Science and Mysticism together
Science, Spirit, and Reality
Slightly Revised from a Presentation at the 2002 SOFN(NZ) Conference
L C W Hobbis
Western materialist culture is fatally flawed through its
failure to give
due weight to the spiritual aspects of life. I believe this situation is closely
connected with the perceived conflict between science and religion.
But this debate is taking place largely on the wrong ground. I contend
that neither science nor theology is taking sufficient account of the role
of mind, and that if they were to do so the discussion could move to the
more fertile ground to be found in the relation between science and the human spirit.
The need for this distinction was apparent to William James,
psychologist and philosopher, when just over a century ago he wrote to a friend:
The fountain head of all religion lies in the mystical experiences
of the individual. All our theology, all our ecclesiasticism, are
only secondary growths that are superimposed. These experiences
belong in the region deeper and more vital and practical than that
which our intellect inhabits. They convince us there is a sphere of
life larger and more powerful than our usual consciousness. They
help us to live, they melt our hearts, and communicate significance
and value to everything.
James subsequently proposed a science of religion which
he called ‘radical
empiricism’. This would be based on human experience as opposed to
theological doctrine. Such an approach is open to us through the study of mind.
Science, Western Culture and Reality
After the 17th century astronomers won the freedom
for science to develop
outside the authority of the Church the physical model of the universe and
all it contained was established. But this model nowhere suggested the possibility
of conscious life. Accordingly it has marginalised the spiritual as having no
relevance for the world of objective reality. But here lies a paradox, for the
very experience on which we base our ideas about external reality is entirely
subjective. All our primary experience is subjective. It all takes place in the
mind, but mainstream science, theology, and much of religion overlooks this.
Science has been hugely successful in its efforts to describe
world and together with technology has been a major factor in improving
the quality of our lives. Free market economics has yielded vast material
wealth, especially to the powerful. Yet failure abounds. Whole nations
are marginalised, as well as significant numbers of people within wealthy
countries. Social cohesion suffers.
In spite of the success of science few of us actually seem
entirely to regulate
our personal affairs according to a strictly materialist view. Ultimately people
acknowledge the significance of those things that matter to them by affecting
their lives. We learn to value certain moral precepts and to pay attention
to the quality of our relationships. So in practice many of us appear to
have adopted a dualistic world view which acknowledges the world of
materialist science but also contains a world of the spirit alongside, perhaps
overlapping, the material world. This other world provides room for our
moral precepts, our spirituality, and for some, room for God, the Church,
and perhaps supernatural magic and superstition.
Surveys show that a majority of Western society believe
in some kind
of God or Life Force. A high proportion claim to have had significant
religious experiences. Although it may be expressed in many ways, our
basic spirituality seems to be an innate quality. It is through our sensitivity
to the non-material that we find meaning for living. Thus there is a
strong prima facie claim for attributing some sense of reality to the non-material.
What do we mean by reality? A recent survey of several hundred
showed they had differing views about whether such things as stones,
colours, hallucinations, emotions, atoms, and numbers were real. A large
majority regarded stones and atoms as real, but there were a few dissenters,
and a few who weren’t sure! 40-50% considered colours, hallucinations,
and emotions to be real; 20% thought emotions were not real, while 20%
were not sure. Various possible reasons for these dilemmas spring to
mind. One important point to note is that all theories about the physical
world have to do with what we can observe, and do not give us certain
knowledge about any underlying reality. And evidently some of those
surveyed felt that some things were entirely subjective, and, therefore,
not real. We all make practical seat-of-the pants judgements about
what’s real and what’s not, based on common sense judgements,
maybe unrecognised. Our judgements are based on our preconceptions
about the world, how it all hangs together.
Consider the example of how we perceive a human body. We
examine it by normal vision, by infra-red light, using X-rays, ultra-sound,
or CT or MRI scans. All these give a different picture. None is right and
none is wrong. Each is incomplete as a description of a body, but each
can be a valid representation at the level it interrogates. Such is true of
all our subjective experience of the external world.
We cannot know ultimate reality or have absolute knowledge
Rather than ask questions like ‘What is Reality?’, or ‘Is it true?’, it may
sometimes be better to ask ‘Does it help my living?’,
‘Does it influence me or the world around me?’,
‘Does it add meaning to my life?’ In short, ‘Does it work?’
A Relational Universe
Developments in physics during the last 100 or so years
have led to
a move away from the deterministic, mechanistic model of the universe.
The ‘new physics’ of quantum theory and of chaotic and complex systems
supports a more open, relational, and indeterministic universe, although
this change in perception has yet to pervade the whole of our science and culture.
Paul Davies puts it beautifully in this quotation from ‘The Fifth Miracle’:
On one side is orthodox science, with its nihilistic philosophy
of the pointless universe, of impersonal laws oblivious of ends,
a cosmos in which life and mind, science and art, hope and fear
are but fluky embellishments on a tapestry of irreversible cosmic
corruptions. On the other, there is an alternative view…
.the vision of a self-organising, self-complexifying universe,
governed by ingenious laws that encourage matter to evolve
toward life and consciousness.
We see the old picture of a mechanical universe, populated
by atoms having
only local interactions, giving way to one in which everything in the universe
is connected in a web of continuous relationship. The new model is entirely
consistent with the relational nature of our own being. There are no separate
actors and spectators; all are players. We cannot divide our world neatly into
the subjective and objective, because our subjective experience is the outcome
of a participatory encounter between our minds and whatever lies beyond.
Our culture is re-discovering relationship. From the moment
of our conception,
relationship is a primary determinant of our lives and extends progressively
beyond our immediate family to embrace the whole world and all species
of life. And the most profound expression of relationship is love (agape).
Such relationship engages our whole being, reaching out from deep within.
All the life and teaching of Jesus was about the nature and importance of relationship.
Fulfilment through successive steps of transformational
relationship is a theme that runs through the whole course of evolution
of the natural world, bringing forth atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies,
planets, plant and animal life forms, and conscious beings.
Such composite entities are often quite different from their
parts, and may have emergent properties that are not predictable by
reductionist science. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. How
different is water from its constituents, hydrogen and oxygen, or a complex,
intricately folded protein molecule from its many thousands of elementary
atoms. The emergent properties somehow arise from the interactions of
the many components within the context of the whole, and are often
astonishing. Progress is being made in developing theory about the influence
of an entire context on what it contains.
Consciousness itself is beginning to look to some scientists
to be an
emergent property of the brain—I should probably say brain/body.
Mainstream science cannot account for consciousness. Although rapid
progress has been made (eg using functional MRI and PET scans) in
correlating neural activity with our subjective mental awareness of
thoughts and images, this throws no light on the nature of the inner
experience. A strictly materialist view would be that mind has no
significance in its own right; it is simply an epiphenomenon of the brain,
reflecting the brain’s physical state at any time. Some would hold that
the material and mental are two different aspects of some more
fundamental reality; mind does not add anything to what the brain
provides but is our window into what is going on. However an increasing
number of scientists consider that mind, while wholly physical in origin,
having emerged, constitutes something extra in its own right. It has
properties that cannot be deduced from those of its constituent parts.
This emergent property may be of quantum physical origin, a quite
exciting idea which would close the circle, so to speak, connecting us
back directly to the origins of our universe, that is, to the very Ground
of our Being.
The very development of language as a defining feature of
seems likely to have been possible only out of consensual social activity
within a biology of cooperation. And the essential emotional state that
would allow this is that of love. In this domain of behaviour
I accept that the other’s existence is as legitimate as my own and I am
not blind to his/her condition of being.
This point is developed strongly by H Maturana and F Varela
Tree of Knowledge’. They explain that biology shows us that the uniqueness
of being human lies in the social relationships that occur through
languaging, and enables us to see that as human beings we have
only the world which we create with others----whether we like them or
not. They describe love as the biological foundation of human living.
Without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no
social process and, therefore, no humanness.
This is a quite remarkable observation. It does not need
a divine incarnation
to reveal such wisdom, but simply to observe and consider the workings
of the natural world. Jesus was one who knew all this though he would have
thought of it in quite different terms. Truly we are beings in relationship.
In relationship we live and move and have our being.
This is not something we are called upon to believe like part of a creed.
It is simply the way we are. Our relationships are an expression of our
spirituality, and our spirituality also reflects our relationships. Each can be
constructive or not, open or closed, inclusive or exclusive. If we value
personal wholeness, spiritual growth, and social cohesion we will wish
to choose positive relationships. All our institutions, laws, politics,
public policies, business affairs, international relations, etc, can be
judged as to whether or not they embrace such criteria, or are at least
neutral towards them.
I believe we have to accept love, along with properties
of the physical
world like gravity and electricity, as a fundamental reality of our existence.
Theories of these phenomena may come and go, but their reality as
agents of our being must endure.
Phenomena of the Mind
Materialist science has been reluctant to admit the study
of mind because
of associations with dualism. But now interdisciplinary consciousness
research is thriving. There are transpersonal psychologists who study the
psychology of spirituality, and altered states of consciousness. There are
psychiatrists who acknowledge the role of spirituality and religion in mental
health. Mind-body medicine struggled until it was belatedly accepted that
the body’s immune and nervous systems were intimately connected and
that they can be affected directly by our minds; now highly respected
research is proceeding in this field of psychoneuroimmunlogy. The healing
potential of various forms of alternative medicine is gaining wider acceptance
though this is an area where use of pseudo-scientific language may impede
understanding and one that is open to exploitation of a trusting lay public.
Parapsychology, the study of such phenomena as extra-sensory
(which includes telepathy), is still anathema to main-stream science, yet many
of its findings have been established to an astoundingly high order of
confidence. There are here strong indications that our minds are not confined
to the boundaries of our bodies.
Parapsychologists have had to be extraordinarily thorough
in their experimental
designs and protocols to convince those sceptics who have been open-minded
enough to consider their results. Research results in parapsychology are
unlikely to be published in mainstream journals but there are now specialist
journals for this area. However, individual researchers may still
suffer persecution in the academic world.
There are many areas of human experience which involve the
mind and which
are of particular relevance for spirituality, religious faith, and belief. I give below
a list, which is certainly incomplete. These fields may have considerable
overlap. I have already mentioned some of them above.
Some phenomena or fields of experience
relevant to mind/consciousness and theology.
Dreams and visions
The Near Death Experience
Psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, neuroscience
Meditation, altered states of consciousness, direct cognition Memories of past lives (re-incarnation?
A vast amount of information is available on these topics
which can help
us to reach new understandings of scriptural texts and religious traditions.
Some of the fields are controversial and not generally accepted as legitimate
topics for study in main stream science. Anyone wishing to make a serious
examination of these topics is urged to observe a few important guidelines:
Adopt a critical open-mindedness rather than a rigid scepticism;
Consider the integrity of the participants and investigators involved;
Try to distinguish the raw experience from the language used to describe it;
Remember that the experience may not easily be described in everyday language;
Watch out for inappropriately borrowed or ill-defined terminology.
Summary This is what I have been trying to say:
I have been encouraged to note recently a number of resonances
I have written here.
From Don Cupitt (SOF 50 p 9) ‘I find that my old belief
in divine providence
has been replaced, not quite by Marx’s historical materialism, but by the
conviction that some values, some insights, are inextinguishable.’
From Ruth Robinson (SOF 50 p11) ‘Nowadays intuition and
feeling are often
disparaged. I’m not suggesting that we return to an archaic, unthinking
obedience to authoritative inner voices. ----But there are still inner voices
to be heard, but now with conscious understanding and discrimination.
There is an "inscape" to explore as well as a landscape and an outer space
and our lives are impoverished if we discount it.----I have replaced belief
by trust, not in any supernatural power but in the continuing incarnation of
a caring and compassionate humanity, taking responsibility for ourselves,
each other and our world and reaching forward in hope to discover what
we might become. For me there is only one world, not two, natural and
supernatural. Much of what we call supernatural is likely to be what we don’t
yet understand about this one. It is by developing our intuitive as well as our
intellectual faculties that we shall discover more about this world and what it
might mean to be human.’
And from John Bishop in his Keynote talk at the 1998 SOFN
Conference when he spoke about ‘Radical Theology: Inventing or Discovering
Reality?’ Exploring two ways in which the project of a naturalistic, realist,
radical theology might be pursued , he suggested first, pantheism, the
unimaginably vast and impersonal God or Nature on whom we ultimately all
depend, and second, the God who emerges within Nature, who is so intimately
bound up with us that we participate in constituting its reality. This second
reality, ‘though emphatically not a person- is somehow even more
"personal" then any individual person could be because his or her
essential nature (and, yes, the personal pronoun is forced from us)
is that best and brightest of all things capable of being revealed
in the interpersonal; Love’
There is thus ample justification for insisting that any
theory of the
universe must take account of our experience of both the so-called
objective and subjective worlds. That should include an integral science
of consciousness which brings matter and spirit together into the one
world where our experience shows them to belong. There is no need
to appeal to the supernatural. Our religious faith can be firmly grounded
in this world. That need not make such an holistic faith any less significant
or transcendent than traditional other-worldly faith. My expectation is that
for most Westerners it would appeal as a realistic, self-consistent,
world view. It would transcend the perceived conflict between science and
religion by moving to new ground where there would be no conflict, and
where individuals could find meaning and inspiration. It would also offer
the great faiths of the world a common meeting place.
To conclude, let us listen to the poem, ‘Emerging’,
by R S Thomas.
It came to me, like a gift, as I was reflecting on the material for this paper
and it strikingly encapsulates much of what I have tried to convey.
© R S Thomas
Not as in the old days I pray,
God. My life is not what it was.
Yours, too, accepts the presence of
the machine? Once I would have asked
healing. I go now to be doctored,
to drink sinlessly of the blood
of my brother, to lend my flesh
as manuscript of the great poem
of the scalpel. I would have knelt
long, wrestling with you, wearing
you down. Hear my prayer, Lord, hear
my prayer. As though you were deaf, myriads
of mortals have kept up their shrill
cry, explaining your silence by
It begins to appear
this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference,
the consciousness of myself in you,
of you in me; the emerging
from the adolescence of nature
into the adult geometry
of the mind. I begin to recognise
you anew, God of form and number.
There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand
to contain. Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.
This paper is a slightly revised version of my Presentation at the SOFN(NZ) 2002 Conference, which was in turn based on the paper given to the Auckland District Methodist Ministerial Synod meeting at Trinity at Waiake, 10 April 2002. LCWH, 30 September 2002
On World Views, Science and Spirituality:
On Spirituality and Consciousness:
On Healing Prayer:
On Direct Cognition:
On Memories of Past Lives:
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