by Thomas J. McFarlane
Most of us were raised with the idea that reality is the material cosmos. We were all taught that there is a real external world "out there" containing rocks, atoms, cells, animals, plants, etc., and that this material world is all there is. As Carl Sagan tells us in his opening lines of the popular Cosmos television series, "The cosmos is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be." According to this worldview, which is known as materialism, the matter in the cosmos has evolved over billions of years to form galaxies, suns, and planets, and—on our planet—an incredible variety of complex biological organisms. You are one of these organisms. All your experiences, feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams, and your very consciousness itself, are nothing but the activity of neurons in your brain. That includes any notions you might entertain about a non-material reality such as God, Tao, Brahman, or Primordial Awareness. All such notions—according to materialism—signify nothing real and are no more than wishful superstitious fantasies of a brain that is complex enough to recognize its own inevitable demise. Obviously, this worldview seriously challenges the basis for our spiritual aspirations, as well as the claims of the mystics. How, then, do we respond to this challenge? How do we reconcile this materialistic worldview with the spiritual path? Like any obstacle on the spiritual path, let's inquire into it with an open and curious mind and see what we find.
Our culture's materialistic worldview is rooted in scientism, which is not the same as science itself. Science in its purest sense is not a worldview but a method for systematically investigating and organizing aspects of reality that we access through our senses. Simply put, science is a way of knowing reality. Scientism takes this one step further and claims that science is the only way of knowing reality. Whereas science is silent regarding the aspects of reality beyond its scope, scientism asserts that there is no reality beyond its scope. According to scientism, if something is not rational, or not verifiable through the physical senses, then it is not real.
The first thing to notice about scientism is that it makes a fundamental assertion about reality. Scientism says, "science is the only way of obtaining true knowledge of reality." This statement, however, cannot itself be verified by the methods of science. It is like a blind man who claims that only through hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling can one know anything for certain about the world. Using only his four senses, though, he obviously cannot prove that there is no fifth sense. It is just the same with scientism. Its claim that the only way to arrive at true knowledge is through the senses cannot itself be verified through the senses. Thus, scientism is based on a "truth" that—according to its very own standard of truth—cannot be true. If we acknowledge this contradiction, then we must admit that scientism has no rational, scientific basis. It is a completely unjustified assumption about reality. We are thus free to let it go.
The second thing to notice about scientism is that it results in a limited view of reality. This is a consequence of the fact that how we look at the world determines what kind of world we find. As Heisenberg, the inventor of quantum mechanics, cautions us,
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.1
So, if the questions we put to nature are limited to strictly scientific questions, then we will only see the limited part of reality that is revealed by that method of questioning. Like the blind man who learns about all sorts of sounds and tastes and textures, but no colors, the method of science reveals a world accessible through our physical senses, but nothing beyond that limited scope. Now, because scientism clings to the scientific way of knowing reality as the only valid way, the limited world that science discovers is mistaken for allof reality. And this is historically how scientism resulted in our worldview of materialism: after the limited methods of classical physics discovered a material world, scientism took this world to be all of reality, and materialism was born.
Our materialistic worldview thus rests upon two assumptions: (1) science reveals a material world, and (2) scientism is true. The first assumption has been seriously challenged by the discovery of quantum theory.2 As for the second assumption, we have already seen that scientism is no more than an unjustified assumption about reality. And we must be careful to remember that scientism can just as easily fool us into taking a quantum worldview as reality. No matter what worldview science might offer, if we mistake it for all of reality, we have bought into scientism.
We see, then, that scientism blinds us to everything in reality that is beyond the scope of the scientific method, no matter what that method may reveal to us. So, how much of reality is left out? Almost all of it! Einstein, for example, tells us
All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.3
And Heisenberg echoes his words:
The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite.4
Yet, even though the limited view of materialism isn't ultimately true, it is obviously still very useful to assume that things exist in an external world. We don't deny any of this. The question is not whether materialism is a useful view; the question is whether it corresponds to reality, as scientism might lead us to believe. Because the assumption of a material reality is so useful, we forget that it is just an assumption, and then habitually take it for granted as a reality. It is the same with any scientific theory. It is very useful for a wide range of experience, and this usefulness is evident in the technological success of science. But is this any reason to believe that the scientific theory corresponds to reality?
Most of us are sophisticated enough to know that science never provides us with the final theory of reality, and that our ideas about the world can be mistaken sometimes. But we normally attribute those errors to minor problems with our theory, and believe that our theories are getting closer and closer to the truth. In other words, even if our ideas of reality are never perfect, because they work so well most of the time, we still think they must be close to the truth about reality. And since they seem to improve with time, we have the sense they are getting closer and closer to reality. Scientists will often express similar faith in the progress of science—that they are getting closer and closer to the true laws of the universe. They believe that the old theories are wrong and the current theories right, or at least somehow "closer" to reality. As the history of science tells us, however, this isn't actually true. To see why, let's consider an example.
Imagine you discover a remote island whose inhabitants believe that the sun, moon, planets, and stars all move around the stationary earth. (This is the geocentric view of the cosmos.) These clever people show you how they can make accurate predictions of celestial events such as eclipses. They then confidently tell you, "Because it works so well, it must be true." You see that it does, in fact, work very well. But you don't think it is true. You explain to them, "Actually, the sun is at rest in the center of the solar system, and the earth moves around it with all the other planets." (This is the heliocentric view of the cosmos.) When you tell them how the earth is going around the sun at 66,000 mph, and spinning around on its axis at 1,000 mph at the equator, though, they laugh at you. "How do you explain," they say, "why we don't feel these giant spinning motions? It obviously is far simpler to assume that the earth is at rest, they say, than to explain why we don't feel these motions. After all, why deny our direct experience that the earth is at rest?" Their view, you begin to see, has its merits. It explains the positions of the planets and doesn't have all these other complications. And you can't find any way to convince them that your heliocentric view is the right one.
The moral to the story, of course, is that the usefulness of a theory doesn't prove that it is true. In addition, we see that two theories might be just as useful, but correspond to totally different views of reality. According to the geocentric view, the earth is really at rest, and the sun is really moving. When we look in the sky and see the sun move, that is a real motion through the sky. According to the heliocentric view, on the other hand, the sun is really at rest, and the earth is really moving. When we see the sun moving through the sky, that is not a real motion at all, but an illusion due to the motion of the earth. These are two very different realities, both compatible with the same facts. Since the facts can be explained by both of these theories, we are not justified in claiming that one particular theory is the true description of reality.
Nevertheless, you might be thinking that the heliocentric view is still the true one, and that the geocentric view is false. After all, we do teach the heliocentric view in schools and talk about the earth's orbit around the sun. In fact, however, Einstein's theory of general relativity has demonstrated that neither the heliocentric nor the geocentric theory is ultimately correct. There is only the relative motion of the sun and earth, and we cannot scientifically justify the statement that the sun is really at rest, or that the earth is really at rest. We are free to assume either point of view; but neither point of view is absolutely true, neither one is more real than the other. So it makes no sense to say that one of these views is ultimately "closer" to the truth than the other. They are simply different points of view, and each may be more or less useful depending on the circumstances.
The whole idea that a scientific theory is a true or false description of reality is itself an illusion. Even if a new theory is more comprehensive and elegant than prior theories, that is still no guarantee that it is closer to the truth in any absolute sense. We can only judge a theory's degree of truth by using some criteria for what makes a "good" theory; but there are no absolute rules for selecting such criteria. One theory may be more comprehensive or convenient or useful for our present purposes—but what if those purposes change? One theory might strike us as more elegant or beautiful—but what happens when our aesthetic sensibilities change?
We, as a culture, agree on a given worldview as a convention. It becomes our conventional reality. But when we are not aware of its conventional nature, we mistake this conventional reality for ultimate reality. This mistake—confusing the relative with the absolute—is what the mystics call ignorance or delusion. Materialism, like any other worldview, is ultimately no more than a way of interpreting experience that fits our conventions. Other radically different interpretations of experience can also account for our experience and be very useful for their own purposes. But any view—whether scientific or spiritual—is ultimately just a view, and not reality itself. As the Buddha said,
These teachings are only a finger pointing toward Noble Wisdom . . . they are not the Truth itself, which can only be self-realized within one's deepest consciousness.5
In the process of deepening our inquiry into the nature of reality, we are limited only by assumptions we cling to, whether they be assumptions about the object of our seeking or about the method we're using. We can only continue to deepen our knowledge by acknowledging that our worldviews, theories, and methods of investigation are, at best, only provisional, and eventually must be surrendered. As Heisenberg tells us,
Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word "understanding."6
So if we wish to become ever more intimate with reality, we must continually go beyond our current way of understanding, our current mode of inquiry, and our current notions of reality. In an unlimited inquiry, the very method of science itself must finally be surrendered, leaving us simply with science, which literally means knowledge. This suggests that science in its most radical sense is not limited to any particular method of science, any assumption about reality, or even any idea of what "knowledge" means. Only when we surrender everything and open ourselves to the unknown without any fixed method or framework or preconception, can Reality then perfectly reveal itself as the Knowingness that is inherent to Consciousness Itself.
- Thomas J. McFarlane, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2001.
1. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 58.
2. Thomas J. McFarlane, "The Illusion of Materialism," Center Voice (Eugene, Oregon: The Center for Sacred Sciences, Summer-Fall 1999), 7-13.
3. Albert Einstein, The Expanded Quotable Einstein. ed. Alice Calaprice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 261.
4. Heisenberg, ibid, 201.
5. Dwight Goddard, ed, A Buddhist Bible (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), 292.
6. Heisenberg, ibid, 201.