Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
BEYOND THE POST-MODERN MIND
With HUSTON SMITH
JEFFREY MISHLOVE: Hello and welcome. Today we're going to be defining and examining some of the limitations of the modern Western mind set. My guest, Professor Huston Smith, is currently an adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union i
n Berkeley, California; a former professor of religion at Syracuse University; a former professor of philosophy at MIT. Dr. Smith is the author of The Religions of Man, a book which has sold over two million copies, and also most recently, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind. Welcome, Dr. Smith.
HUSTON SMITH: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. One of the points that you make in your book Beyond the Post-Modern Mind is that we tend to think in the West, in our contemporary culture, that our world view has expanded from earlier generations, and that we are progressing. We think of our time as a time of great progress. You point out that this may not necessarily be totally the case.
SMITH: Well, let's begin with the first of those. Progress is one thing, and the question of whether we are enlarging our view of reality is a specific aspect of that. Let's start with the latter. It's unquestionably true, I think, that our knowledge of nature, of the physical universe, has just ballooned incredibly. Who could have believed, when we were back working with the naked eye, a universe that's eighteen billion light years across, and still expanding -- stretches of that mind-boggling vastness? And also, comparably, the smallness and the intricacy and even the mystery -- we shouldn't forget that -- the mystery of nature, the paradoxes of matter being both a wave and a particle. So our knowledge of nature has indeed, unquestionably, expanded beyond belief.
MISHLOVE: I would imagine that at this point there are hundreds of thousands of scientific papers published each year.
SMITH: Each year. It's just impossible to keep up with it -- a deluge, an avalanche. But what I think we don't realize is that with that enormous expansion there has occurred -- well, I might as well come out and say it -- what I think is a comparable contraction. And the way we might put it is that horizontally, if we take that image, the world of nature, our view of reality, has expanded incredibly. But vertically, if we take that to symbolize the regions of value and worth, it's almost as though we have pulled the shade down on the realms of being that our forefathers believed in implicitly, but we have shut them out simply because our honored way of knowing in the modern world -- namely, the scientific method -- has no way of getting at those realms of worth.
MISHLOVE: Realms of being, realms of value.
SMITH: Right. There's one quite simple way, I think, to get a fix on this truly important point. What has introduced and changed our world and our world view, is of course modern science. And the crux of modern science, of the scientific method, is the controlled experiment. Now, everybody agrees to that. But I think what we don't go on to add and to think about, is that we can control only what is inferior to us. Now, what that comes to is that our scientific world view, which is what we really,
implicitly believe in, in the modern world, consists of nothing except us and things that are inferior to us.
MISHLOVE: In terms of their level of consciousness, or their level of power.
SMITH: Yes. By inferior, I mean by every standard of worth that we know. If we turn it around, we can say that the scientific world view shows us nothing in reality, in being, nothing to exist that is greater than we are by every criterion of worth that we know.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be suggesting that we somehow set ourselves as superior to, say, the eighteen billion light years of the physical universe that we look at.
SMITH: Well, the point is that that enormous region of space, all it comes to us as being, is matter and quantity, because this is what our instruments of science can pick up.
MISHLOVE: Cold, inert.
SMITH: That's right. And there's no comparable extent of value with them. Value in the scientific world view is confined to sentient organisms. And we can speculate on whether there are others in the universe, but all we actually know is our own planet, as far as life is concerned.
MISHLOVE: And there seems to be a strong tendency in the scientific community, and those moved by the scientific community, to deny that there is intelligent life out there anyway.
SMITH: Well, there's a mixed report on that. There are many scientists who speculate that the probability is large, but the point is that we have no verified proof of that. There's a nice little example that puts this point vividly in a capsule, and that is Carl Sagan's Cosmos, the television series several years back, which was a striking and just beautiful and remarkable series, in a certain respect -- namely, the scientific respect. But if you saw it -- did you see it?
MISHLOVE: I saw parts of it.
SMITH: You may recall -- my memory is that it began with Sagan coming on the screen and saying, "The cosmos is everything that ever has been, or will be." Now, that's a great opening line. That's a marvelous hook. But then, what follows? Fifteen or seventeen programs which are just incredible in their awesome beauty, as far as the matter of space and size and power; but did anything appear in Sagan's Cosmos that is greater than we are -- again, by every criterion of worth we know, which includes intelligence, awareness, compassion perhaps? No. And so, "everything that ever was and will be" leaves out the possibility of there being realities that are indeed greater than we are.
MISHLOVE: In other words, by virtue of our culture's desire to control, to manipulate, through science, we exclude from our world view that which we cannot manipulate.
SMITH: We do, and the fault is in part that we have seized upon a method which increases our control. But I don't think we ought to limit it to that, because the scientific method is indeed also, of course, an avenue of getting towards knowledge. There is pure science as well as applied science, and that's all to the good. Yet even there, even in pure science, because the way of getting at it through science is through the controlled experiment, we are forced into dealing only with those aspects of reality which we are able to control. And to go back to what we were saying before, those turn out to be those regions of reality that are inferior to us.
MISHLOVE: The whole realm of knowledge that's included in the humanities consists of, I suppose, man's image of himself -- our realm of values. Are you suggesting that basically the humanities in our culture have in a sense become smothered by this dominant scientific world view?
SMITH: Well, I'm afraid that they have been thrown on the defensive. Historically, the role of the humanities is to be the custodians of the human spirit. This is their commission. But because the humanities ply their trade in the university, and because, as the president of Johns Hopkins University put it in an interview in Newsweek not too long ago, the university is dominated by the scientific method, then the humanities are willy-nilly -- not intentionally -- pushed into using canons of objectivity and verifiability. But the truth of the matter is that the more sublime regions of the human self are deeply inward and deeply subjective, and do not lend themselves to objective purview by the methods of the university.
MISHLOVE: I believe that your argument is basically that experience is primary -- it comes before observation of the so-called external world that science looks at -- that the realm, for example, of religious experience, which you have studied extensively, is perhaps more real than the observable, so-called objective realm of science.
SMITH: Well, people can legitimately differ on the question of whether it's more real, but I think we ought to hold out for its being no less real than other aspects of reality which can submit themselves, expose themselves, to objective and verificational techniques.
MISHLOVE: Of course the Positivist philosophers, who have had such an influence in our century, would imply that anything that's metaphysical, that's not testable by scientific methods, is by definition unreal.
SMITH: Well, it's certainly true that within philosophy, which is one aspect of the humanities, metaphysics and ontology have suffered a humiliating demotion, as Willard Quine has put it recently.
MISHLOVE: Let's just for our viewers define ontology. That's a term many people probably wouldn't know.
SMITH: Right. Maybe I shouldn't have thrown it in. It comes from the Greek word on, which means being. And so it's the science of being, or to simply put it in simple terms, it's reflection on what ultimately exists.
MISHLOVE: What is real.
SMITH: Yes. R.D. Laing, in one of his books -- The Politics of Experience, I think -- says, "Everybody is a naive ontologist." I think that's true -- meaning that we each have our views as to what is real.
MISHLOVE: One of the points that you make is that, for example, there's the realm of the psyche, the realm of the mind, which includes our thoughts, our thought forms, and perhaps even the realm of spirits and mythological figures, the realm of deities -- that in the modern materialistic framework these things are thought of at best as kind of an epiphenomenal by-product of matter, a by-product of neural activity in the brain. But you think it might be viewed differently.
SMITH: Well, it certainly is the case that all the peoples of the world, with the exception of us, we of the modern West, have believed that human beings stood sort of midway on the Great Chain of Being. Many things -- animals, plants, and minerals -- are below them; but by the same light they're not at the top of the heap. Marshall Salins, the anthropologist at the University of Chicago, said we're the only ones who believe that we have ascended from slime, or the apes. Everybody else assumes that they were descended from the gods. And it is true that we have a very isolated position. Now, if we look at the testament of what people believed in the past, they believed that the entire world was sentient, it was filled with life and spirit.
MISHLOVE: This is a viewpoint that we sort of denigrate today and call primitive animism, or something of that sort.
SMITH: We certainly do. And yet the belief can't be totally squashed, as the notion of channeling, another thing, comes breaking through even today. But certainly, as far as our official philosophy is concerned, we do not have a place, in the scientific cosmology at least, for angels, demons, or even what traditionally has exceeded them -- namely, the Great Spirit, the World Soul, or God.
MISHLOVE: Or some kind of a vital principle has even been excluded at this point.
SMITH: Right. I think the point that at least comes through to me inescapably is: why the change? Is it that we know now for sure that beings greater than we are do not exist? No, we have discovered nothing that indicates or proves that they do not. It's simply that we have turned a method of getting at truth, namely the scientific method, into a metaphysics -- taking to be really real only what turns up through that probe, and assuming that that probe is the privileged and reliable way of getting at truth. Well, it's immensely powerful, but we don't see that its power derives precisely in trade-off for its limitation.
MISHLOVE: In other words, you seem to be saying that if we look at the modern Western mind set, what it is, is kind of an imperialism, dominated by a materialistic metaphysics.
SMITH: Well, I think that's a fair statement, frankly, because just think of what it leaves out. Again, all credit to what it has done in the regions where it is effective -- in fact it is a near perfect way of getting at truth in the material world. But values, for example -- science rides on values, but it cannot itself deal with value. It can deal with descriptive values, like market research. It can tell us what people do value, but it cannot tell us what they ought to value. A second thing is purpose. Is there any purpose in existence, in life, in reality? Jacques Monod, the Nobel Prize winner, says that "the systematic denial of purpose is the cornerstone of the scientific method." And we can see why it has to be, because if you go back to explain things because God intended it so -- namely, a purpose -- why, of course that short circuits the scientific investigation for secondary causes, which produces them. So we rule out purpose. And then meanings. Now, the scientific endeavor is meaningful all the way through, but a certain kind of meaning it cannot get at, namely the
meaning of the whole: what is the meaning of life?
MISHLOVE: Sort of like a gestalt.
SMITH: Right. Existential meanings, they're sometimes called -- the meanings by which we live. Science can't deal with them. Steven Weinberg puts it that the more comprehensible reality becomes -- and he's a scientist -- the more meaningless it becomes, because it comes down to equations and numbers, and those are not themselves existential meaning.
MISHLOVE: So the fact that our dominant world view is scientific -- one without value, without purpose, without meaning, without a sense of quality --
SMITH: Yes, quality I haven't mentioned. I think if we're going to be careful here, we have to say that the scientific enterprise, and world view too, itself rides on many of these things we've already mentioned -- that there are values, like values of truth. But the point is, those values are not themselves turned up and revealed by science. They're assumed for science, and science itself cannot come to grips -- let's just name them again -- with values, purposes, meanings, and qualities. It deals with quantities rather than qualities. But look what we've left out if we leave out those four things.
MISHLOVE: Well, those things are the nourishment of life itself, I would think. And I would imagine that without that kind of nourishment being sustained by our mainstream cultural institutions, our mainstream cultural mind set, that what we experience is what has been called alienation, discontent, social problems.
SMITH: I think this is a direct result of moving our beliefs into the confinement of a scientific view of reality. But there's another thing I'd like to say, if I may, and that is in all of these it sounds like we're bad- mouthing science. But it's nothing wrong with science itself -- in fact, that's an understatement; it has given us incredible good. The problem is not science, but scientism -- namely, to assume that what science turns up and can turn up is the sum of all there is. In a way it's a simple thing, but that's one of those things that we know but never learn, you might say.
MISHLOVE: It almost sounds as if what you're suggesting is what we need to have, rather than scientism, or a dominant science, is science at the service of other higher values.
SMITH: At the service, and in place -- a place for everything and everything in its place. And it has a very important place, but that place is not to presume to be the whole. And also I think it's very important to say that what we've stumbled into in these constricting aspects of our contemporary view, is not the fault of scientists. It would be a vast mistake and an injustice to point fingers at them. This is something that has happened for which all of us, we denizens of the modern world -- we're all responsible for it.
MISHLOVE: It's something that has taken place over centuries as well.
SMITH: That's right. And we ask science to give us the view of reality. It's not that the scientists come out and sell it to us hard; because, of course, they do have this wonderful treasure, and it comes to the controlled experiment -- namely, that in science you can prove your hypotheses. And in the humanities, we cannot.
MISHLOVE: You know, in T.S.
Eliot's great poem The Waste Land he seems to describe the whole modern
SMITH: A very prophetic poem.
MISHLOVE: -- as being like a waste land. And he suggests at the end of that poem that the antidote is the rose window of the cathedral.
SMITH: Lovely image.
MISHLOVE: Do you feel that there's some way we can reintegrate religious values?
SMITH: Well, logically there's no reason why we cannot at all. It simply means coming to understand what science is and what it can do, and what it cannot do. What happened was that the Western world stumbled upon this phenomenon, which, as Butterfield says, outshines everything since the dawn of Christianity, and others would say since the discovery of language. We stumbled upon it without preparation, and became absolutely ravished by its potential -- which, we have to keep on saying, is immense in a certain region, but is limited to that region. We became ravished by it. But if we come to understand, as I think we really are -- I think we really are coming now finally to see this -- that it is not omnipotent, omnicompetent, the scientific method -- then we can place it in its place, value it for what it can do, but not let it distract us from using other faculties to explore other regions of being which are there, but which cannot be approached by that method.
MISHLOVE: The realm of the infinite.
SMITH: Infinite, and infinite not just in space, but in worth. When we think about infinite now, that's been pretty much co-opted by science too. We think about infinite space or infinite numbers. Well, those are scientific terms. But what about infinite value? Frankly, I believe that reality holds as much in the way of worth beyond what we are able to see with our ordinary experience, as it holds in quantity and size beyond what our naked senses can fathom.
MISHLOVE: You describe in one essay, "Flakes of Fire," that experiencing this sense of value is like a gift of grace, or something that is given to us by the gods.
SMITH: Well, there do come these telltale rifts in the clouds of ignorance that encompass us, when there are moments of discernment, when we see. And we see into being and existence in its qualitative dimension, beyond what we normally do. And those are saving insights that bring courage to the human soul.
MISHLOVE: Professor Huston Smith, it's been a pleasure having you with me. It's really a delight to get at the level beneath the normal mind set that we live in. Thank you very much.
SMITH: You're most welcome.