07/16/2010 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Real Issue: Reconciling Science With Experience

The real issue lies not between religion and science but between belief and experience. Both disciplines ought to be understood in the light of man's search for permanent truths. Both, however -- and to some extent surprisingly so -- have relied too heavily on dogmas and dogmatism. In science, revolutionary scientific ideas are often laughed out of court by "the old guard" -- to be accepted in time, however, after old dogmas have been replaced by new discoveries -- becoming in their turn, of course, new scientific dogmas.

In one respect the difference between science and religion is noteworthy: Scientific circles have yet to form bodies of hoary elders whose self-appointed role is to dictate absolutely what shall and shall not be accepted as the right beliefs. The pressure of accepted opinion, however, is almost as strong in science as in religion, and acts with as much authority as any church.

For dogmatism is a phenomenon of human nature, not of human activity. The search for truth must move from blind belief to direct experience. Up to the present time, modern science -- perhaps mainly because it was born of fresh seeking and not of oft-repeated formulae -- has had the upper hand. I myself, on the other hand, am someone who began his search for truth through the sciences, but I gradually shifted my focus to the quest for God. And I have thought much about the comparative value of seeking truth outwardly rather than inwardly. Let me add here, however, that I myself am not particularly religious. That is to say, I am not much interested in rituals intended only to propitiate God.

The first point of difference between the so-called mystic and the scientific is that logic, without feeling, can never be wholly satisfying. Logic watches, whereas feeling absorbs itself in the experience of what has been watched. A computer can be programmed to reason clearly, but it cannot be made to enjoy any of its conclusions. Nor can it be programmed to ask the deeper questions of life: the "whys." Calm feeling is not an emotion, and instead of prejudicing reason, it clarifies it. Logic can make a reasonable case for almost any argument, but only calm feeling can know whether that reasoning is true or false. Logic -- speaking for the moment musically -- can find the notes, but only feeling can arrange them in a satisfying sequence of notes, chords, and rhythms.

The materialistic sciences, in their search for abstract facts, cannot easily arrange those facts in the order of their importance to mankind. There is, moreover, another and equally important difference between the mystic's and the materialist's search for truth: the materialist tries to eliminate self-awareness as prejudicial to clear judgment. The true mystic, on the other hand, tries to clear his sense of selfhood from prejudices by saying (I think more honestly), "Without self-awareness, where can one even begin the search for what would be interesting to anyone?"

An ice-covered lake would be difficult to break through by the application of pressure to the whole surface. By drilling at a single point, however, the ice can be penetrated easily, to reach the water underneath it. Science may indeed penetrate the coating over reality at any number of points, but without the ego-self as a point of reference, all that anyone can arrive at is a hodgepodge of irrelevant facts. It is unrealistic to try to eliminate either feeling or self-awareness from any investigation into reality. The ancient Greek saying "Know thyself" (gnothi sauton) remains the ultimate and highest definition of any sincere search for truth.

Scientists tend to believe that truth is infinitely complex. In this belief, there is a present-day dogma that claims that computers will someday become sophisticated enough to be self-aware. What, however, can be simpler than the common earthworm? If one touches the worm with a pin, however, the little creature will try (because it is self-aware) to squirm away; and, because its awareness is centered in feeling, it will obviously desire to escape the pain of a pin prick.

The definition that the ancient Indian yogi-sage Patanjali gave of yoga (the supreme union of absolute understanding) was this: "Yogas chitta vritti nirodha." Translated, the definition is, "Yoga is the neutralization of the vortices of feeling." A "vritti" is an eddy or whirlpool. "Chitta" has been translated -- inadequately, however -- as consciousness. I say "inadequately" because what the word really refers to is the feeling aspect of consciousness.

Science does not concentrate on feelings. It merely explains things. Logic alone, moreover, doesn't inspire enthusiasm for anything. Science tries to eliminate all emphasis on the self, as well as on feeling, but without self-awareness, one's efforts would lack any focus. The mystical search for truth is an inquiry into one's true place in the great scheme of things, and into ways of fulfilling one's role here on earth.

Many years ago, a man in Australia said to me, "I am an atheist. How can you explain God to me in such a way as to make me respect, or even listen to, what you are saying?"

I replied, "Why don't you try thinking of God as the highest potential you can imagine for yourself?"

For a moment the man looked taken aback. He then commented somewhat grudgingly, "Well, yeah, I think I can live with that!"

In the context of this article, it doesn't really matter whether or not God exists any more than it matters how high a mountain slope rises above any low mists hanging overhead. True mysticism seeks to climb ever upward, until endlessness is achieved. Materialistic science so far has been interested only in examining rocks on the slopes beneath us. Whereas true mysticism is motivated by upwardly aspiring ideals, materialistic science tries, instead, to keep man satisfied with objects he sees already on the hillside.

Someday, true science and true religion together, in their desire for truth, will discover those eternal verities that alone possess the secret of unity in a single vision.

An invited contribution to the Ervin Laszlo Forum on Science and Spirituality.