Natural Science and the Mystical Worldview
The following is excerpted from Entheogens and the Future of Religion, edited by Robert Forte and published by Inner Traditions.
Which is true: the picture of reality that natural science presents us, or the one that the mystic experiences in visions? This question can only be asked by one who thinks that natural science and the mystical worldview are mutually exclusive. But that is not the case. On the contrary, natural science and the mystical experience complete each other. To demonstrate that is the purpose of my exposition.
The subject of natural science is the material universe, of which our bodily selves are part. Research in natural science limits itself to the analysis and description of the external world that we can objectively identify with our senses, and to inquiry into the laws that govern it.
Such an objective view of nature presupposes a conscious splitting of one’s experience of the world into subject and object. Such a dualistic experience of the world first emerged in Europe. This perspective was already apparent in the Judaeo-Christian worldview of God high on a throne above creation who commanded humanity to have dominion over nature. The natural sciences are a product of this European mind.
In the beginning of contemporary natural scientific research in the seventeenth century science was still largely related to religion. The scientist confronted nature as creation enlivened by the spirit of God. Kepler recognized the harmony of the world God created in the planetary laws; and in none of the old botanical treatises did the author forget to praise the creator for the wonders of the plant world.
A change of great consequence in the character of natural science took place after the revolutionary discoveries by Galileo and Newton. Research turned more exclusively toward the quantitative, measurable aspects of nature. The qualitative, holistic way of viewing nature, which Goethe defended with his color theory, fell more and more into the background. The quantitative methods of natural research demanded increasingly more complicated and refined equipment for its surveys. Physics and chemistry, the disciplines dealing with the measurable aspects of nature, became more prominent. Physical and chemical methods also entered into other areas of natural science, into biology, botany, and zoology.
The grand successes of the natural sciences, especially in the area of physics and chemistry, provided insight into the macrocosmos of the galaxies and into the microcosmos of the atoms. And most importantly, the practical use of the many inventions and discoveries that characterize our era further reinforces today’s predominantly materialistic theory of life.
This led to an enormous overrating of the importance of chemistry and physics in the creation. It needs to be recognized that the one-sided belief in the scientific worldview is based on a grave error. All of its content is indeed true, but this content represents only one half of reality, only its material part. All physically and chemically incomprehensible, spiritual dimensions of reality, to which the essential attributes of the living belong, are missing.
The objective here is not to question the validity of scientific perceptions nor to diminish the value of quantitative natural research, but to point out its titanic one-sidedness. Smaller and smaller components of atoms are thought to be the latest reality of our world. The epitome of a purely materialistic worldview is the theory of creation, according to which coincidence and necessity, by means of chemistry and physics, created the cosmos, including all living creatures and plants.
I would like to demonstrate the absurdity of such a theory with a metaphor: the construction of a house. Suppose all the material necessary for the construction of a house existed; the technology and the necessary energy were also at hand. Without the idea of an architect, without the design and its realization according to plan, a house would never be created, even if one would grant chance eons for this enterprise.
If this is true even for a house, which lacks the dimension of life, how much more does it hold true for the living universe, for every flower and insect? The absurdity of such theories about the origin of creation, even if they come from a Nobel Laureate natural scientist like Jacques Monod, is obvious.
In addition to the practical abuse of the knowledge of science, which led to mechanization, industrialization, and destruction of vast areas of life, is the spiritual damage of such nihilistic theories. They deprive life of its spiritual and religious basis and leave man lonely and insecure in a dead, mechanized world.
Nevertheless, the positive effects of natural science on the modern world outweigh the negative ones. I am not primarily thinking of the obviously practical achievements, the progress in medicine, hygiene, longevity, and all the comfort in our daily lives, including television, stereos, computers, and so forth — to which we must add at once that all these comfortable achievements only benefit a small part of the world population. The meaning of natural science in the history of mankind, its revolutionary sense, may lie in the way it has brought about expansion of human consciousness, yielding deeper insight into the essence of reality, the unity of all living beings, and in the belonging of man in the cosmos. As examples of such natural scientific understanding we have gained the following biochemical understandings.
Every higher organism, no matter if plant, animal, or human being, has its origin in one single cell in the fertilized ovum. The smallest units of all living beings, from which all organisms originate, are the cells. The cells of plants, animals, and human beings do not only show similar structures, but they also contain a widely similar chemical composition. Protein, carbohydrate, fat, phosphate, and so forth — these same classes of organic connections physically constitute plant and animal bodies. This uniformity of material composition is connected to the larger metabolistic and energetic cycle of all living beings, in which plants, animals, and humanity are united. The energy that keeps this cycle of life going comes from the sun. The plant, the green carpet of the plant world, is able to-in motherly receptiveness-absorb light as immaterial energy flow and store it in the form of chemically bound energy.
By this process the plant transforms — with the help of chlorophyll as catalyst, and light as energy source — water and carbonic acid into organic compositions, into plant substance. This process, called photosynthesis, also delivers through the plant the building blocks of the animal and human organism. All life and all living processes are based energetically on this absorption of light through the plant. The human being’s digestive process breaks down plant or animal food, transforming it back into carbonic acid and water. This liberates the same amount of energy as was absorbed in the photosynthesis and makes it available for the body.
Light is the original cosmic energy source. All life, the life of plants, animals, and human beings, is formed and sustained by light. Even the thought process of the human brain is fed by this energy source. Therefore the human mind, our consciousness, represents the highest, most sublime energetic transformation of light. We are light beings; that is not only a mystical experience but scientific knowledge as well. This example should be sufficient to point out that natural science and mysticism contain not contrary but complementary empirical knowledge.
Of all the insights into the nature of objective reality that we owe to natural science, it seems to me that knowledge about the nature of our perception is of especially great significance. It pays to reflect upon the fact that perception by the senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) not only mediates our contact with the material outer world, but are also the key to the opening of the spiritual world.
Let us recall the words of the mystic poet William Blake (1757-1827):
If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.