support, applicability, aesthetics, etc.

They are able to list a number of possible answers to questions, and they will evaluate the relative merits of these. But they are still more likely to do this to please their teachers.

4. Committed Relativism
The final stage is called Committed Relativism. Students are committed to learning diverse opinions and introducing their judgments and evaluations to select those ideas to use. They learn that there are many resources, but no gurus. They can learn from everyone, but some people, such as professors and gurus can contribute more and be effective mentors. Of course, the opinion of someone who has spent years researching a subject is more valuable than the opinion of someone who has not. Some guides are clearly better than others. But none can replace your responsibility to decide. Yet to judge, you must listen and learn from whatever resources are available. That is, there is respect for all theories, but no gullible or credulous belief in any. Belief is provisional, and based on good reasons, not just preference. People at this level remember when they were dualists, and therefore show respect for those who are still moving through these stages. At this stage there is a new unity.

Because at this stage of development there is diversity, the new unity is not the merging of all things into one, but the acknowledgement of the wide range of circumstances where different rules apply. Therefore, people who have developed to these higher stages are less likely to apply theories and principles mindlessly.

In physics, for instance, we might think of 3 realms: the micro realm (where Quantum Theory is useful), the normal realm (where Newton's theories apply) and the mega realm (where Einstein's theories are used). The physicist needs to apply his knowledge thoughtfully. He does not apply a rule which works in one realm to another where it doesn't work.

It seems there are no absolute rules, and every rule has exceptions. This is illustrated by a priest's joke. During the Second World War, a prisoner of war in Germany went to his priest to confess.

The priest listened impatiently as the soldier told him: "Father, I lied to get off the work party. And I broke into the food store. I stole some food. And a guard came in and there was a struggle. I killed him."

Rather angrily the priest interrupted him. "Stop boasting my son, and tell me something you have done wrong!"

So even in strict ethics, an act that is normally considered unquestionably wrong, does not seem so evil under some circumstances.

At this level, there is unity, but not simple unity. The desire to over-generalize is diminished. Valued principles in one area may not be mindlessly applied to another. A child knows that we can wash dirty clothes in a washing machine. We can also wash dirty curtains in a washing machine. Even dirty trainers can be washed in a washing machine. But what about a dirty baby? Even children might draw the line at applying the washing machine principle to the baby.

Yet we find that even some poets dream of the day when we can apply scientific principles to solve all of our ills. And some scientists believe that ethical principles have no place in science.

For instance, in the theory of evolution, there is the principle of the "survival of the fittest." This may be scientifically right. That is, right in the realm of science. But to apply this principle to society, to produce a master race, or to improve the health of nations -- even though it may (or may not) be scientifically right -- is, in terms of thinking, akin to putting the baby in the washing machine. What is sometimes appropriate and right, is sometimes inappropriate and wrong. In the realm of society, ethics is more important than, or is as important as, science. At level four of cognitive development, committed relativism, there is not a mindless application of a 'correct' principle in one realm to another. Here unity is a viewpoint. When looking at a scientific experiment, we may consider ethics to be less important than scientific method. But when looking at society, ethics looms in importance. It is not inconsistent to consider a principle right in one realm, but terribly wrong in another.

"Learning without thinking is labor lost;
thinking without learning is perilous"


Beyond these stages, the student progresses to understand that 'truth' and other concepts exist -- but not in any simple way. The truth cannot always be clearly stated or verbalized. Yet even though we have moved beyond mere words, our foundation of knowledge is secure and rational. Here we might more meaningfully speak of knowledge as a skill, and speak of knowing (a process) rather than of knowledge. While this sounds mystical, there are many examples where we can know, but not be able to clearly articulate our knowledge. For instance, few or none of us can clearly explain how to swim or how to ride a bicycle. And those people who have a good memory for faces may not be able to tell us precisely how they do it so that we can do it too. Nonetheless, even though we cannot clearly explain how to do something, we might be able to swim, ride a bicycle or have a good memory. We can clearly do these things, even though we can't explain them.

In summary, we have claimed that in many systems, students progress from blind belief in experts, facts and theories, through a stage of believing all knowledge is equal, to stages where they compare a multiplicity of ideas, choosing those ideas which are more rational, better supported, etc. They are certain of things not because they have accepted a theory, but because they have evaluated the alternatives - perhaps in the process creating a new theory of their own - and have chosen the most appropriate. And still, they keep their minds open.

About Ken Ward...
Ken started the original version of the Trans4mind site with Peter Shepherd back in 1995, writing prolifically and creating a huge site of his own at Freeing Your Mind - take a look, you'll see he has an amazing mind.