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Science and Mysticism: Are They Compatible?
.Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Winter 1996/97), p.20-24. KEY TERMS: mysticism -- transcendentalism -- indeterminacy -- Chaos Theory -- systems emergence -- the anthropic principle -- explanations -- world view -- Cosmological Proof -- postmodernism -- scientific attitude -- contingent causality Much has been written in recent years to the effect that science, in its upper reaches, merges into mysticism. It is often said, by certain New Age physicists and astronomers, that Atraditional" premises about order in nature, and the goal of objectivity in knowledge, are no longer justified. Proponents of this view argue that twentieth century advances in physics have demonstrated a reality chaotic in its ultimate "essence". They claim this supports the conclusion of an arbitrariness at the very core of existence: a scientifically unpredictable interference by some transcendental "holistic" force or Mind. And they would have us believe that the principle of indeterminacy -- as articulated by Heisenberg -- necessarily implies a human species reflecting just such an irrationality in its substantive being. Moreover, they now add, the new "chaos" theory confirms what the mystics have been saying all along. Nature, at all levels, is without internal order. All -- all is mystery, it seems, and we must seek new, more appropriate ways of tapping into the Creative Oneness above and beyond the chaos of "knowable" experience. We are told that we must learn to believe in the "unknowable", even though we can never know it in any scientifically predictable sense. And we must accept the "fact" that observation and analysis are but crude and limited tools in the search for that mystical Truth of transcendent "chaos" -- of which the uniquely sophisticated physicist, at the outer edge of human knowledge, has only recently become dimly aware. This comes across to the layman as powerful and convincing stuff. If even leading physicists are intimating that mystical explanations are, in fact, scientific -- and that the particular form of scientific explanation which we have known in the past is inherently limiting to human understanding -- then, surely, this has profound implications for the way we think about reality and about our existence within it. Perhaps, say many ordinary people, we should be listening to the mystics in our midst, if we wish to understand ourselves and our surroundings, rather than to those who profess to rely on reason and evidence. At the very least, according to this argument, we should be prepared to grant equal status to both the mystical and the scientific -- especially in the life sciences. To do less (we are told) is to reveal an arrogance and intolerance totally out of keeping with democratic ideals of freedom and pluralism in the arena of ideas. I intend to argue that the surface plausibility of the position outlined above is both misleading and dangerous to human progress. It is misleading for two reasons. It relies on an unwarranted leap of logic, as well as a misinterpretation of the principle of indeterminacy and of the chaos theory of modern particle physics. The illogicality of the mystics' conclusion results from their strange leap from a human perception of randomness in nature to a conclusion concerning arbitrary guidance and superhuman purpose housed in some sort of collective Intelligence or transcendental Mind. The second fallacy is due to a common misunderstanding concerning the nature of the randomness discussed by physicists: a misunderstanding stemming chiefly from a confusion of the various meanings of determined. Heisenberg was referring to our efforts at measurement -- not to the "essential" nature of the reality we seek to measure. The velocity and position of a particle are "indeterminate" in that (given our present conceptual and technical instruments) both cannot be accurately measured at one and the same time. This does not mean that these...
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