Topic: Science & Mysticism
Type of Entry: An Experiential Chiding
Back in the old millennium, Richard Ely, long-time friend of Enlightenment.Com , gave us some written and video material that is still well worth reading and watching. As a professional geologist and long-time initiate of various neo-Pagan and earth-based religious traditions, Richard's views combine the scientific and the poetic in a singularly stimulating fashion.
Science and Mysticism
by Richard W. Ely
[Dear Jordan, Here is part of my recent post to one of the CAW [Church of All World] BBs. It was brought on by someone who was quite proud of his blind materialism.]
The question of science versus mysticism is settled for those of us who can walk on either side of that dichotomy: there is no need for conflict for they are two sides of the same coin. Both are addressing the ultimate nature of reality, but mysticism is inherently subjective whereas Science strives for objectivity. Science uses two fundamental techniques, observation and experiment, both of which are verifiable by independent observers.
In other words, first examine it, then tweak it and see what happens, and then tell others about what you observed so that they can confirm your results. I will never forget the first experiment in my high school chemistry class when we used electricity to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen, and then burned the hydrogen to make water. Very convincing. Eventually I came to believe in neutrinos.
Until you have had a rip snorting mystical experience of your own nothing I can say will convince you otherwise of the validity of a supermaterial reality. My daughter was uninterested in Paganism until she was nineteen and had a dream visitation by the Crone aspect of the Great Goddess. Afterwards she told my wife and me that NOW she understood what we had been talking about. My sons have never had mystical experiences, so they remain skeptical, as I was until I started having my own experiences in my early 30s.
Mysticism is participatory, non-reproducible and subjective - there is no possibility of objective verification. Although there are numerous well tested techniques for bringing on mystical experiences, the specific visions and sensations in each experience will be unique and profoundly conditioned by the physical/mental state and belief systems of the participant.
I have never repeated a mystical vision. Mysticism is not inherently anti-materialistic, although many mystics are. Once you have talked with a tree or a rock, its hard to deny their spiritual dimension. Fundamentalist Christians would probably say I had been talking to demons, but that was not my experience.
Because mystical experience is deeply personal and inherently non-reproducible, it is beyond the reach of Science and not subject to experimental verification. My initial visionary experiences were absolutely mind blowing for me, although when I told my rationalist friends about them they took them as evidence of a delusionary frame of mind. It was like trying to describe television to someone from a pre-technological culture.
What really seemed to confuse my friends was that I was doing cutting edge geological research in seismo-tectonics at the same time. They took Science and mysticism to be mutually contradictory, whereas I found them to be mutually enriching.
Because mysticism is rooted in direct experience, no faith is involved. Religious faith is based on accepting the infallibility of the mystical experiences of dead people. The problem here is that the most profound parts mystical experiences can not be communicated in words. This inherent ambiguosity has lead to some serious argument and bloodshed. Think of how many Christians have died over the nature of the Trinity. One does not see warring groups of scientists killing each other over the precise value of the speed of light.
The Abrahamic religions are deeply hostile to mysticism largely because mystical experiences have the power to upset the status quo. Modern Science originated in Christian Europe, and consequently shares in this hostility as part of the ambient cultural values that it grew out of. Furthermore, Science blossomed during the European Enlightenment, which in part was a reaction to the religious paranoia of the Burning Times. Much of the hostility of Science toward mysticism is due to conflation of mysticism with organized religion.
Part of the hostility of Science towards mysticism is well justified. Consider those goofy spiritual types who draw absurd conclusions about physical reality based on channeled information. My geologist side considers most of the New Age stuff about Earth changes, photon belts and similar whatnot to be ludicrous. For me, any mystical teaching that contradicts what Science knows of the physical realm is suspect. One of the tests I apply to any spiritual practice or religion is how well its adherents treat the Earth. All the world religions have failed this test.
One of the deeply embedded patterns of history is the replacement of old religions by new ones that are more in tune with the times, particularly the type of economy. Thus the animistic beliefs and Animal Powers of the hunting and gathering peoples were replaced by the elaborate pantheons of the Neolithic agricultural communities. Widespread literacy in Classical times facilitated the rise of ethical dualism (i.e. monotheism) and the subsequent fossilization of an evolving mystical tradition into unchangeable sacred texts.
In an ironic turn of the Tao, the rational non-mystical thinking fostered by Christian clerics gave rise to Science and high technology, which effectively destroyed the stranglehold Christianity had on the human imagination. Now we see atavistic religious practices - fundamentalism and paganism - resurging worldwide in reaction to soulless technological civilization. Fundamentalism will fail in the end for the same reason it always does: it is too mean-spirited to endure for long before people react against it and turn elsewhere.
What I foresee is that a scientifically grounded mystical pantheism will eventually emerge from the current Pagan revival. The verification of non-locality (Bell's Theorem) is a pivotal event in the overthrow of non-spiritual materialism. The universe itself is God/dess.
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