Re-Linking Science and Religion

By Nancy Coker

Listening to recent interviews with physicists and astrobiologists, one might imagine that the scientific perspective is similar to the spiritual one that inspires the perennial wisdom tradition. Unfortunately this is not the case, for despite the willingness to search for alien life-forms or multidimensional super-string theories, mainstream science still defines consciousness as an epiphenomenon of matter rather than as primary, causative, and unifying. While ecological interconnections are understood and acknowledged by the scientific community, and some biologists are pursuing signs of intelligence in "mindless" beings, notions of spirit or deity as the fountain-source of consciousness are generally dismissed as irrelevant or naive. For traditional science found in most research labs, schools, and college classes, the true picture of reality is only what sensory data can detect -- every other perspective has been so marginalized and devalued that this materialistic approach is largely unquestioned -- even though many people, maybe even a majority, do not believe it adequately describes the whole picture. In The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Ken Wilber attempts to integrate the visions of science and religion.* This project is very much welcome in today's climate, where sensory information is so loudly persuasive that it is hard to find a scientifically acceptable forum even to debate its value, let alone question its supremacy. Spiritual experiences are dismissed as anecdotal, not verifiable, and a spiritual perspective is deemed unnecessary to explain how and what life is.

*The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion by Ken Wilber, Random House, New York, 1998; 225 pages, ISBN 0375500545, hardback $23.00.

It hasn't always been this way. A few centuries ago our forefathers lived in a universe alive with interior connections, and the Great Chain of Being was a basic assumption for most of humanity. Arthur Lovejoy wrote early last century that the Great Chain of Being was "probably the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe" (The Great Chain of Being, p. vii). He traced the idea back to Plato and Aristotle and explained that,

through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, most men of science, and, indeed, most educated men, were to accept without question -- the conception of the universe as a "Great Chain of Being," composed of an immense, or -- by the strict but seldom rigorously applied logic of the principle of continuity -- of an infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents, which barely escape non-existence, through "every possible" grade up to the ens perfectissimum -- or, in a somewhat more orthodox version, to the highest possible kind of creature, between which and the Absolute Being the disparity was assumed to be infinite -- every one of them differing from that immediately above and that immediately below it by the "least possible" degree of difference. -- Ibid., p. 59

This structure, sometimes known as the Hermetic Chain, has also been pictured as a ladder or stair of life, as well as a web connecting every point of life on every plane of being. Wilber elaborates: "According to this nearly universal view, reality is a rich tapestry of interwoven levels, reaching from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit. Each senior level 'envelops' or 'enfolds' its junior dimensions -- a series of nests within nests within nests of Being -- so that every thing and event in the world is interwoven with every other" (pp. 6-7). To Wilber, the Great Chain is more like a Great Nest, a more organic metaphor for an essentially natural and living process. He explains the hierarchy this way:

Each senior level in the Great Nest, although it includes its juniors, nonetheless possesses emergent qualities not found on the junior level. Thus, the vital animal body includes matter in its makeup, but it also adds sensations, feelings, and emotions, which are not found in rocks. While the human mind includes bodily emotions in its makeup, it also adds higher cognitive faculties, such as reason and logic, which are not found in plants or other animals. And while the soul includes the mind in its makeup, it also adds even higher cognitions and affects, such as archetypal illumination and vision, not found in the rational mind. And so on.

In other words, each higher (senior or emergent) level maintains the essential features of the lower (junior or preceding) levels but unveils or brings forward elements not found on those levels. "Each higher level, that is, transcends but includes its juniors" (pp. 8-9).

This vision of each level becoming increasingly more complex as it transcends and includes all lower levels is fundamental to theosophical philosophy, which describes the constitution of entities as multidimensional, with infinite gradations of varying degrees: "Every human being is a compounded entity. There is a god in him, a spiritual ego, a human ego, an animal nature, and the physical body which expresses as best it can the bundle of energies surging through and from within the auric egg. Now each of these elements is itself a learning entity on its upward way. The self-consciousness, the sense of egoity, is there; but above that is the sense of cosmic unity, which is the atmosphere and consciousness of the inner god, a celestial buddha." (G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. 524)

What happened to this grand vision of interconnected, interdependent life? Western Science, embracing materialism in the process of shaking off the dominance of the narrow Christian religious view, fell on the Great Nest and flattened it. But still, how could such a fundamentally commonsense vision as the Great Chain become irrelevant? One of the problems, Wilber explains, had to do with how the Great Chain idea was misunderstood. The pre-Enlightenment world saw Being expressed everywhere, but this vision united art, morals, ethics, science, religion, and secular processes into an exclusive and often oppressive worldview. Galileo "could not freely look through his telescope and report the results because art and morals and science were all fused under the Church, and thus the morals of the Church defined what science could -- or could not -- do" (p. 12). Artists were not free to explore creativity, people were not free to choose different churches, and scientists could not freely research; their domains were strictly monitored by the Church and policed by the state, each reinforcing the other.

Modernity brought with it the ability to differentiate among these arenas: anyone could go to any church or temple, or look through a telescope without being charged with heresy or treason. People were free to distinguish art from ethics, science from religion, and philosophy from both. The upside to the modern scientific perspective is the ability to differentiate various links of the Chain of Being (which helped usher in a much more democratic, less exclusive and oppressive way of life), but the downside is that it declared valid only the bottom link which could be accessed and verified by the senses. Speaking of the collapse of the Great Chain perspective around the late 18th century, Huston Smith concurs: "Why did the hierarchical outlook then collapse? As it had blanketed human history up to that point, constituting man's primordial tradition and what might almost be called the human unanimity, the force that leveled it must have been powerful, and modern science is the obvious candidate. . . . Modern science requires only one ontological level, the physical . . . [and] challenged by implication the notion that other planes exist" (Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, pp. 5-6).

It wasn't so much that modern science rejected spirit as that it just didn't need interior or metaphysical domains in order to do its work. In dismissing all subjective interior processes as insignificant, "Spirit was simply one of the numerous casualties" (Wilber, p. 142). As technological breakthroughs captured the hearts and minds of researchers, the vision of a living and interconnected universe seemed irrelevant or, worse, superstitious. Take the well-known comment by biologist Richard Dawkins, "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

"And so," Wilber concludes, "it came about that the modern West was the first major civilization in the history of the human race to deny substantial reality to the Great Nest of Being" (p. 13). That denial caused a profound and rapidly spreading shift in our view of what's "real," but humanity's universal and historical understanding of the Nest didn't disappear quietly or without notice. There have been repeated attempts to reintroduce spirit into the modern world. Wilber discusses the efforts of Romanticism, Idealism, and some schools of Postmodernism to reframe the world with spirit at its center. None have brought about a new or different "Enlightenment," and as a prelude to suggestions for what might shift the current reductionist scientific view, the author explains the flaws and often self-defeating weaknesses inherent in each philosophy, including the most important: none of these perspectives ever challenged empirical science on its own ground. To do this, one must understand current scientific methodology and then use it to determine the existence of spiritual planes, or what Wilber likes to call the value spheres -- those vertical dimensions of depth that give value to our lives.

Science, Wilber argues, believes itself to be value free: "It tells us what is, not what should be," describing the world factually without ascribing meaning to it -- we look to the value spheres of philosophy, art, religion, and ethics for that. Science accomplishes its wonders "because it utilizes a solid method for discovering truth, a method that is empirical and experimental and based on evidence" (p. x), and this is the very prescription Wilber offers to modernity to explore and validate authentic spiritual truths. Current science may claim to use only objective data, but he demonstrates convincingly that it continually relies on intellectual processes and the unproven assumption of materialism to interpret data. It is both naive and wrong to accept the idea that science merely reports what already exists in the material world because "science approaches the empirical world with a massive conceptual apparatus containing everything from tensor calculus to imaginary numbers to extensive intersubjective linguistic signs to differential equations -- virtually all of which are nonempirical structures found only in interior spaces" (p. 146). So science grants validity to some interior modes -- but only those that support its own biases. Therefore, to actually fulfill its empiricism, it must also grant the possibility that there are interior states other than those it uses, states that can be investigated empirically (though not necessarily physically) and that can be evaluated by specially trained researchers.

We don't call on seismologists to evaluate claims by cardiologists, or entomologists to validate mathematical theorems. Each branch of study requires different specialized training, performs its own experiments, and generates its own data that is then interpreted by its own specialists. Given all that, "spirituality must be able to stand up to scientific authority . . . by announcing its own means and modes, data and evidence, validities and verifications" (p. 139). H. P. Blavatsky, master articulator of theosophical philosophy, would have agreed. In The Secret Doctrine she wrote that thousands of generations of Seers have already kept alive spiritual traditions

by checking, testing, and verifying in every department of nature the traditions of old by the independent visions of great adepts; i.e., men who have developed and perfected their physical, mental, psychic, and spiritual organisations to the utmost possible degree. No vision of one adept was accepted till it was checked and confirmed by the visions -- so obtained as to stand as independent evidence -- of other adepts, and by centuries of experiences. -- 1:273

The practice of grounding our assertions on experience and evidence is, according to Wilber, the enduring strength of science -- so why not investigate spiritual dimensions scientifically? Empirical evidence, in the strictest sense, is that which is derived from experiment and observation rather than theory. Moving from the intensely important idea that all knowledge must be ultimately grounded in evidence and experience, many classical empiricists reduce this vital insight to the absurd notion that all "real" knowledge must be limited to objective sensory experience. But true empiricism is not limitable to material nature. Wilber insists that "if empirical science rejects the validity of any and all forms of interior apprehension and knowledge, then it rejects its own validity as well, a great deal of which rests on interior structures and apprehensions that are not delivered by the senses or confirmable by the senses (such as logic and mathematics, to name only two)" (p. 144). Science has effectively disregarded its own principles and acted "metaphysically" in denying that universally acknowledged and experienced spiritual or divine states have no reality without performing scientifically valid experiments.

Religions too have lost connection with their own touchstones partly, Wilber thinks, because followers relied too much on intellectual tools when "Neither sensory empiricism, nor pure reason, nor practical reason, nor any combination thereof can see into the realm of Spirit" (p. 174). The intellect can point toward the spiritual, but spiritual experience alone is the final evidence for its own reality, just as mental experience presents evidence for the existence of the intellect. "The great and secret message of the experimental mystics the world over is that, with the eye of contemplation, Spirit can be seen. With the eye of contemplation, God can be seen. With the eye of contemplation, the great Within radiantly unfolds" (p. 174).

Finally, the author suggests that in order to reinvigorate in our lives the idea of the Great Chain, science must learn to investigate and apprehend inner as well as outer domains common to human experience, and that religion must be willing to look more toward spiritual experience and less towards its own dogmas. This may be difficult for mainstream religions, but the great spiritual teachers didn't offer us systems of belief; rather, they asked us to do as they did.

Their revelations, their direct spiritual experiences, were not mythological proclamations about the parting of the Red Sea or about how to make beans grow, but rather direct apprehensions of the Divine (Spirit, Emptiness, Deity, the Absolute). At their peak, these apprehensions were about the direct union or even identity of the individual and Spirit, a union that is not to be thought of as a mental belief but lived as a direct experience, the very summum bonum of existence, the direct realization of which confers a great liberation, rebirth, metanoia, or enlightenment on the soul fortunate enough to be immersed in that extraordinary union, a union that is the ground, the goal, the source, and the salvation of the entire world. -- p. 168

For a modern science of spirituality to exist, he states, all truth claims must be provably rooted in real experience. Therefore he sets aside discussions of all "mytho-poetic themes," such as the virgin birth or the earth being supported on the back of a tortoise, not because they are untrue or unimportant, but because such themes are not verifiable using modern methodology. Spirituality, the author implies, is spirit with all the strictly religious concerns stripped away.

In Expanding Horizons James Long made a similar point: "when the followers of any faith keep on clinging to their particular view of truth, after a while it loses its vitality; it loses its living inspiration and therefore its helpfulness. . . . The most important thing in my opinion is not the attainment of truth . . . but the searching after and the reaching toward a greater and greater understanding of it. If I had to have a creed, [this] would be it: the absolute conviction of the soul's need for a free avenue of research within its own range of consciousness" (pp. 124, 76). The conclusion of The Marriage of Sense and Soul, then, is that both science and religion must address timeless spiritual concepts in a manner that acknowledges and adopts scientific methods, but eschews materialism and reductionism.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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