Saturday, December 3, 2011

The similarity between physics and mysticism

New Age sections of bookstores abound with books that try to "prove" mystical truths by mis-applying quantum physics or some other such nonsense. This might appeal to someone who has no real experience with scientific thought but to someone like me who loves science, reads constantly about science, subscribes to not one, not two, but six different science podcasts (not including their separate video podcasts) this kind of fuzzy thinking drives. Me. Effing. Insane!!! I've already written what I think about that but it's recently occurred to me that in some ways science actually does share something with true spiritual, or psychological, searching.

While reading Marie-Louse von Franz's Alchemy, the topic of following one's inner voice repeatedly came up. In fact, at one point she gets into an argument with a student about whether a monk should marry a prostitute if his inner voice has told him he should (as the prophet Hosea did in the bible). Or, in other words, does God continually reveal his will through people all the time or was it a one time shot and we just need to follow the steps laid out for us. The student, who was a theologian, believed in this sort of a priori "truth" while von Franz, as a Jungian, upheld that God is a living presence with whom we must continually maintain a conversation, with no pre-judgments and with no easy, simple "truths" to mindlessly follow.
"One should always have an eye and an ear open towards the opposite, the other thing. That does not mean to be spineless, it doesn't mean just to sit there. It means to act according to one's conscious conviction, but still always having the humility to keep the door open and be proved wrong. That would be an attitude of consciousness in living connection with the other, dark side. The unjust sun is that attitude of consciousness which knows exactly what is what, a rigid attitude that blocks contact with the unconscious, while the two-rayed sun has a moulding and formative effect upon the unconscious; the latter would be with justice and the former without. I think that is highly meaningful.
"...[C]onsciousness always tends to be one-sided and sure of itself, and that does harm to the mystery of life. But consciousness can have the double attitude and then it enlightens the mystery of life and does not harm it. The humble attitude which always keeps the door open is the necessary acceptance of the fact that one may be wrong, morally or scientifically, or that one may know to some extent but not for certain, and that even the greatest certainty may be only negative, or something plausible in accordance with which I act.
"A conscious attitude connected with the religious attitude is what is required--always to give humble and careful consideration to the unknown factor, that is, to say, 'I think this is the right thing to do,' and then watch for a sign warning that one is not allowing for everything. Consciousness is essential to the unconscious for without it the unconscious cannot live. But consciousness is only a good channel of communication through which the unconscious can flow if it has a double, paradoxical attitude. Then the unconscious can manifest, and the hardening of the conscious attitude against the unconscious, which means a split in the personality--and civilization--can be avoided."
von Franz, Alchemy (p. 145)

If you believe in an already revealed truth then what usually happens is you come up against its limitations, especially if you're clinging to them out of fear and a desire for security. Your inner Self ("God") doesn't care about that and so continually throws difficulties in your paths, including subjecting you to neuroses in the hopes that your suffering will blast you out of your rut. And when that happens, people who follow this kind of religion simply blame the Devil and cling ever more to their security blanket. If, on the other hand, you believe that you need to maintain an attitude of openness, keeping the inner ear open to the inner voice, then you see these difficulties as the way your inner Self gets your attention, or is trying to guide you.

This attitude of going into an experience with no preconceived ideas struck me as exactly what a good scientist (or a good citizen for that matter) needs in order to understand physical phenomena. This mental posture of openness - this willingness to forgo security and one's most cherished notions - is also what 's needed when dealing with psychological, or spiritual, truths as well. The area of work may be different but the fearless commitment to seek the truth, whatever the cost, is the same, whether you're an explorer of science or the realms of the psyche.

I'd like to close with two of my favorite quotes, from two of my favorite scientists. They were writing about the importance of being fearless in the pursuit of intellectual knowledge but I believe they are equally applicable in the pursuit of knowledge of the Self:
"Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty." - Stephen Jay Gould

"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." "Carl Sagan


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