Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
with WILLIS HARMAN, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Science and Religion," and my guest, Dr. Willis Harman, is a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California, a professor of engineering economic systems at Stanford University, and president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Dr. Harman is the author of An Incomplete Guide to the Future and co-author of Higher Creativity. Welcome, Willis.
WILLIS HARMAN, Ph.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, science and religion have historically been thought of as antagonistic, and even today the debate over evolution and creationism still seems to be raging. Yet you seem to be pointing out that there's another, opposite trend, which is the convergence of science and religion, the unification of these two seemingly vastly different disciplines.
HARMAN: I think that's right. I think both trends are happening at the same time, and that's typical when a society is going through a major change -- you have the old trend still continuing, and you have a new one starting. Now, the religion that is part of the old trend is not the same as the religion that's part of the new trend, and the science of the old trend is not the same as the science of the new trend.
MISHLOVE: Let's start, then, by distinguishing between what you might think of as the old-trend religion, or the old-time religion, and the new-trend religion.
HARMAN: Well, there are a lot of differences. In the first place, there were a lot of religions, and I think what's emerging is one spirituality. And then some of the religions, at least, tended to put a lot of stress on what you believe, and seem to emphasize sin and guilt, whereas what's emerging seems to look upon sin and guilt more as pathologies to be outgrown, and tend not to put so much emphasis on what you believe as on your experience, and encourage the experiencing of the divine within. I guess that's another difference, too -- that is, some of the old religious forms seem to put the emphasis on God out there somewhere, as contrasted with discovering the divine nature of ourselves.
MISHLOVE: Do you feel comfortable with the concept of new age religions, to describe this new trend?
HARMAN: I feel comfortable enough with the concept, but new age has so many meanings it's not a terribly useful term. New thought religions is a term that is a little bit more precise, I think, these days -- that's the Church of Religious Science, Unity, and things of that sort. I believe that's gotten to be a fairly precisely defined term.
MISHLOVE: I suppose when one thinks of the ecumenical movement, the attempt to find the common ground that all religions share in common, one would move more and more in the direction of these new thought religions.
HARMAN: Well, either that, or move back to the esoteric, timeless core of all the spiritual traditions, which is essentially the same thing.
MISHLOVE: What Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.
HARMAN: The perennial philosophy, the perennial wisdom. The reason it's not been so obvious to us is because it has been esoteric for a number of reasons, one being that heresy could be hazardous to your health in certain eras, in certain times.
MISHLOVE: Yes, not too long ago.
HARMAN: You can still lose tenure, or fail to get it.
MISHLOVE: How about the distinction, then, between the old scientific viewpoint, which was somehow antagonistic to religion, and the new scientific approach, which is not?
HARMAN: Well, I think that's a little harder, especially since the new science isn't really here yet, to nearly the same extent that the new thought churches are here. But of course the new science includes the old. It's really an expanded science. And I think if you think back, we have had controversies within science, quite apart from the science-versus-religion controversy -- determinism versus free will, and vitalism in the life sciences, and various explanations as to how we come to be here, evolution, creationism, and so on.
MISHLOVE: Or how do you deal with consciousness, or how do you deal with action at a distance? There have always been paradoxes, mysteries, in science.
HARMAN: I think there are two new principles -- they're not new, but understanding the implications of them is a little bit new -- that help us get a start here. One is the principle of complementarity, which emerged first in physics. If you think of light as having a wavelike nature, or you think of light as having a particle nature, those are not contradictory positions; those are complementary.
MISHLOVE: Although to common sense they would seem to be contradictory.
HARMAN: That's right. Now, if you apply the same thing in science, a science which is deterministic, and a science which includes the concept of human consciousness as a causal factor in the universe, would seem to be contradictory, but then we come to recognize that they are more complementary. The other principle is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is to say that when you consider whole human beings, or a whole universe, you may run into things that you can't really explain in a science which is more reductionistic and focused on studies of the parts.
MISHLOVE: Now, the sense that I have when you say, for example, that determinism and free will really complement each other in science, is that you have a larger view of science that takes into account a deterministic level, and then another level of human affairs, for example, where free will is part and parcel of that level.
HARMAN: Now here it gets a little complicated, but here I think you have to have at least four levels in the extended science. One of them is the physical sciences, more or less as we know them. Those are objectivist -- that is, you can study them from the outside more or less. They're reductionistic; they're positivistic -- that is, what you study is what you can physically measure. Now a second level on top of that is the life sciences, and there you have to introduce new concepts, teleological concepts. You have to be able to think in terms of a stomach not being just something with a certain shape and a certain chemical composition, but it has a function. It has the function of digesting food. So you bring in something new, a sense of function.
MISHLOVE: The notion of function doesn't exist, then, in basic physics or chemistry.
HARMAN: No such thing, no such thing in the physical sciences, yes. Now, at a third level you come into the human sciences, and you have to introduce something new still, which is human consciousness causes things to happen. And there's no place for that in the deterministic physical sciences. Then there's a fourth level, which I would call the spiritual sciences, and we don't have very good representations of that yet, although some of the Tibetan Buddhist psychological work certainly would qualify as part of that. There are certain things in the Gnostic tradition of Christianity that would, and transpersonal psychology.
MISHLOVE: I would think if one searches the great spiritual literatures of the world, in certain times and places there have been very precise and rigorous philosophies which have been developed, such as the yoga sutras, for one, to deal with the laws of this realm.
HARMAN: They certainly have, and of course the way you verify things in that area is different from the way you verify things in the physical sciences. We probably should come back to that, because it's an important point. But that's been one of the problems, is that there wasn't widespread understanding of how do you validate knowledge. But another problem has been that these things were essentially in different languages in different cultures, and I don't mean just language as we ordinarily consider it, but they were out of totally different traditions, with what seemed to be different pictures of reality.
MISHLOVE: In other words, a completely different paradigm or context.
HARMAN: Yes. So they were hard to compare, and it was hard for anybody to say, well, underneath all of that, there really does seem to be one thing -- one growing body of knowledge that you add to, that accumulates just as knowledge in the sciences does. And yet, if you look back over the centuries, that would seem to be so. There were even research laboratories, and recognized as such, only we didn't recognize it for a while because they were called monasteries.
MISHLOVE: Now, that's a very interesting analogy.
HARMAN: It's not an analogy, it's an observation -- that their particular field of study happened to be the world of inner experience rather than the world of outer. But they went about it in very much the same way a scientist goes about the matter of science. You build knowledge on knowledge on knowledge, out of cumulative experience.
MISHLOVE: In the nineteenth century, Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern experimental psychology, began using a method called introspection to deal with direct experience, and it's kind of been discarded by psychologists today, who felt that inner experience wouldn't conform to the positivistic standards of a science. But I guess what you're saying is people are now reexamining that, looking at that anew.
HARMAN: I'm glad you said people, because it's not just scientists that we're examining. There's a great heresy abroad, really, and it's ordinary, reasonably well educated people who are doing something quite parallel to what happened in the seventeenth century with the scientific heresy. In the seventeenth century you had a widening group of people who were saying, first quietly to one another and then finally out loud, "You know, there's something wrong with the picture of reality that the church authorities have been giving us. It doesn't correspond to our total experience." So then they leapt on things like the new theories of Copernicus and the observations of Galileo, and this spread very rapidly, and it spread among non-scientists as well as scientists.
MISHLOVE: This is what we call the Age of Enlightenment.
HARMAN: We call it more specifically the scientific revolution; that was a part of the whole thing. And of course that marks the end of the Middle Ages, the beginning of modern times. It changed everything.
MISHLOVE: And at the same time, amongst these thinkers, didn't they develop the concept of a natural religion -- rather than being handed down through dogma, a religion that one experienced by being attuned with nature?
HARMAN: I think that's true, as nearly as I read history. But it was also true that about the same time there was a sort of division of territory between the scientists and the church. The scientists would look at the measurable outer world, and the church would keep the soul and the spirit. And so the natural religion gradually got kind of pushed out. It wasn't really very scientific. And so we developed these -- I would call them prejudices, and I don't mean something disparaging by that -- certain kinds of bias that entered into the scientific inquiry -- the objectivist one, the positivist one, the reductionist one. And so science took on a particular character. If science had developed in India first, it would have taken on a different character. But it didn't; it developed in Western Europe. You know, getting back, if I may, to science and religion, there's one important point that's worth mentioning along with the things that we've talked about. You develop a science, or you create a religion, or you get involved with one or the other, because you want to understand things, you want to explain things. And if you think of the hierarchy of physical sciences, life sciences, human sciences, spiritual sciences, part of science's prejudice was that explanations that are scientific are sort of downward-looking explanations. They're explanations in terms of how those atoms and molecules are moving around in the electromagnetic field, or what kind of chemical juices are causing your behavior.
MISHLOVE: In other words, we want to explain psychology by resorting to biology, and explain biology by resorting to chemistry, and explain chemistry by resorting to physics.
HARMAN: Exactly. That's the kind of downward, reductionistic explanation. And that came gradually to be thought of as the only valid kind of explanation, certainly in academic scientific circles. Now, over in the religions, you had the other kind of explanation, the upward-looking explanation. If I want to really understand you, I need to understand your spirit, I really need to understand you in a God-permeated universe. And so I'm always looking in the other direction.
MISHLOVE: I suppose logically speaking we're talking about the difference between analysis and synthesis.
HARMAN: I'm not sure whether that fits or not, but maybe; I just haven't thought that much about it. But at any rate, it's what used to be one of the many distinctions between science and religion. In the extended science I think you'll have both of these things. In a certain sense, you see, they're both kinds of analysis; that's why I staggered with that thought a little bit. But in one case I'm analyzing in terms of a downward-looking cause -- what's the chemistry and physics that's bringing about my behavior, say? In the other case, I'm looking upward for the understanding. I want to explain in terms of perhaps the level of human causation, conscious and unconscious processes, or perhaps the level of spiritual causation.
MISHLOVE: We might say there's an event in somebody's life history that creates a biochemical change in the body.
HARMAN: Yes, both kinds of explanation can go at the same time. And for that matter -- see, it isn't that one is true and the other isn't. They're complementary; they're both true at the same time.
MISHLOVE: In the last forty years one of the revolutions I've noticed in science has been the development of general systems theory and systems science, which makes a basic point of the fact that the whole is really greater than the sum of the partsa. That approach has really influenced almost every scientific discipline now.
HARMAN: A little bit. That was a step; the general systems theory was a step. I think what we're dealing with is a giant leap now. But the important thing is that it is coming not primarily from the scholars themselves, it's coming from a shift in the culture -- people insisting that I have to validate my own experience, regardless of what the authorities say. And that's why it's another heresy, in a certain sense. Whereas the scientific heresy was people saying the world is not like the church authorities told us, and we have a new way of looking at it -- we call it empirical science, or we did eventually -- this heresy is saying the world isn't like the secular authorities told us either. Reality is not like any authorities tell us; reality comes out of my own experience. But if I'm going to then represent that as best I can with some conceptual framework, we need some broader frameworks than the ones in conventional science.
MISHLOVE: So in a sense, when we're talking about the unity or the synthesis of science and religion, this is a personal search that probably thousands of people out there are all engaged in simultaneously now; it's a groundswell of activity.
HARMAN: Don't underestimate it. I'm sure it's five to ten percent of the population, at any rate, that has already shifted over to a totally different metaphysic. Now that's not a majority by any means.
MISHLOVE: But it may be an influential minority.
HARMAN: It's not only an influential minority, but it's a spreading one. There are a lot of other indications, too, that this thing is moving very rapidly.
MISHLOVE: Didn't some of the research you were involved in at SRI International indicate that there is an elite group of people -- the inner-directed people -- who are the leaders, the movers and shakers, who are really asking these searching questions and developing these new metaphysics?
HARMAN: That's true. The early survey data that came up, that indicated this shift -- some was by a man named Daniel Yankelovich, and some was done at SRI, the so-called VALS study, Values and Life Styles; and there were various other sources. But it all seemed to indicate that sometime between about the mid-seventies and the early eighties, there suddenly came into being a group which was maybe as large as twenty percent of the adult population in the country, that were living their lives on the basis of more inner-directed values and less outer-directed, esteem-related values -- position in the economy, position in society, and so on. More inner-directed, ecological, humanistic, spiritual kinds of values. Now, I don't by any means think that all of those people were really seeing reality differently, with a different set of metaphysical assumptions. But some fraction of them certainly are -- not just in this country, in any country I go to, even the Soviet Union, which is rather interesting, because there's a certain dogma that would say otherwise.
MISHLOVE: Let's go back to a point you raised earlier, which is in the so-called spiritual sciences, the notion of verification, and establishing a consensus view of what reality is. How does that seem to work?
HARMAN: Interestingly, the spiritual traditions have had a tradition of validating data in various ways, just as the sciences have. But because it's a different kind of data, describing a different kind of experience, the validation procedures had to be different. You can't very well do a controlled experiment with spiritual experience. It doesn't work that way. But there were at least three tests that have traditionally been used. That is, the person who wanted to do his own explorations in these terms, or move up in the priesthood, get involved with this, was encouraged -- just as you don't believe everything you see, because there are optical illusions, you don't believe everything you see inwardly. You don't believe everything that seems to be a vision. You don't believe everything that seems like an inner voice.
MISHLOVE: There needs to be a test, or a method of discernment.
HARMAN: And so one of the tests was, how does this check with what other people have experienced, down through the ages? In other words, how does this check with tradition? Not really how does it check with church dogma in some rigid sort of way, but how does it test out with regard to other people who have made similar explorations and reported them? And then a second test is, how would the world be if everyone behaved in accordance with this great insight you've got? Does it really work in society, in other words?
MISHLOVE: If it were a moral principle, for example.
HARMAN: If you got an insight that says, "God says I should do so and so," how would it be if everybody in the world followed that sort of precept? Then the third test is, does it still feel noetically true? Does it feel as though intuitively you know it's so, even though you can't demonstrate it? Does it still feel that way? If it does now, does it feel that way tomorrow, or next week, next month? So there is a tradition of testing, there is a tradition of cumulative knowledge, and now we're finally getting to the point where we can open up the concept of science to include all of that. Not very many years ago, really, that was a sort of taboo thing to try to do.
MISHLOVE: You know, in science itself -- science is not monolithic, there are a thousand different disciplines, and if one is attempting to verify some scientific evidence, it really has to be verified and tested and reviewed by a small group of specialists in any particular scientific area. I would think in the spiritual areas it's much that way. I look at Zen, yoga, the Sufi tradition, the hasidic tradition, the Buddhist traditions. It seems me, Willis, as if each of these traditions has been cultivating or nurturing very specific states of consciousness, each different from the others. And through cultivating often through twenty or thirty years of discipline, these states of consciousness get passed down from generation to generation, and the verification of the truths might almost be viewed as state-specific research -- a term that Charlie Tart introduced.
HARMAN: Yes, I'm not sure how different they really are. They may be more different in the telling than they are in the experiencing. But it certainly is true that the conceptual frameworks used are different from one tradition to the other. What I think you were also saying is true -- that in each tradition there is a tradition of connoisseurship. That is, the master can tell your level of spiritual development. The reason he can tell it is because he's been there.
MISHLOVE: Or is there.
HARMAN: Well, he may have moved beyond that, but he at least knows that. So that's a big difference between the level of the spiritual sciences and qualifying to be an expert on the level of the physical sciences. You know, it's fairly cut and dried, how you become qualified as an expert in physics. It's a little bit less so in an area like systematic biology, because there's a lot of connoisseurship that comes in there. How can you tell whether this plant is really a new species or not? You use a lot of intuition, a lot of pattern recognition. It's another ball game. In the human sciences it's even more so -- how do I recognize a personality trait? But in the spiritual sciences, there's not only more connoisseurship involved, but also you have to allow yourself to be changed internally. You have to undergo change in order to understand the concepts at that level, whereas in the physical sciences -- well, you undergo change of a sort, but it's more intellectual change. This is a more total character change.
MISHLOVE: It's as if the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says when you observe a particle, you change that particle, is really applied to the maximum in the spiritual sciences.
HARMAN: And in the reverse direction. It's as though you were in the physical laboratory and you said, when you observe a particle, the particle changes the physicist. Except you're not observing a particle, you're observing something that is not only a whole, but wherever you're looking, you're always observing yourself, at that level.
MISHLOVE: Earlier, when I referred to the different states of consciousness that each tradition might cultivate, I was thinking of, for example, research that shows that the brain waves of meditators practicing yoga show a different pattern, say, than the brain waves of advanced practitioners of Zen meditation.
HARMAN: So that you'd say that certain traditions may seem to cherish certain states, or put more emphasis on them.
MISHLOVE: Yes, exactly. It almost looked to me analogous to the various little disciplines that exist within science. Do you see us moving to a point in history where the so-called spiritual sciences will be integrated, synthesized with mainstream science -- maybe even acknowledged, say, by the American Academy, or the Association for the Advancement of Science?
HARMAN: Well, those things always take a generation, for obvious reasons. Yes, I think we're definitely moving that way, because the power is coming from a cultural shift. I'm not sure that given the structure of universities, divided up into departments, that there's very much force coming from the universities toward this sort of unification. There's a lot of force coming from just ordinary people changing and saying, "Look, it's one world, one experience. It doesn't feel right to have it all carved up in little bits."
MISHLOVE: This is not necessarily the type of discussion that would go on at meetings of the Board of Regents.
HARMAN: Well, not in the meeting room. Maybe in the halls.
MISHLOVE: So there's this groundswell, and it keeps growing. You think it's really pushing us in that direction.
HARMAN: Yes, and the reason for feeling so certain of that is first of all, I've been tracking it professionally for about twenty years, and personally as well. We were not at all sure of this when we first began to talk about it at SRI around 1969. Then the farther we went with it, and the more things we watched, the more clear the pattern seemed to become. And then, in the last few years, there were just indications all over the map. But if you go back twenty years, who was talking about near-death experiences? Who was talking about channeling? Who was talking about karma? Not only were they not being talked about, but there wasn't any sense that there was anything there to talk about.
MISHLOVE: Well, Willis Harman, it's been a pleasure talking with you today. Thank you very much for being with me.
HARMAN: Thank you, Jeff.