Science and Mysticism in the Twentieth Century

Not without reason has the twentieth century been called The Revolutionary Century. Hardly any field of human endeavor has escaped some major upheaval. There have been political revolutions, economic revolutions, social revolutions, revolutions in technology, in transportation, in medicine, in communication—even in our everyday manners. For the spiritual seeker, however (and ultimately for humanity, itself), none of these can compare in importance to the twin revolutions which have occurred in the fields of science and religion. So, let us take a brief look at these two revolutions and how they affect us.

When the twentieth century opened, science and religion were locked in a protracted war in which it seemed no compromise was possible. There were two primary reasons for this. The first was epistemological,1 involving different notions about what constitutes truth and how it can be known. While science boasted that scientific truths could be tested and verified through empirical experiments, religion apparently demanded that spiritual truths be accepted on blind faith.

The second reason was ontological.2 That is, science and religion were founded on diametrically opposed views concerning the fundamental nature of reality. Religious believers insisted that, ultimately, the nature of reality was spiritual, and that, apart from this All-Encompassing Spiritual Reality, nothing would or could exist. Advocates for science, on the other hand, adopted a strictly materialist position, arguing that everything could be reduced to, and explained by, the interactions of independently existing atoms and the physical forces which acted on them.

Faced with two such irreconcilable worldviews, it appeared that any thinking person would have to choose sides—and many did. But for those who admired science, yet also intuited there must be more to life than the "wiggling and jiggling of atoms,"3 the apparent intractability of this historical conflict presented something of a personal dilemma. To pursue a spiritual path while simultaneously maintaining a scientific outlook required a kind of philosophical schizophrenia. How else could one pray for divine guidance by night and then take one's automobile to a mechanic in the morning? The underlying paradigms upon which these two actions were based simply refused to mesh.

As this century draws to a close, however, the situation in both science and religion has changed dramatically—so much so, that we must now rethink the very terms in which the whole controversy between them has been cast.

First, in the field of religion, the last hundred years has seen a veritable explosion in our knowledge of humanity's great religious traditions. A plethora of new translations of sacred texts from around the world is expanding and re-shaping our basic understanding of what it can mean to be religious and to lead a spiritual life. In particular, we have discovered that, at the core of all the major religions, there exists a current of mystical teachings which, when compared to one another, exhibit a startling degree of cross-cultural agreement.

What's especially interesting about these mystical teachings is their epistemology, which in many respects resembles that of science. For instance, while mystics recognize that faith is, indeed, a significant part of a spiritual path, they also maintain that faith alone is not enough. In fact, according to the mystics, if faith solidifies into dogmatic belief, it will actually become an obstacle to further progress. As Simone Weil wrote: "In what concerns divine things, belief is not fitting. Only certainty will do."4 It was out of this same concern that his disciples not rest on mere faith that the Buddha admonished them:

As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing it (on a piece of touchstone), so are you to accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regard for me.5
This is also why Sufis (the mystics of Islam) who have reached the end of their path are called al-muhaqqiqun, which means "verifiers." They, too, have examined the teachings and verified their truth for themselves.

Moreover, just as science incorporates a well-defined methodology for testing its theories, so do mystical traditions. Thus, while scientific theories can be verified by observation made within the context of various kinds of physical experiments, mystical teachings can be verified by insights gained within the context of various kinds of spiritual practices. In fact, engaging in such practices is considered essential in mystical traditions, because, as the anonymous author of the Christian Cloud of Unknowing warned: "you will not really understand all this until your own contemplative experience confirms it."6

In Mysticism, then, we find a type of spirituality which has close epistemological parallels to science—a spirituality that begins with faith but ends in a certainty which each of us can and must discover in our own practice. Thus, for seekers who cannot accept religious doctrines on faith alone, the recovery and dissemination of these mystical teachings is good news, indeed.

In the field of science, the last hundred years has wrought a revolution that has been, quite literally, world-shattering. The revolution we are talking about is quantum physics, and the "world" it shattered was the materialist world which the older classical physics seemed to support. Here is how Werner Heisenberg, one of quantum physics' founders, describes it: "Quantum theory has led the physicists far away from the simple materialistic views that prevailed in the natural science of the nineteenth century."7 In short, materialism is no longer a scientifically tenable paradigm.

This, too, is good news for modern spiritual seekers who cannot ignore the evidence of science. The fact that quantum physics has rendered the materialist paradigm scientifically untenable means that an otherwise insurmountable barrier to a rapprochement between science and religion (at least in its mystical aspect) has been removed. And while quantum physics does not "prove" mystical teachings (as some overly eager enthusiasts have claimed), the fundamental reality which it describes is not at all incompatible with the fundamental reality testified to by the mystics.

One example of this can be seen in the similarity between the modes of description which both scientists and mystics have been forced to adopt. In order to give a complete account of the properties of physical systems, quantum physicists have had to resort to a paradoxical form of expression called complementarity. For instance, sub-atomic phenomena can be thought of both as "waves" and as "particles." As Heisenberg points out, however, these two concepts are:

...mutually exclusive, because a certain thing cannot at the same time be a particle (i.e., a substance confined to a very small volume) and a wave (i.e., a field spread out over a large space), but the two[taken together] complement each other.8
Likewise, attempts by mystics to communicate what their spiritual practices have disclosed always result in one of those paradoxical statements for which mystics have become so famous. To give but one example, listen to the way the great Sufi shaykh, Ibn `Arabi, characterizes what he calls the "Reality of realities:"
If you say that this thing is the [temporal] Universe, you are right. If you say that it is God who is eternal, you are right. If you say that it is neither the Universe nor God but is something conveying some additional meaning, you are right. All these views are correct, for it is the whole comprising the eternal and the temporal.9
An even more striking example of how science's and mysticism's perceptions of reality intersect concerns the relationship between subject and object. For quantum physics, deciding where one begins and the other ends presents something of a quandary. Here is how physicist-mathematician, John S. Bell, sums up the problem:
The subject-object distinction is indeed at the very root of the unease that many people feel in connection with quantum mechanics. Some such distinction is dictated by the postulates of the theory, but exactly where or when to make it is not prescribed.10
For a mystic, however, the fact that quantum mechanics cannot tell us where or when to draw the line between subject and object comes as no surprise at all. This is because one of the most fundamental truths—attested to by mystics of all traditions—is that the distinction between subject and object is purely imaginary. It has no real existence to begin with! Thus, Ibn `Arabi writes, "know you are an imagination, as is all that you regard as other than yourself an imagination."11 So, too, the Hindu mystic, Anandamayi Ma, says, "Seer-seeing-seen—these three are...modifications created by the mind, superimposed on the one all-pervading Consciousness."12 Likewise, Tibetan Buddhist master, Longchen-pa, declares: "There is no duality of mind and its object, and the perceiver is void in essence."13

The discovery of such ontological points of convergence between science and mysticism is intellectually very exciting. Not only does it abolish our philosophical schizophrenia, it also holds out the possibility of creating a sacred worldview in which both science and mysticism would be seen as distinct yet complementary ways of exploring the same underlying reality. The importance of this task for establishing a future global civilization on genuine spiritual and moral values cannot be over-estimated.

Here, however, a word of caution is in order. For even if the rapprochement between science and mysticism does, indeed, lead to a new worldview, there still is, and always will be, one big, big difference between them.

The truths which science yields are conceptual truths, arrived at through a combination of thinking and experiencing. As such, they are also and inevitably relative truths, subject to revision and change as our thoughts and experiences change.

But the Truth to which mystics bear witness is an Absolute Truth—one which, as the Hindu sage, Shankara, says, "is beyond the grasp of the senses,"14 and which, Ibn `Arabi writes, "cannot be arrived at by the intellect by means of any rational thought process."15 This Absolute Truth can only be known through a third mode of cognition—called variously Enlightenment, Realization, or Gnosis—which transcends both thinking and experiencing. In fact, it is precisely our ordinary ways of thinking and experiencing that veil this Truth from us, for as Buddhist master, Huang Po, writes:

Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling and knowing, they do not perceive the spiritual brilliance of the source substance. If they would only eliminate all conceptual thought in a flash, that source-substance would manifest itself like the sun ascending through the void and illuminating the whole universe without hindrance or bounds.16
And, at the opposite end of the spiritual spectrum, here's what Dionysius the Areopagite says of the Christian mystic's Enlightenment:
Renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, he belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.17
In other words, the Truth to which all Mystics testify is of an entirely different order than the truths formulated by science. When Jesus said, "Know the Truth and it shall make you free,"18 he wasn't talking about the theory of relativity. And when the Buddha said, "The gift of truth is the highest gift,"19 he wasn't referring to quantum physics.

I stress this because there are quite a few seekers out there today who think that discovering mystical Truth is simply a matter of "shifting your paradigm," or learning a "new worldview." And while it is certainly valuable to examine your worldview and to investigate new paradigms, it is also crucial to remember that, no matter how revolutionary a worldview may seem, or how compatible with mysticism a paradigm may be, worldviews and paradigms always remain conceptual constructs. But the Absolute Truth revealed by Gnosis lies beyond all concepts, all paradigms, and all worldviews, whatsoever!

So, if you want to know this Truth, you must finally let go of all your thoughts and all your experiences. You must allow yourself to sink beneath this whole transitory stream of mental and sensory phenomena into that Ocean of Silence at the Heart of the World. For it is only when you are completely lost and dissolved in the shoreless depths of this Ocean that Gnosis can burst forth like a bolt of lightning, "which lights up the sky from one end to the other,"20 and makes the Truth as plain to you "as an amalka fruit held in the palm of your hand."21

May all of you Realize this Fruit for yourselves!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 1999. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. From Greek: episteme = "knowledge"; logos = "study of"

2. From Greek: onta = "ultimate reality"; logos = "study of"

3. As physicist Richard P. Feynman once put it.

4. Simone Weil, Waiting For God, trans. Emma Craufurd (1951; reprint, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 209.

5. Mahathera Narada, The Buddha and His Teachings, 2nd rev. ed. (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1988), 157.

6. Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing And The Book of Privy Counseling, ed. William Johnston (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday & Company, Inc., an Image Book, 1973), 171.

7. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 128.

8. Ibid., 149.

9. S.A.Q. Husaini, The Pantheistic Monism of Ibn Al-'Arabi, 2nd ed. (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1979), 53-54.

10. John S. Bell, "Subject and Object," in The Physicist's Conception of Nature. ed, Jagdish Mehra (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1973), 687.

11. Ibn Al'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 125.

12. Sri Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol 2, 2nd ed., trans Atmananda (Calcutta: Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society, 1982), 138.

13. Longchen Rabjam, The Practice of Dzogchen, 2nd ed., trans. Tulku Thondup, ed. Harold Talbott (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996), 338.

14. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 3rd ed. (Hollywood, Calif.: Vedanta Press, 1978), 75.

15. Ibn Al'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 51.

16. The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, trans. John Blofeld (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1959), 36.

17. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 137.

18. John 8:32

19. The Dhammapada: The Path of Truth, trans. The Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya, revs. Rose Kramer (Novato, Calif.: Lotsawa, 1988), 95.

20. Luke 17:24

21. A traditional analogy in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

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