Why We Need a New Worldview

When the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus proposed nearly five hundred years ago that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe, he initiated a scientific revolution which has transformed human life in dramatic and unprecedented ways. For one thing, the technologies this new science spawned have made possible rapid improvements in such fields as agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, travel, communications, and education—all of which have significantly improved the standard of living for much of the world's population. But, as welcome as these developments may be, they have not come without a price. Along with its undeniable benefits, science has also brought in its wake a host of unforeseen problems. Over-population, environmental pollution, ecological degradation, global warming, and the invention of weapons of mass destruction all threaten us with disasters that could far outweigh whatever blessings science has so far conferred.

Still more alarming, however, is the fact that even though technological solutions to many of these problems are already known, we seem increasingly incapable of rousing ourselves to implement them. This psycho-spiritual paralysis of our collective will points to another more subtle but no less serious price we are paying for having embraced science with such unquestioning faith — the loss of our moral and spiritual bearings.

Actually, this loss comes not so much from having embraced science per se (which, strictly speaking, is only a method), but from having accepted the materialist worldview which has come to dominate science. One problem with this worldview is that many of its explanations for how the cosmos works contradict explanations found in those older, religious worldviews which provided moral and spiritual guidance for most of humanity's history. What's more, given the apparent success of materialist explanations, it has become harder and harder for educated people to take seriously any religious explanations. What modern farmer, for instance, would rely on prayer rather than fertilizer to increase crop yields? What modern mother would choose a shamanic ritual over antibiotics to cure her child's infection?

This disparity between the explanations found in materialist and religious worldviews might not in itself be a problem if it were not for the fact that an essential function of every worldview is to provide its adherents with a coherent and internally consistent account of reality. Consequently, calling into question one aspect of a worldview necessarily calls into question all its other aspects as well. In undermining religious accounts of how the cosmos works, the materialist worldview has also undermined the traditional moral and spiritual values these religions have upheld. And, to make matters even worse, because the materialist worldview does not recognize any spiritual dimension to the cosmos, it is inherently incapable of supplying spiritual and moral values of its own.

As a result, many people today (especially in the West) have abandoned their religious worldviews altogether and live in a moral and spiritual vacuum. Others have succumbed to a kind of philosophical schizophrenia in which they rely on a materialist worldview for the conduct of their practical affairs, while looking to a contradictory religious worldview to guide their spiritual lives.

The question, then, naturally arises: Is it possible to create a new worldview which can both account for the success of modern science while preserving our fundamental moral and spiritual values? Before answering this vital question, however, we should first be clear about exactly what a worldview is.

What is a Worldview?

Put as succinctly as possible, a worldview is a conceptually coherent, mutually agreed upon map of the cosmos. More specifically, a worldview supplies a particular community with the following:

  • basic assumptions about what is real and what is unreal, and criteria for distinguishing what is true from what is false;
  • terminology for discussing these basic assumptions and criteria, and for drawing logical conclusions from them;
  • values which provide moral and spiritual guidance for our actions;
  • historical exemplars who serve as role models for how these basic assumptions and values can be successfully employed in order to give our lives meaning and coherence.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, all of us have a worldview. Most of us receive our worldview from the community into which we are born and remain committed to it throughout our lives. Some of us, however, encounter situations or have experiences which cannot be explained by our inherited worldview. This usually precipitates a crisis of belief which can be resolved in one of two ways: Either we arrive at a deeper understanding of our inherited worldview that shows how it can account for such anomalous situations or experiences; or we convert to another worldview, held by a different community, which already has built-in explanations for the anomalies we have encountered.

Sometimes an entire community will encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by any existing worldview. When this happens, the community as a whole enters a period of crisis. The people in the community begin to lose their sense of direction. They are no longer certain about what they are doing, or why they are doing it. At this point, members of the community's intelligentsia begin to search for a new worldview. If they fail to find one, the community will eventually drift into the kind of disintegration described by Yeats: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." The conflict between the science's materialist worldview and traditional religious worldviews has brought humanity to just such a crisis, and this crisis can only be resolved through the creation of a new worldview.

A New Worldview

We at the Center for Sacred Sciences believe it is possible to create a new worldview in which the truths of science and religion are seen as compatible ways of viewing the same underlying Reality. There are several reasons why we believe this is possible:

Modern Physics Contradicts Materialism

The first reason is that the advent of quantum physics in the first quarter of the twentieth century has rendered the materialist worldview scientifically untenable. A fundamental assumption of the materialist worldview is that physical objects exist independently of consciousness, which is considered to be a mere epiphenomenon of physical processes taking place in the brain. According to quantum physics, however, this is not true. Material objects do not exist in any definite way apart from the consciousness which observes them. These two aspects of reality—consciousness and its objects—are inseparable. Thus, the evidence of science itself contradicts a purely materialistic account of the universe. Consequently, science has had to abandon its materialist worldview and is currently in search of some other explanation for its findings.

This does not mean that science presently provides evidence for a spiritual worldview, as some modern thinkers have prematurely concluded. What it does mean, however, is that materialism can never again provide a sound basis for science. Thus, a major obstacle to any rapprochement between science and religion has been effectively removed.

Agreement among the Mystics

The second reason we believe it is possible to create a comprehensive worldview stems from modern developments in our understanding of the differences between religious traditions. Often religions themselves have been antagonistic to each other, each claiming that its own particular worldview is the sole legitimate one. But this situation, too, is changing. Over the last few decades religious scholars and translators have made available an increasingly large body of original texts drawn from all the world's major religious traditions. From the global perspective afforded by a comparative study of these texts we can now begin to see that, while the philosophers and theologians of these traditions have had numerous disagreements about the Ultimate Nature of Reality, this is not the case with the mystics. On the contrary, their testimonies exhibit a remarkably high degree of agreement (as illustrated on the Mystical Traditions page of this site). Among other things, they all insist that the Ultimate Nature of Reality can be directly Realized though a Gnosis (Enlightenment) which transcends all worldviews, even those of their own traditions. If we take this mystical Realization or Gnosis to constitute the core insight which gave rise to the various religious traditions, then all that is required to bridge the gap between science and religion is to establish a connection between science and mysticism.

The Connection between Science and Mysticism

There are, in fact, two connections between science and mysticism. The first has to do with similarities in their methodology. Just as scientists maintain that the truth of their theories can be verified by anyone who conducts the proper observations and experiments, mystics maintain that the Truth of their teachings can be verified by anyone who is willing to undertake the appropriate spiritual disciplines and practices. Thus, the difference between science and religion is not (as many people have supposed) that one relies on empirical investigation and the other on blind faith. Rather, the difference lies in the domains to be investigated and the kinds of truth to be verified.

While scientists focus their investigations on the behavior of objects in consciousness, mystics concentrate on the subject to consciousness—that 'self' or 'I' to whom the objects appear. And while scientists seek to develop ever more refined and comprehensive theories about how reality works, mystics seek to Realize a Truth about its fundamental nature that lies beyond the grasp of any theory whatsoever. It should be noted that, far from placing science and mysticism in conflict, these differences between their respective domains and functions are actually what make their compatibility possible.

Not only do science and mysticism possess parallel methodologies, but mysticism can actually provide a coherent spiritual/philosophical understanding of how science works. One of the key teachings agreed upon by mystics of all traditions concerns the relationship between consciousness and its objects—the very relationship which (as we have already seen) lies at the heart of the philosophical crisis in modern physics. What the mystics claim is that the distinction between the subject to consciousness and objects arising in consciousness is imaginary. In reality, Consciousness (God, Brahman, Buddha-Mind, or Tao) constitutes the Formless Ground out of which all forms arise as inseparably as waves arising from a single ocean. Thus, mystical teachings pick up precisely where modern scientific theories leave off. And so it is here, at this juncture between their two domains, that an actual continuity between science and mysticism begins to reveal itself.

Once this is grasped, the problem of constructing a new worldview boils down essentially to a question of formulation: Can the continuity between mystical teachings and scientific theories be expressed in a single, rigorous language comprehensible to both?

The Role of Mathematics

This brings us to the final reason for believing that a new worldview is possible. There already exists a language that can express the continuity between science and mysticism. In fact, this language was originally developed for just this purpose by a lineage of ancient Greek mystics beginning with Pythagoras and Plato. And, although it has largely lost sight of its own mystical origins, today it is recognized as the universal language of modern science. We are, of course, referring to the language of mathematics.

Despite the fact that science's awesome power derives precisely from its ability to mathematically express relationships between physical phenomena, the question that has most puzzled scientists themselves is: Why should this work? Why should the objective universe so perfectly obey equations which originated in the subjective minds of mathematicians? Remarkably, if what the mystics claim is true — that the distinction between consciousness and its objects is imaginary — then this profound question has a simple, though radical answer: Mathematics does not describe a world of independently existing objects; it creates these objects by an act of imagination within that Consciousness.

In fact, this process has already been given explicit mathematical formulation. In his seminal work Laws of Form (1969), the mathematician G. Spencer-Brown demonstrated how, starting from a formless void, the simple act of making a distinction naturally gives rise to the most primitive laws underlying logic and arithmetic. Now, if we take this void to be that Formless Consciousness testified to by the mystics, this language of distinction can give exact mathematical expression to some of the highest mystical teachings (e.g., as illustrated in Thomas McFarlane's "The Play of Distinction"). What's more, subsequent work by Jack Engstrom, Louis Kauffman, Jeffrey James, and Thomas McFarlane leads us to believe that the whole body of mathematics employed by modern science can be traced back in an unbroken line to these same laws of form and the Void from which they spring.

If this proves to be the case, then both the findings of modern science as well as the teachings of the mystics will have been brought within the purview of a common language for just the sort of new worldview we have in mind. In such a worldview the truths of science would be seen to flow seamlessly from that deeper Truth Realized by the mystics of all religious traditions, while the traditions themselves would be viewed as different branches of a single Great Tradition which has been furnishing humanity with indispensable moral and spiritual guidance ever since the dawn of our species.

Helping to establish and develop such a worldview is one of the major purposes for which the Center for Sacred Sciences was founded. We are under no illusion that a new worldview can be fully constructed or widely disseminated overnight. The fulfillment of such a vision is a historical task which may take several generations to complete.

Resources and Links

As a starting point for further research on mysticism, science, and worldviews, we recommend the following resources:

CSS Resources

    Holos: Forum for a New Worldview
  • Holos Journal published by the Center for Sacred Sciences


Other Resources

  • Religious Diversity in America by Huston Smith and Diana Eck. A thirty-minute ReadAudio stream of a presentation sponsored by the Cambridge Forum a few weeks after 9/11/01. In the first half, Prof. Smith contrasts the traditional religious worldview with the modern materialistic worldview. In the second half, Prof. Eck discusses the present state of religious diversity in America and the different ways of dealing with these differences among us.
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