Science and Mysticism: Are They Compatible?

.Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Winter 1996/97), p.20-24.

KEY TERMS: mysticism -- transcendentalism -- indeterminacy -- Chaos Theory -- systems emergence -- the anthropic principle -- explanations -- world view -- Cosmological Proof -- postmodernism -- scientific attitude -- contingent causality

Much has been written in recent years to the effect that science, in its upper reaches, merges into mysticism. It is often said, by certain New Age physicists and astronomers, that Atraditional" premises about order in nature, and the goal of objectivity in knowledge, are no longer justified. Proponents of this view argue that twentieth century advances in physics have demonstrated a reality chaotic in its ultimate "essence". They claim this supports the conclusion of an arbitrariness at the very core of existence: a scientifically unpredictable interference by some transcendental "holistic" force or Mind. And they would have us believe that the principle of indeterminacy -- as articulated by Heisenberg -- necessarily implies a human species reflecting just such an irrationality in its substantive being. Moreover, they now add, the new "chaos" theory confirms what the mystics have been saying all along. Nature, at all levels, is without internal order. All -- all is mystery, it seems, and we must seek new, more appropriate ways of tapping into the Creative Oneness above and beyond the chaos of "knowable" experience. We are told that we must learn to believe in the "unknowable", even though we can never know it in any scientifically predictable sense. And we must accept the "fact" that observation and analysis are but crude and limited tools in the search for that mystical Truth of transcendent "chaos" -- of which the uniquely sophisticated physicist, at the outer edge of human knowledge, has only recently become dimly aware.

This comes across to the layman as powerful and convincing stuff. If even leading physicists are intimating that mystical explanations are, in fact, scientific -- and that the particular form of scientific explanation which we have known in the past is inherently limiting to human understanding -- then, surely, this has profound implications for the way we think about reality and about our existence within it. Perhaps, say many ordinary people, we should be listening to the mystics in our midst, if we wish to understand ourselves and our surroundings, rather than to those who profess to rely on reason and evidence. At the very least, according to this argument, we should be prepared to grant equal status to both the mystical and the scientific -- especially in the life sciences. To do less (we are told) is to reveal an arrogance and intolerance totally out of keeping with democratic ideals of freedom and pluralism in the arena of ideas.

I intend to argue that the surface plausibility of the position outlined above is both misleading and dangerous to human progress. It is misleading for two reasons. It relies on an unwarranted leap of logic, as well as a misinterpretation of the principle of indeterminacy and of the chaos theory of modern particle physics. The illogicality of the mystics' conclusion results from their strange leap from a human perception of randomness in nature to a conclusion concerning arbitrary guidance and superhuman purpose housed in some sort of collective Intelligence or transcendental Mind. The second fallacy is due to a common misunderstanding concerning the nature of the randomness discussed by physicists: a misunderstanding stemming chiefly from a confusion of the various meanings of determined.

Heisenberg was referring to our efforts at measurement -- not to the "essential" nature of the reality we seek to measure. The velocity and position of a particle are "indeterminate" in that (given our present conceptual and technical instruments) both cannot be accurately measured at one and the same time. This does not mean that these aspects of nature are "undetermined" in the sense of being uncaused; nor does it mean that physicists have "determined" that the "essence" of reality is chaos. Recently, particle physicists have (rather misleadingly) used the term, ">chaos", to describe a surprising anomaly appearing when calculus is pursued over infinite time. They have discovered a previously unexpected condition: one which is not explainable in terms of linear causality. It now appears that they may be referring to nothing more mysterious than the type of complex dynamic system-emergence with which biologists have been dealing since Darwin. Their finding is an indication of the possible limitations of the current paradigm of physics -- of the conceptual and technical tools that, until now, have proven so successful in measuring relations in inorganic nature. It is not an indication of the limitations of science itself!

Credible scientists make no claims whatsoever about the "essential" nature of reality -- or about any purely logical grounding for an ultimate or First Cause (or lack thereof). They are happy to leave such scholastic disputations to theologians. Whenever practicing physicists and astronomers do express their findings in terms of some form of the anthropic principle -- which views all reality as operating for the express purpose of producing humankind -- they are overstepping the bounds of their expertise. They are mistakenly attempting to explain a higher-level and incredibly complex dynamic system (such as that of organic or psycho-social relations) in terms of concepts appropriate to the much simpler (inorganic) level. They are also departing radically from the role of scientist. In their everyday role of citizen, they are merely reflecting the premises of the particular world view which energizes their being, and unwarrantedly clothing these premises in the authority of science. In the case of those with mystical inclinations, the world view is one which creates a desire for answers more all-encompassing and certain than those of science can ever be. It is the age-old yearning for explanations both magical and absolute.

What it all comes down to, then, is the type of explanation which human beings find satisfying and fruitful -- and this is very much a culturally determined matter. Throughout history, mystically inclined cultures have produced people who feel comfortable with mystery and contradiction, and in those cultures science has not prospered. For there is indeed a difference between the type of explanation favored by mystics and that which has evolved throughout the centuries as the scientific one. Those (relatively few) physicists and astronomers who explain their findings in terms of mysticism are people who operate -- outside the laboratory -- within a magical world view. That is, they rely on sources of truth which are beyond sense experience and therefore cannot be verified. They imagine various unfathomable entities or forces which are mysteriously housed in the natural world, and then bequeath to their creations an absolute and arbitrary power to interfere in the course of nature. They are people who just happen to be working, in a technical sense, in the field of physics or astronomy; but they have never assimilated the scientific way of bringing order to experience. They are not living, in any meaningful way, within the paradigm of science. On the other hand, numerous people -- utterly lacking in formal training in any of these specialized studies -- operate in all aspects of their daily lives from a scientific frame of reference.

World views matter. They affect behavior in quite observable ways. They determine our approach to the problems of life, and the way in which we assess our success or failure in solving these. And whether, in fact, we are concerned with solving problems in the first place. It does seem, then, that there is a practical difference between people who are drawn to magical and anthropic explanations, and those who find scientific ones more satisfying. I believe that this difference is extreme; that the two world views are based on utterly conflicting premises about the nature of knowledge and the human role in seeking it.

Where knowledge is concerned the mysticism underlying both the magical and anthropic explanation departs radically from the perspective of science. For mystics appear to believe that absolute truth is indeed available to humans; and they maintain that its source is a subjective and mysteriously derived intuition -- sometimes masquerading as an autonomous, Kantian reason. Scientifically oriented people, on the other hand, accept the idea that human knowledge, although necessarily limited and uncertain, has been made increasingly reliable as a guide to action by means of the empirical scientific approach. They express grave concern about the dangers to humanity of reliance upon private intuition, or upon esoteric exercises in an axiomatic logic devoid of grounding in reliable evidence -- exercises such as those employed in the Cosmological and Ontological Proofs of God's existence.

It is possible for most liberal religious people to operate comfortably within the scientific world view because science makes no assumptions about the "essential" nature of existence; nor does it require that its practitioners actually deny any cosmic ethical role for the God hypothesis as such. However, science does require a commitment to the primacy of human reason acting upon the evidence of the senses in the knowledge-building process. And it demands a corresponding commitment to objectivity as a goal. These commitments are usually anathema to the mystically oriented. It is, instead, the magical, anthropic world view that resonates with their romantic subjectivism.

Magic and science, as systems of understanding, are primarily about the nature of knowledge and of the role of humankind in discovering or constructing that knowledge. Both comprise ways of explaining experience that provide emotional support to the individual in question, as well as rendering that experience comprehensible within their frame of reference. People conditioned to be comforted and satisfied by the certainty of untestable beliefs feel distressed when confronted by a demand for evidence. Those who have learned early to expect the world to be a mysterious and confusing place feel no curiosity when confronted by contradiction. And without curiosity there is no urge to look for better explanations, or to solve the problems thrown up by experience. This is why we speak of the magical explanations of mysticism as opposed to scientific explanations, and why I maintain that the two world views are in direct conflict. We need to be familiar with these two kinds of explanations, to be able to compare and contrast them precisely, and to be prepared to assess them in terms of their fruitfulness for humanity.

It is worth emphasizing that mystics are distinguished by their explanations -- not by their feelings. There is a common misunderstanding here. Such people often justify their world view by appealing to certain so-called mystical feelings which they claim are everywhere prevalent. These feelings are of three kinds: (1) a sensation of awe or wonder at the marvels of existence; (2) an awareness of being part of something larger than oneself: and (3) an overpowering egocentrism which can readily persuade the ego in question that such perfection as is revealed in one's own complexity and felt purpose could not have come about by accident. But these are general human sensations -- not merely mystical ones! It is wonder that drives the scientist to ask "How come?" and to seek an intellectually satisfying answer. The curiosity engendered by awe and wonder has fueled the scientific process at least since human beings discovered fire. The experience of being part of some larger entity -- far from being uniquely mystical -- is a scientifically predictable reflection within human consciousness of the evolutionary history, religious tradition and socio-cultural context of the individual. The same is true of the egocentrism that renders us susceptible to the urge to view our own "selves" as the consciously designed, ultimate products and central concerns of the universe. How could we not feel thus, given the natural origin of our species and its integral relationship to all aspects of its physical surroundings and to the organic web of life? And given our millennia-long legacy of the anthropocentrically oriented culture reflected in current society which, in turn, has shaped these "selves" as surely as inherited genes have formed our organic building blocks?

New Age mystics claim to possess an understanding of science superior to that of the person operating within what they dismiss as the traditional positivist scientific perspective. They delineate sharply between "cold" rationality (what they see as a "value-free" process by which scientists observe external facts and measure and analyze these in terms of cause-and-effect relations) and their own emotionally motivated, intuitive search for the true "meaning" of that "holistic" reality beyond the merely phenomenal. They would limit cause-and-effect thinking (all of which they label mechanistic and reductionist) to readily observable inorganic phenomena. Meaning, on the other hand, is supposedly derived from the mysterious "essence" of reality and, for the magical thinker, the principle of cause and effect does not operate here. Mystics often seem to believe that this "essential" nature of existence is, at the same time, both chaotic and arbitrary, and therefore inaccessible to the human instruments of reason and the ordinary senses. Only a subjective intuition, they say -- itself mysterious in terms of source and nature -- can tap into the immediacy of the "Oneness" transcending and directing existence. And they claim that the new "science", respectful of the human search for meaning and proclaimed by mystically inclined physicists, supports this view.

But there is nothing new about these ideas! They originated in Hellenic Greece, probably with Parmenides and Pythagoras, and were given powerful impetus and survivability by Plato. They have been around, in their modern form, since Kant's rear-guard action against the Enlightenment. Emerson reinvented these mystical notions for American consumption in the early nineteenth century and they have lived on as a benign type of subjective romanticism, largely within the Unitarian movement in New England. German romantic idealists such as Fichte, Schilling and Hegel shaped them into a seductive ideology, impervious to reason and evidence. (It was an ideology which, in a subsequent extreme form, prepared the ground for Nazism.) Henri Bergson, writing at the turn of the century, gave mysticism renewed impetus with his concept of "vital impulse" and "stream of consciousness". Early twentieth century phenomenology and existentialism were rooted in this cultural legacy, and those movements, in their turn, have contributed to much of what is described today as "postmodern" and New Age thought.

Furthermore, there is nothing scientific about the approach to knowing favored by mystics. Indeed, their attack on science is grounded not in a sophisticated understanding of that enterprise, but in a profound ignorance of the nature of modern scientific theory and method. The paradigm they attack is pre-Darwinian; in fact it predates Hobbes and Hume. Most philosophers of science since Hobbes have written about the necessary interrelationship between valuing and reasoning. Thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, August Comte and John Stuart Mill recognized the crucial role of emotions in human attempts to make sense out of (or "know") their surroundings. Karl Marx was aware of the inevitable influence on human consciousness of that encompassing existence of which we are a part. And after Darwin, our understanding of cause and effect at the organic level of evolution was changed forever. The modern paradigm of science, incorporating the Darwinian concept of after-the-fact causality among living things and social beings -- and a belief in the unity of science -- was articulated by John Dewey and other pragmatists, as well as by twentieth-century thinkers such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. Mystics, in their ignorance of the philosophical underpinnings of our modern scientific world view, are attacking an anachronistic straw man.

What, then, are the characteristics of the modern scientific world view of which the mystics seem so unaware? I submit that these involve: 1) a reliance upon a systems approach to analysis based on the principle of hierarchy in nature; 2) a belief in the universality of cause and effect, along with the recognition of a difference in the nature of the causality operating at the inorganic and organic levels of organization; 3) a specific objective of seeking regularities in experience, and of devising and testing hypothetical explanations of these, according to a rigorously objective process which allows only the fittest to survive; 4) a skeptical, agnostic stance toward those explanations of events that are not supported by evidence; 5) an inability to live comfortably with contradiction; 6) an appreciation of the central role of language in the search for the necessarily conditional knowledge available to fallible humankind; and 7) a belief that the causal connections ordering human relations are so complex and difficult to identify that, for practical purposes, we must expect much in life to appear random.

Modern science recognizes a hierarchical ordering of systems of relations as we move from the sub-atomic particles studied by physics to the atoms of chemistry; then to the genes ordering organic life and, finally, to the subjects of the social sciences: instincts, conditioned reflexes or habits, social norms and cultural institutions. This means that it is the mystic's interpretations, concerned as they are with the significance for human nature of hypotheses from astronomy and physics, which are simplistic and reductionist in the correct sense of the words. That is, they are interpreting a complex level of organization in terms of a unit appropriate only to a much simpler level.

Second, modern science also recognizes a different kind of causality operating at the organic level from the mechanical push-pull governing cause and effect among inorganic relations. Ever since Darwin we have come to understand more and more about how organic life has been shaped both by random mutations and the consequences of the organism's forays into its environment: consequences which then feed back to affect the species' future by determining which individuals live to reproduce. This is a contingent, or after-the-fact, kind of causality which applies at the psychological and socio-cultural levels as well.

A third crucial aspect of modern science which the mystics fail to understand is its objective. Those scientists true to their calling are not looking for absolute truth; nor is their overriding goal the verification of hypotheses. Science seeks to identify regularities in human experience by means of a public or objective process of testing (and attempting to falsify) hypotheses. It does this by (1) communicating the exact conditions under study; (2) predicting probable effects of a plan to alter those conditions and (even more important) those precise effects which would refute the hypothesis; and (3) providing a means of observing and corroborating what actually does happen in these controlled circumstances. For the scientist, there is no knowledge without regularities, and regularities claimed but undocumented by objective test are not sufficiently reliable to be worthwhile or safe as guides to action. However, scientists, as individuals, have no monopoly on understanding. Their unique responsibility is to the rigorous public process of testing possible explanations of those regularities experienced by us all. For science, unlike magic and ideology, imitates evolution. It has a self-correcting process at its very heart.

Fourth, a personal commitment to scientific explanation is characterized by the agnostic stance: a refusal to believe what is unsupported by evidence. For liberal religious people, only belief in a God that does not interfere arbitrarily in nature is excepted from this. However, as Albert Schweitzer (a self-described theistic humanist) noted wryly, it is an exception that can do little real harm. A fifth defining characteristic is an inability to live easily with contradiction. Aristotle's syllogism provided a powerful impetus for the scientific orientation, in that the tension elicited within the organism by the experience of disjunction in its surroundings was supplied with a conceptual tool for distinguishing what makes sense from what does not. Like the feeling of wonder, this tension in humans in the face of the illogical has operated as a necessary engine in knowledge building throughout our history.

A sixth characteristic of the scientific world view is an acceptance of the defining function of symbols and concepts in human self-consciousness. This view sees language not as artificial baggage interfering with "authentic" experience, but as that which gave us our great advantage in evolution by making knowledge possible at all. It views concepts, and the symbols that both create and encase them, as our only windows on meaningful experience -- not doors that block and distort it.

Finally, the scientific world view is based on the premise that much in life is apparently random; that is, it occurs because of complex chains of fortuitous circumstances far beyond our current means of observation and comprehension. This premise involves the understanding that our responsibility is to expect coincidence, while searching out the natural explanation in such situations, even though it may be far from obvious.

On all these counts, the magical explanation of the mystic is the exact opposite. And it is fraught with internal contradictions as well. Mystics cling to a mechanistic concept of causality appropriate only to the relatively simple level of inorganic relations, and they define all existence in terms of the unit of analysis applicable to physics only. Yet they accuse those who uphold the scientific world view of being mechanistic where cause is concerned, and reductionist in their interpretations of social behavior. They claim access to ultimate Truth by means of subjective intuition, while arguing that all is unfathomable mystery. They employ ambiguous language and fallacious logic to support the proposition that language and reason impede access to the "immediacy" of experience. They brandish the so-called scientific postulate of ultimate chaos to support their faith in a collective Mind ordering every detail of current existence; while at the same time, they refuse to acknowledge the everyday occurrence of coincidence.

As a final argument for the incompatibility of science and mysticism we can do no better than to refer to George Santayana. In commenting on the mystic's goal of suspending language and logic in order to achieve the immediacy of "Oneness with the Universe", he wrote: "The immediate is not God but chaos; its nothingness is pregnant, restless and brutish; it is that from which all things have to lapse into it again is a dull suicide, and no salvation."2 It is this possibility of suicide for the human race that worries scientifically oriented people and makes them justifiably concerned about the dangers of a wholesale cultural lapse into mysticism.


  1. Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Winter 1996/97), p.20-24.
  2. George Santayana. The Life of Reason (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1955) p.5