Metaviews 066. 2000.08.17. Approximately words.
Below is a Future Visions position paper from Bernard Haisch from theCalifornia Institute for Physcis and Astrophysics. The piece isentitled Freeing the Scientific Imagination from FundamentalistScientism. He is quite critical of the dogmatic reductionistmentality which dominates scientific culture today.
Dr. Haisch is a high-energy astrophysicist, author or co-author ofover 100 scientific papers and principal investigator on a dozenformer NASA research projects. He is the director of the CaliforniaInstitute for Physics and Astrophysics (CIPA) in Palo Alto and servesas a Scientific Editor of the Astrophysical Journal. Past positionsinclude Staff Scientist at the Lockheed-Martin Solar and AstrophysicsLaboratory; Deputy Director, Center for EUV Astrophysics at theUniversity of California, Berkeley; Visiting Fellow,Max-Planck-Institut fÂ¸r extraterrestrische Physik in Garching,Germany; Visiting Scientist, University of Utrecht, the Netherlands;and Postdoctoral Fellow, Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics,University of Colorado, Boulder. He obtained his doctorate inastronomy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his BS inastrophysics from Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a member ofthe International Astronomical Union, American Astronomical Society,European Astronomical Society, fellow of the Royal AstronomicalSociety, and Associate Fellow of the American Institute ofAeronautics and Astronautics. He has had an interest in theconnection between the scientific and the spiritual perspectives fromthe time he was a student for the priesthood and also as formerEditor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration.
— Billy Grassie
From: Bernard HaischSubject: Freeing the Scientific Imagination from Fundamentalist Scientism
Modern science, especially in the United States, is finding itselfdoing intellectual battle with religious fundamentalism, most notablyin the arena of evolution versus creationism. As a professionalscientist I understand the necessity of combating the creationisthodge podge of unsupportable alternatives to the evidence forevolution. However modern mainstream science has itself becomedangerously dogmatic and dismissive of evidence that does not fit itsown prejudices.
In its most extreme form, which unfortunately is so widespread thatit may represent the majority view of modern scientists, thedogmatism of today’s reductionist mentality is such as to precludeany meaningful engagement with a spiritual worldview because allsubstantive elements of such a worldview are regarded as purefantasy. The modern reductionist might be comfortable in a limitedscientific-spiritual dialogue provided that spiritual beliefs arediluted to moral and ethical codes of conduct, and religion practicesinterpreted as merely social and cultural events, as if there were noontological difference between a Saturday night rave and a Sundaymorning church service insofar as their roles as rituals of acommunity.
Incisive recent books by biologist Kenneth Miller and by theologianJohn Haught make a compelling case that Darwin and God are quitecompatible. To put my cards on the table, as both an astrophysicistand a Christian I have no problem with evolution, a 15 billion yearold Universe, a Big Bang and a Creator. What I do consider to be amajor problem is fundamentalism on the scientific side of the fence:call it fundamentalist scientism.
It is acceptable, in fact even fashionable, to publish scientificpapers today on theories of entire universes, invisible to us, thatmay be adjacent to our Universe in higher dimensions. Such ideas goby the name of string-theory, brane-theory and M-theory and areconsidered among the most exciting and prestigious forefront areas ofmodern physics. Even universes right on top of our own,interpenetrating the space right under our noses, are consideredplausible, provided you express this with impressive mathematics interms of opposite chirality particles and interactions, for example.I myself have postdocs working for me that are experts in these areas.
However if a religious person talks about transcendent spiritualrealities, that is scoffed at. For some reason the 11 or26-dimensional string worlds – take your pick – of the physicist areOK but the supernatural realms of the mystic are judged to be meresuperstition. The word supernatural has been pretty successfullytarred and tainted as no longer respectable by the materialistreductionist guardians of the natural (meaning the particles andfields of modern physics). The interesting thing is that the stringand brane universes remain theoretical concepts, whereas mysticsthroughout the ages actually report coherent and consistentobservations of transcendent, i.e. supernatural, realities. As anastrophysicist I am partial to observations.
The word mystic also raises a bright red flag in front of thescientific reductionist. However one of my favorite mystics is noneother than Sir Arthur Eddington, widely regarded as the greatestastrophysicist in the first half of the twentieth century. It was hisobservations of the Sun that verified Einstein’s general theory ofrelativity in 1919 (and which made Einstein famous overnight). Whenthe New York Times said that only 12 men (that is, alas, how they putit in 1919) in the world understood Einstein’s new theory, Eddingonwas near the top of the list. He wrote groundbreaking scientifictreatises like The Mathematical Theory of Relativity whichexplained relativity to the lesser geniuses of the time (and evenhalf a century later to decidedly non-genius graduate students, suchas myself) and The Internal Constitution of the Stars… but healso went public with Science and the Unseen World in which hediscussed his spiritual convictions and his belief in the existenceof realms beyond the physical.
How to define this fundamentalist scientism that has quenched a largefraction of the scientific imagination? It is a dogma that the onlypossible reality is that explored or conjured up by physics andlimited to matter and energy. It is the belief presented as fact thatscience has proven that God and any possible subordinate immaterialintelligences or hierarchies are merely leftover antiquated myth asany sensible person should know without question by now. It is theconviction that our own consciousness cannot be anything grander thana bit of brain chemistry, a mere epiphenomenon albeit one thatcuriously has been carried a bit further than the exigensies ofevolution might have been expected to do. Never mind the directevidence of our own awareness that something else and more profoundis really going on that even the strident debunker directlyexperiences (and somehow argues himself out of… and I do meanhimself since strident debunking appears to be very testosteronerelated).
This dogma of fundamentalist scientism is dangerous because it leadsinevitably to the conclusion that there cannot be any purpose behindthe existence of the universe or its tenants. In this reductionistmaterialist point of view, the life of any human being mustultimately be devoid of any meaning greater than perhaps a transientpsychological satisfaction in a here-and-now job well done, be itsending the kids through college or firing up the kind of Sundaybarbecue that makes friends and family salivate. Indeed, there is nolack of vocal scientific luminaries who, exuding a kind of stoicpride, draw precisely this conclusion. One prominent Nobel Laureatemakes no bones about it, stating that the more we learn of theUniverse the more it is obvious that it is pointless. Such adecidedly glum assessment of our present position and futureprospects is hardly inspirational. Muslim philosopher Seyyed HosseinNasr has observed that as values lose their grounding not only doesthe danger to the natural world increase, so does the probability ofhuman atrocities. The end result of a philosophy espousing apointless Universe can only be ugliness and destruction, for nomatter in what mantle of stoic nobility one attempts to cloak it, itis no fountain of hope but rather a poison brew of pessimism. Or tocouch it in the language of its nihilist proponents, there is noconceivable end result but the grim maximization of entropy. Thisposition cannot – via any tinkering or contortion – be made lifeenhancing.
Let us for the moment use the term spiritual worldview as ashorthand, important details to be filled in at this conference, forthe supposition that reality and our own nature, our conscious being,involves both tangible, physical, matter and an immaterialsomething, this something being intimately, indeed essentially,involved in the existence of consciousness and life and ultimatelybeing traceable to a divine origin and purpose. The opposition ofmodern, mainstream science to such a spiritual worldview is immediateand forceful, for reasons both rational and irrational, for this feudbetween science and religion has deep roots that go beyondintellectual repression in centuries past. Religion has beenresponsible, ironically and unconscionably, for vast swaths of death,destruction and terror spanning the globe and most of recordedhistory… and it is by no means over with today. It is a fairargument that the life cycle of religion as an institution of power,propaganda and paternalism has gone far enough beyond its biblicallyallotted years. But a spirituality rooted in the perennial philosophy- as summarized by Aldous Huxley, say – cannot be the evil influencethat the majority of scientists seem to see, triggering theirred-flag-in-front-of-the-bull response, for the simple reason thatthe truths therein must also be laws, as fundamental as gravity orelectromagnetism but of a different order. It is up to us to findthose laws amid the culturally-fertilized religious overgrowth.
The most vehement proponents of materialist reductionism, such asbiologists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins point with almostghoulish glee to the fear, pain and terror that are part of theprocess of evolution, thereby making an emotional but cogent argumentfor atheism and aspirituality. How could a benevolent God evercountenance the existence – and for millions of years at that – ofmonstrous eating machines such as Tyranosaurus Rex and his associateswho must have spent their days chewing up everything in sight foolishenough to move underfoot, a decidedly unbenevolent situation for thepoor prey? If human beings really are God’s children, why has ittaken billions of years of all too often nightmarish, horrificnatural selection to bring us into existence? Is a process like thisreally necessary that relies on hideously slow selection for traitsthat make a creature a bit less likely to be caught and devoured inthe predatory jungle? What kind of creation is this, they ask? It isa fair question, but one for which a rational answer can be proposedthat is quite the opposite of the one they advance as the onlyplausible one, namely their view that evolution proves beyond a doubtthat only pitiless, indifferent laws are at work in the Universe,nothing else. It is my hope that precisely this argument against theexistence of a benevolent Creator can be addressed at this conference.
When mystics say, as they have to the endless annoyance of thereductionist, that the Universe is the body of God, the reaction ofnormal folks is liable to range from that’s poetic to that’scrazy with quite a few sounds cool, but I sure don’t get it inbetween. Could this in any conceivable way be more than just poeticmetaphor? The perennial philosophy maintains that there is a truthhere, one that is capable of being elucidated – admittedly not tofull human comprehension – but at least to a first-order level ofunderstanding.
A Creator who ultimately seeks benevolence in spite of evidence thatsometimes contradicts that from our limited historical earthlyperspective. Human beings as immortal spiritual forms evolvingthrough temporary bodies. The existence of realms of reality beyondthe presently known particles and forces of modern physics. Theseseem to me to be the three minimum foundations for a spiritualworldview. Without at least these three pillars one may have a systemof morals and ethics or a philosophy of life, but not a spiritualworldview having any substantive content. With each of these pillars,what starts as a system of morals and ethics moves progressivelytowards a substantively new vision of spirituality in Nature,marrying the values of objective scientific discovery with thesubjective experience of a far larger reality than that yet graspedby science.
All three of these pillars are at odds with the tenets offundamentalist scientism. However none of them are genuinely at oddswith either the corpus of scientific knowledge or the scientificmethod as practiced today by the mainstream because mainstreamscience limits its investigations to the physical world. Argumentsagainst these three fundamental spiritual tenets are based on thedogmatic assumptions of fundamentalist scientism, not on anyobjective scientific evidence.
It would be a failure for this dialogue between science and spirit tolead to essentially no more than an agreement to politely disagree. Ibelieve that engaging the scientific and spiritual imagination meansseeking and acquiring new knowledge. Not surprisingly this can takeplace on the usual two fronts: theory andobservation/experimentation. In my 12 years of editing the Journal ofScientific Exploration I have been exposed to a great deal ofinvestigation of anomalies, spanning the spectrum from absurd toawesome. Within the pages of that journal alone there is enoughsubstantive data to initiate productive research in areas that canengage both the open-minded scientist and the spiritually-interestedempiricist. Naturally, there are many other sources of information –
including the mystical – but I cite the one with which I am mostfamiliar.
Let me give one example. For 24 years the U. S. government sponsoreda remote viewing program at a modest but not insignificant fundinglevel of approximately $1 million per year, first at SRI and then atSAIC. Though not involved in it myself, I am well acquainted with theleading figures in this program. In 1996 I ran five articlescommenting on this program in the Journal of Scientific Exploration.This was triggered by the declassification and release of a 270 pageSRI report and a retrospective review of the program by the AmericanInstitutes of Research for the CIA. (Approximately 80000 pages ofprogram material remain classified, I am told.) The CIA-sponsoredreview came to mixed conclusions regarding the underlying reality ofhuman psychic abilities. Prof. Jessica Utts, a well-knownstatistician at the University of California, Davis, author of thetextbook Seeing Through Statistics and Fellow (not just member,which anyone can become by virtue of check or credit card) of theAmerican Association for the Advancement of Science concluded: Usingthe standards applied to any other area of science, it is concludedthat psychic function has been well established…. It is recommendedthat future experiments focus on understanding how this phenomenonworks, and on how to make it as useful as possible.
Prof. Ray Hyman, a well-known skeptic, disagreed with this. HoweverEdwin May, the director of the program from 1986 to 1996 has statedthat neither Utts nor Hyman were actually privy to the best data inthe first place. That was as much as he could state in public owingto classification issues. The SRI-SAIC program is just the tip of theiceberg. There are numerous other research articles in the Journal,as well as elsewhere. There are experiments that suggest thatacquisition of information using this ability has a bafflingatemporal character. This makes me skeptical that any interactionalong the lines of electromagnetism, gravitation, the strong or weakinteractions will be capable of explaining these observations. Ithink that the understanding of this will require both a scientificand a spiritual way of viewing reality, and therein lies a promisingprogram for future collaboration.
In terms of theory, modern physics and astrophysics are overflowingtoday with concepts of things that are not evident to the senses –
ranging from particles of dark matter to alternate universes – andlaws that are the opposite of mechanistic – non-locality andsuperposition of states in quantum physics for example. The possiblesimilarity or connection between certain mysteries of science andcertain spiritual mysteries is admittedly oversimplified in the floodof New Age-oriented books washing over the western world, but Isuggest that there is a dearth and thus an opportunity at higherlevels. Two examples would be the work of Haught in the arena ofevolution theory (entirely consistent with Darwinian naturalselection), and the attempts to formulate a theological applicationof the field concept by Pannenberg and by Curtis.
Though I will only briefly mention it here, at the conference I planto discuss in more detail the theoretical physics project I andpostdocs at the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics andcolleagues elsewhere are involved in concerning a possible connectionbetween the zero-point field of the quantum vacuum and the inertia ofmatter. At the risk of overstating the case, but in the interest ofkeeping this brief, I will summarize its possible relevance by sayingthat it may be the first ever bottom up insight on the creation ofmatter involving light concept that one finds in the top downcosmogonies of many esoteric traditions. The theoretical physicsproject is substantive, with the research published in mainstreamphysics journals and having been supported by a multiyear NASAresearch grant. The possible metaphysical connections I am suggestingare naturally far more speculative (and of course do not carry anyNASA imprimatur).
Science consists of a spirit of inquiry and methods to investigateand analyze. It is a highly successful enterprise for investigationof the physical world. But to claim that investigation of thephysical world rules out anything spiritual is fundamentalistscientism that is both irrational and dogmatic. Rejection of evidencethat cannot yet be measured with instruments in a laboratory iscontrary to the scientific spirit of inquiry. It is time to movebeyond dogmatic fundamentalism in both religion and in science.
CV and list of scientific publications may be found athttp://www.calphysics.org/haisch
Dr. Bernard HaischCalifornia Institute for Physics & Astrophysics366 Cambridge Ave.Palo Alto, CA 94306——————-
Director, California Institute for Physics & Astrophysics (CIPA)Scientific Editor, The Astrophysical Journalphone: 650-327-6284 ext. 205, fax: 650-327-6294email:, alternate:http://www.calphysics.org
This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online http://www.metanexus.net. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.
Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums (Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTML enriched composite digests from each of the lists.
Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute.