Science of the whole: integrating matter & spirit
Science today is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it points towards a greater reality. On the other hand, it unwittingly blocks our direct experience of that greater reality. This needs a little explanation.
Ever since Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics in the 1970s, there have been books that draw striking parallels between the reality described by the new physics and the reality described by mystics. Both speak about interconnectedness, wholeness, the “dance of energy” and the critical role of consciousness. At the same time, science tends to block out certain types of reality because it limits itself to knowledge of the physical. It observes and studies only the physical aspects of the world and the human being.
Although some scientists have tried to take science beyond reductionism and into holism, science remains firmly rooted in the physical. It continues to claim that physical reality is the only possible reality. I suspect that this is at the root of our big limiting beliefs, for example that the universe began for no apparent reason, that life evolved by chance on this planet, and that we have no existence before conception and after death.
If, however, we were to extend the range of human faculties that we use in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge itself would extend accordingly. If this happened, our beliefs about the nature of the universe and humanity would be transformed. This is significant because it is our beliefs that determine our lives – our economics, our politics, our education, our science, our culture, our relationships, our lifestyles, and much more. Change your fundamental beliefs, and your thinking and behaviour change. Meanwhile, let us examine why science today is effectively “science of the physical.”
Science of the Physical
Modern science was born when it became possible to observe and measure things much more accurately than ever before. The telescope and microscope played central roles, but just as important were accurate clocks, thermometers and weighing machines. Being able to do this brought many benefits, and science has changed our lives in important ways. But there was a price to be paid. It was only a short step from being better able to observe and quantify physical things to believing that if something was not physically observable or quantifiable, it was not really important, or might not even exist. At a stroke, a whole range of human experience was pushed to the margins.
Over time, science increasingly became science of the physical, because the knowledge that it generated was about the physical aspects of the universe, the physical aspects of our home planet and the physical aspects of the human being, to the virtual exclusion of all other aspects. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem arises only because most scientists – and, to be fair, much of the world – appear to believe that science is exploring all possible aspects of the universe, the world and the human being.
Although science undoubtedly tells us much that is useful about the world and ourselves, it does not and cannot give us the whole picture. It is “science of the part.” There are two reasons for this. The first is that scientific knowledge is always changing. Despite the claims of some that we are close to producing a “theory of everything” or to “knowing the mind of God,” it is helpful to remind ourselves that the history of science is littered with the corpses of “hard facts” that have had to give way to newer “hard facts” as we make new discoveries. This is well illustrated by our understanding of the nature of matter.
At one time we were convinced that matter consisted of tiny solid things that we decided to call “atoms,” because we thought there could be nothing smaller. This is what the word “atom” implies. This belief eventually had to give way when we discovered that atoms consisted of even smaller things that we decided to call “protons,” “neutrons” and “electrons.” For some time this was the scientific “truth” until it was replaced by yet another “truth,” that protons and neutrons are themselves constructed of even smaller things, which may not be things at all, but “probabilities” or “tendencies to exist.”
This process, of facts being replaced by newer facts, is unlikely to stop, and there is no reason to suppose that the facts of the early 21st century are more sacrosanct than those of any other period. If they were, we would eventually reach the point at which there is no more for us to discover and learn. That would be the ultimate stasis, the ultimate boredom. Quite apart from anything else, it just does not ring true, and it sits ill beside the daily diet of human affairs. If as a species we cannot even live in peace and harmony with each other and the planet, claims that we shall soon know nearly everything about almost everything sound hollow indeed. The likelihood is that what we currently know is greatly outweighed by what we do not yet know.
The second reason why science is a partial form of knowledge is because, as with all other forms of knowledge, science is the product of the means of acquiring it. And it is we who are the means! It is we who do the acquiring. Now, if we were to apply the whole of ourselves to acquiring knowledge in the pursuit of science, then science would reflect this. It would be science of the whole. However, if we apply only part of ourselves, then scientific knowledge will be correspondingly limited. It will be science of the part. Since we have applied, almost exclusively, only the physical and intellectual parts of ourselves to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, science reflects this. It is knowledge of the physical and the rational. If, however, we were to use parts of ourselves that are almost never used these days – such as other forms of consciousness – our understanding of who we are and what the universe is would change out of all recognition. Before I say something about this, it is worth dwelling for a moment on how influential science has become.
The Dominant Worldview
In theory, science does not have a worldview because it is supposed to be based on evidence only. In practice, it is fair to say that the core beliefs of science today are:
- The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical, and only physical. Scientists may talk about a universe that consists only of “energy,” but they leave little doubt that they believe this energy to be physical.
- The universe, and everything in it, can usefully be thought of as a machine.
- The universe has no intrinsic meaning or purpose. A lot of things just happen by chance.
- Matter is primary, and consciousness is secondary.
- Causation is upwards – in the sense that the “primary reality” is believed to be at the level of the smallest things, such as waves and particles.
This set of beliefs has become so influential that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict it tend to be rejected. The fact is these beliefs persist despite discoveries in physics and biology that suggest the universe is anything but a machine, that “chance” may lie only in the eye of the beholder, and that the universe is rich in intrinsic meaning. Yet if, as science continues to insist, the universe began suddenly for no reason (the “Big Bang”) and life on this planet emerged by chance, then the world that science wants us to believe in must be totally meaningless.
These beliefs are causing all kinds of problems. For example, they have pushed spiritual experience and the paranormal into a box labelled: “Interesting, but strange. I can probably ignore it.” However, what we believe strongly determines what we value. If our core beliefs are that the universe is little more than a highly complex machine, that it consists entirely of physicality, and that we, too, are little more than complex machines, then our values will reflect these beliefs. They will be mechanistic/material values, and this means that we will tend to give high priority to material things and technology. It can surely be no accident that shopping and new technologies are now the world’s main activities, and that financial pundits and technology experts are the new high priests.
I have used the term “physical” as if its meaning is self-evident. But perhaps some explanation is required.
Something is physical if it can be perceived by one or more of our five physical senses (sight, hearing etc.) The thing might not be able to be perceived directly, because it is very far away (a distant galaxy), or very small (a microbe), or very subtle (a radio wave). However, we have created technological extension to our senses, to overcome this. We can perceive the very distant with telescopes, the very small with microscopes, and the very subtle with radar, radio and other devices. The point to note is that at least one of our five senses has to be involved if something is to count as physical. By definition, then, the non-physical is anything that can never be perceived by any of our five senses, with or without the aid of technology. I hope the distinction is clear.
It is because most scientists, and many others, do not normally admit to the existence of modes of perception other than the physical senses that they do not admit the possibility of other forms of reality, which can be generalised as “non-physical.” They continue to believe that the physical universe is one and the same as the whole universe. The mistake they make is to use their narrowly based “map” to interpret a world that not only far transcends the limitations of this map, but also far transcends the comprehension of any one of us.
Scientists have come to rely exclusively on one form of perception – their physical senses and extensions to these senses – to explore the world. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that if we use only one form of perception – the physical one – to view the world, the world will respond accordingly, by appearing to be physical, and nothing else. If we had used another form of perception, the world would seem different. This is analogous to viewing the world through different coloured lenses. If we look through a red lens, the world seems to be red. If we look through a blue one, it seems to be blue. Reality changes according to the “lens” we use to view it.
There can be little doubt that the physical “lens” has become the lens of almost universal preference in the modern world. I say “almost” because there are a few people who are able to use other “lenses,” in addition to the physical one. In other words, they have access to other forms of consciousness. The world they experience is richer and more extensive, because they experience the non-physical as well as the physical. But we have to ask why the physical “lens” has become the lens of universal preference today. I believe it is because, for the vast majority of people, the non-physical “lens” has become dormant, through lack of use over millennia. And I believe there are good reasons for this, but that is beyond the scope of this article. The fact is most people today probably do not know that such a “lens” even exists. However, what many people do have is the occasional fleeting glimpse of what it would be like to have the use of their non-physical “lens.” This happens when they have particular types of “extraordinary experience.”
Most of us have extraordinary experiences from time to time. It could be a vivid dream, or a powerful sense of being totally connected to the whole of creation, or a feeling of absolute certainty that we have just met the love of our life. Although each of these counts as extraordinary, they are not all that extraordinary, in the sense that they do not pose a threat to the prevailing worldview, the worldview of science. Science does not discount these experiences. On the other hand, there are very different kinds of experiences that many people have at least once in their lives. These include telepathy, precognition, distant healing, clairvoyance, a near death experience, or an out of the body experience. These cannot be explained by science. But it goes further than this. Science actively rejects them because it believes they are impossible, but also because they threaten the prevailing worldview. They are indeed impossible from the point of view of science, but that is only because science has become a restricted form of knowledge. It is because science today is the world viewed through the physical “lens.”
If we want to experience and understand the non-physical aspects of ourselves and the world, we first have to develop the means to do so. In practice, this involves developing and using forms of consciousness that are dormant in the great majority of people. The actual process of awakening and training this “additional consciousness” is not easy. There is a lot to it. It is as much a general character training as it is a specific training in being able to experience at will what we may have experienced only haphazardly and infrequently, in the form of an extraordinary experience. If we did go though such a training, the range of our perception would extend considerably, and I believe our lives would change as a consequence. I think it is worth trying to imagine some of the changes.
First, extraordinary experiences – such as telepathy and clairvoyance – would become a normal, accepted part of our daily lives. That alone would change much that we believe to be true and possible. And that, in turn, would almost certainly lead to changes in our behaviour and our lifestyles.
Second, we would learn about aspects of the universe and the human being that we are completely unaware of. What we think of today as indisputable scientific facts will turn out to be the product of restricted (physical) consciousness. That would change our understanding of who we are, as human beings, why we are here, and what we are capable of.
Third, we would have something very different to be serious about. What do I mean by this? At present, by far the biggest source of seriousness in the world is worrying about, or trying to solve, the huge problems that we keep creating for ourselves. Just think about the amount of time, money and energy devoted these days to trying to solve problems. The fact that a lot of people appear to derive their sense of meaning from having problems to deal with suggests there is a widespread, albeit unconscious, vested interest in having a reliable supply of problems to deal with for the foreseeable future. This must surely act against any serious attempts to solve our problems once and for all. If, however, we had the use of our inner senses, we would see there are very different things to be serious about, very different sources of meaning and purpose, which have nothing to do with problems. I believe that we would then cease to be a problem-creating race, and become a life-enhancing race.
I should like to say a few words about “esoteric knowledge” because I believe that it will have an important role in a “science of the whole.” In essence, esoteric knowledge is a coherent description of the non-physical aspects of humanity and the world, with some guidelines on how to behave and develop on the basis of this description. Arguably the best known modern works are Occult Science by Rudolf Steiner, A Treatise on Cosmic Fire by Alice Bailey, and the works of Helena Blavatsky. There are others from other cultures, mainly India, Egypt and Tibet, but they are packed with metaphors and symbolism, whereas the three writers I mention attempt to describe the non-physical in modern concepts and language.
There is much that is useful to draw on in esoteric knowledge and the world’s spiritual traditions. But we need to take a fresh look at these. We need to be surer of our ground. We need to know which facts within these traditions are true, which are partly true and which are false. This implies that we need to find ways of ascertaining this directly for ourselves – hence the need to awaken and train our “inner senses.” When we do this, we will then be able to add to the body of non-physical (spiritual) knowledge, just as our body of physical knowledge (science today) is constantly growing. By doing this, that which science currently regards as non-measurable, or even impossible, will eventually be seen as measurable and possible.
A Science of the Whole
Although it is impossible to know exactly how a science of the whole will develop, it is possible to say something about its main “building blocks.” In my opinion, they will be:
- Being open to the possibility that the universe and human beings have non-physical aspects, as well as physical ones.
- Being open to the possibility that all of us have dormant “inner senses” that, when awakened and trained, will give us direct access to the non-physical aspects of ourselves and the universe.
- Being open to the possibility that esoteric knowledge – in the form of modern books (e.g. Steiner) and ancient traditions – describes and explains some features of the non-physical.
- The willingness and ability to see connections between modern science (e.g. some insights in physics) and esoteric knowledge. Capra’s seminal work has been mentioned, but there has already been much exploration in this area.
- New, wider concepts, which will be able to accommodate new, different forms of knowledge. For example, we will need to expand the meaning of “energy,” “universe,” “life” and “spirit,” to name but a few.
If we are to fill the spiritual vacuum created by what science has become, we need to evolve a quite different knowledge base – one in which ethics, values, human development and spiritual growth are central components. That said, it is important to state that science, despite the loss of its spiritual roots, remains a useful attempt to discover new facts and to authenticate existing ones. However, just as the scientists of today have evolved the tools to penetrate the secrets of the physical, so scientists of the future will evolve the tools to penetrate beyond the physical. This will mean developing as yet unused forms of perception – effectively, our “inner senses” – to the point at which they, too, will be as useful in the search for knowledge and understanding as our familiar five physical senses.
It is also important to acknowledge that neither physical science nor esoteric knowledge can on their own give us the whole picture. Each is a partial form of knowledge. But since they are both talking ultimately about the same universe and the same human being, albeit from very different perspectives and using different forms of perception, they are, by definition, complementary to each other. They therefore have the potential to enrich and enhance each other.
None of this is likely to happen soon. People do not easily give up the beliefs and habits of a lifetime, particularly if these are sources of status, income and security. That said, the conditions needed for the development and acceptance of a science of the whole are already beginning to emerge. They include:
- Large numbers of people are reacting to the gross materialism of our time, and are looking for ways to live more spiritually and ecologically.
- Personal development, in all its forms, is constantly growing in popularity. Many people engaged in this realise that it goes far beyond “success” or “life goals.” Personal development is ultimately about developing the whole of you, your whole potential, and this surely includes parts of you that you have not yet discovered, such as the non-physical parts.
- For all its many achievements, science is unable to answer the big questions and provide deeper meaning. Many people feel this, and are searching for ways to go beyond the limits of science.
Although I cannot predict when a science of the whole will emerge, I am certain that it will emerge one day. When it does, our understanding of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going will all change fundamentally. And when that happens, life for all of us will be very different and much richer.
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