On Adopting A Developmental View of the Sciences
There is a lot of discussion in spiritual circles about the ‘new paradigm’ in physics. Usually this is referring to quantum mechanics and/or Einstein’s theory of relativity (special and general relativity). But actually, this so called new paradigm is now around 100 years old.
This ‘old’ paradigm is of the Newtonian-Cartesian model of the universe as mechanistic, objectively existing out there. In this view, there is a ‘ghost’ in the machine, a separate ego which operates the machinery of the body. This ego was, for Descartes, the soul; Descartes was a strong Christian. As science progressed more and more, scientists grounded in this materialistic world view increasingly took territory away from the Church. Since no one ever saw any ‘scientific evidence’ for this soul, it was inevitable that the further developments of this scientific view eventually discarded the idea of the soul. The furthest developments of this way of thinking, which to its proponents is simply science, has started to throw out the mind along with the soul. The mind is seen as an epi-phenomena of the physical organ, the brain/nervous system. That is, consciousness in all its forms and emotions and colors is being created soley through material physical processes.
In my opinion (and in the opinion of many others far more qualified than myself to speak on these matters) this is actually a tremendous over reach and a dangerous assumption not grounded in any actual science. We can refer to this view in its extreme form as ‘scientism.’
Scientism embraces the so called ‘new paradigm’ but seems to maintain many aspects of the ‘old paradigm’ discussed above. Perhaps chief among its beleifs is an incredible faith in materialism. This sees consciousness as secondary, derivative, and even illusory, while the material and physical is what is actually ‘real’ and that it exists independently of the mind(s) that perceive them.
I think it is helpful to broaden our own understanding by looking at how other cultures and traditions have approached differing views of reality. Cultures other than our own have also possessed a multitude of sophisticated and often contradictory world views i.e. visions of the way things are. A great example is India and Tibet. In Tibet, the Buddhist teachings were held as incredibly profound and of the greatest importance; these teachings were respected, worshipped, as well as studied and practiced. They came to form the backbone of the entire culture, merging and influencing the pre-existing culture and beliefs. In the understanding of the Tibetans themselves, in general the coming of the teachings from India into Tibet mark the seminal point in Tibetan history.
The Buddhist teachings by that point in India were incredibly vast and in fact were often contradictory. There was much debate about which teachings were authentic and which were not and which amongst the authentic teachings were superior. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni said that some of his teachings were the real deal, the definitive meaning and some were actually of lesser, expedient meaning. These lesser teachings were given to help guide less mature beings to greater understanding. In short, the Buddha taught in whatever way would most benefit his listeners, and the highest teachings were only given to those of the highest capacity to receive them.
The Tibetans systematized these diverse teachings in different ways, but in general they adopted a schema of four philosophical schools to organize the sutra level of the Buddhist teachings. These four schools go from lowest to highest; one studies the first to gain a foundation of understanding and insight that naturally leads one to the next level of understanding. Because these teachings were seen in this hierarchical fashion, in their expression in Tibetan writings (and in Indian scholars as well, such as Dharmakirti), the teachings are designed to lead one to the higher levels; they are seens as not really contradictory (in the sense of being incompatible) but rather the deepest meanings are embedded within the lower teachings in a subtle way.
What I want to propose in this short essay is that we in the modern scientific world adopt a similar way of engaging with the astounding discoveries and views of the sciences.
The ‘Old Paradigm’ views of Cartesian dualism are disproved time and again and yet their hold on us and our collective cultural understanding continues to grow. Rather than seeing this as a problem (which many ecological and spiritual writers are apt to do), I propose it would be more beneficial to see this way of understanding as a natural step in the development of the individual and of the culture in which we are embedded. When we place these theories in a developmental framework, everything changes. Rather than being simply about what is right and wrong (ie the ‘truth’) it becomes about personal and collective development, from a lower truth to a deeper, more valid truth. There is nothing invalid about using Newtonian physics to predict the billiard balls on the pool table, so it is good to appreciate and even celebrate this amazing achievement in human scientific thought. The problem is when one takes that small, limited and not ultimately true understanding and projects it outwards onto the whole universe and inwardly to explain all of the human being. Then what was useful in one context becomes a metaphysical straight jacket with very real, very painful and very limiting consequences for those thus afflicted (often self-afflicted). We need to use knowledge and understanding to open our eyes of insight, not to add more layers of veils to our impoverished vision.