Spiritual Science

Mark Pottenger


Much of my life I have been both an armchair scientist and a closet mystic. This essay is an attempt to explain why I consider science and mysticism complementary.

As someone always interested in new knowledge, finding The Teaching Company (now called The Great Courses) several years ago gave me a great source of lectures I can listen to while I exercise. The course Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills covers a lot of scientific and critical thinking, and listening to it prompted me to start this essay. The course Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist also contributed to the impetus. The course Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines provides more food for thought and a nice contrast in approach.

I want to make clear up front that even though I see big blind spots where I think the principles in the courses should be applied to the content of the courses, these courses are still very much worth listening to. I bought & listened to the courses because I'm interested in the topics, and I strongly agree with the basic premise that our whole culture could benefit from more scientific & skeptical thinking. I just think we would all benefit even more when the thinking is both scientifically AND philosophically informed, and scientific skepticism is applied to science itself.

There is a much-used rule or principle called Occam's Razor or Ockham's Razor or the Law of Parsimony or the Least Hypothesis or Don't Multiply Entities Needlessly. It basically says that the simplest explanation is usually the best. It's a good rule, and I generally think this way myself, but I have never read anything that suggests that this rule is a law of nature rather than simply a human mental bias. We find cartoon contraptions like those drawn by Rube Goldberg funny rather than plausible due to this bias. An example of complex giving way to simpler is the geocentric epicycle-laden circular model of planetary motion going back to Ptolemy being replaced by heliocentric (Copernicus) elliptical (Kepler) gravitationally (Newton) controlled planetary motion. Despite parsimoniousness, more complex theories do get developed in science when new data is recognized as not fitting simpler theories. This is why Einstein's physics followed Newton's physics, why the current Standard Model with its zoo of subatomic particles followed Bohr's atom, etc.

The Your Deceptive Mind lectures explain why most scientists won't even look into questions about anything they call supernatural or paranormal or spiritual. The philosophical assumptions underlying most science *require* a physical (matter-energy) cause to produce a physical (matter-energy) effect. Those assumptions work very well for many purposes, and have led to massive increases in knowledge in the last few centuries. This is called "methodological naturalism" in both the Your Deceptive Mind and Skepticism 101 courses. The courses present "methodological naturalism" as an operating principle of modern science, but I'm afraid that for most scientists who don't dig into philosophical issues, that operating principle has drifted to become a firm belief in monistic materialism or physicalism.

Unfortunately, I see the above as a blind spot in science.

My own assumption is that what is usually called the supernatural or paranormal or spiritual is still natural (part of nature). I just assume it is a part of nature we don't yet understand (beyond currently known matter-energy). To make my biases clear, to the extent that I consider myself a "member" of any church, it is a church of Religious Science, and if asked to label my basic beliefs I say I am a pantheist (God is All, All is God).

I think most modern scientists aren't even trying to find a way to detect and measure the supernatural because their unexamined philosophical assumptions prevent them from even investigating any anomalies that might have "supernatural" or "non-physical" causes.

If one describes science as a process of creating pictures or models of aspects of reality, one could say that in the last few centuries science has built a lot of really good models of aspects of physical (matter-energy-information) reality without even trying to see if there is more to reality.

I suspect that the tendency of scientists to limit their fields of study traces back to the origins of modern science (called natural philosophy for a while), as it separated from religion and philosophy. Questions of spirit were left to philosophy or religion, at least partly because it was even more dangerous to tread on religious toes centuries ago than it is now. Since the areas of knowledge scientists claimed still cover a huge range, most scientists didn't see a physical focus as a big problem.

The courses discuss a lot of cognitive biases and other barriers to clear thinking, yet fall into some of the errors they discuss. Despite discussion of how reality is constructed rather than literally observed (and how many perceptual errors and illusions we are all subject to) and how reality is reconstructed rather than accurately remembered (and how poorly we remember and how easily we forget), they still talk about "objectivity" and "observation". There is also some discussion of qualia, or subjective experiences, as something only one individual can have knowledge about and anyone else has to guess about or infer. Despite warnings against both, most of the arguments for physicalistic conclusions look to me like arguments from ignorance (we don't know now, so we can never know) or arguments from authority (someone said so).

There is a very long history (back to before the axial age that established many roots of modern thought over two millennia ago) of anecdotal data about reality beyond currently known matter and energy, yet physicalistic scientists dismiss it all as "unscientific" or out of the realm of science. One lecture mentions a rule from Hume that belief should be proportional to evidence. Another says the "burden of proof" falls on the claim to be proven. Another mentions the "principle of positive evidence": a claim must have evidence in favor, not just evidence against other claims. There is also mention that a claim must be falsifiable to be studied by science. The lecturers say that any claim involving spirit is extraordinary and therefore requires extraordinary evidence. I think this is where they have things backwards because of their assumption of physicalism. To me, physicalism and reductionism are the extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence. With the current limits of our scientific knowledge, physicalism and reductionism are not falsifiable--they are assumptions scientists make but can't test.

To give a historical analogy, until the discovery of radioactivity in the late 19th Century, no scientists had a view of nature that included any of the causes or effects of radioactivity or any devices to detect or *measure* radioactivity. All data involving radioactivity was unexplained anecdotes and oddities, the sort of thing many scientists ignore. Once radioactivity was discovered, a lot of measuring devices, experiments and theories followed. In fact, it is probably reasonable to assume that quantum theory, one of the major scientific advances of the 20th Century, wasn't developed earlier because it *couldn't* develop before the discovery of radioactivity.

A slightly earlier historical analogy is electromagnetism, with a theoretical framework codified only in the 19th Century. Before that, there were a lot of anecdotal experiences with electricity and magnetism, and a variety of experiments, but no comprehensive understanding.

Slightly earlier than that, the possible existence of meteors and meteorites was dismissed by mainstream science.

I make no claims to being on a level with a Maxwell or Curie or Einstein or Heisenberg or any of the scientists who advanced knowledge so much in the last few centuries, and I make no claims to have any answers to these questions. I strongly believe the *questions* are a legitimate subject for scientific study, that there are already small numbers of scientists looking beyond physicalism, and that some future scientists *will* make the observations and theoretical leaps needed to advance science into the realm of the spiritual.

The current scientific consensus model of physical reality accepts or proposes a lot of things that aren't physical in the touch & feel sense of daily experience, including quantum theory, string theory, superstrings, super symmetry, dark matter, dark energy, etc. The questions of dark matter and dark energy especially inspire me to wonder: are physicists and cosmologists looking in the wrong direction here? Could the undetected matter and energy they need to explain the universe be *mental* or *spiritual*? I don't think it's likely, but is it *possible*?

The two courses from a science-only perspective pretty much limit choices of world view to either dualism or materialism and choices of religion to theism or atheism (or agnosticism). The more philosophical course includes this list in one lecture: Cartesian Dualism, Epiphenomenalism, Occasionalism, Parallelism, Idealism, Solipsism, Materialism, Reductive Materialism, and Eliminative Materialism. Even that list leaves Panpsychism for a later lecture. Panpsychism is defined in the Oxford American Dictionary as "the doctrine or belief that everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness". Wikipedia has a lot more about Panpsychism, including a long history and variations of thought encompassed by the term.

Panpsychism comes closer to my pantheistic beliefs than anything else listed above, but I looked around to see if I could find something closer. Hylozoism, the view that all matter is alive, is another interesting variation. I found the term neutral monism, which looked promising, but eventually found descriptions of it saying that reality has neutral substances that are neither matter nor mind. The term dual-aspect monism or double-aspect theory is the closest I've found so far, but the description I read is still not an exact match. My pantheistic matter-spirit monism is not dualism or idealism or materialism. It is the belief that there is a single reality that is INDIVISIBLY BOTH matter and spirit.

Light provides a matter-energy example/analogy: a photon is both a particle and a wave--what you measure depends on how you set up your experiment.

If scientists are able to map reality assuming pantheistic monism instead of physicalism:

I think the "hard mind-body problem" goes away.

I think ALL modern scientific research done using the assumptions of physicalism becomes a SUBSET of possible scientific research.

It might become possible for science to address questions of teleology or purpose or intent in the world of matter, perhaps even in evolution.

Science has a history of ignoring or dismissing or simply not thinking about possible areas of study until someone makes a breakthrough that opens up a new field. Once a new field of science does open, many scientists can expand the field and human knowledge advances. Science includes self-corrective mechanisms so that even though scientists occasionally follow false trails, in the long run trustable conclusions are reached. I believe that the blinders limiting current science to matter-energy-information will eventually be outgrown and humanity will enter an era of expanding knowledge of a larger reality including the spiritual.

Copyright © 2013 Mark Pottenger

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