Reconciling Science & Metaphysics: The Union Whose Time Has Come

Reconciling SCIENCE & METAPHYSICS: The Union Whose Time Has Come

According to the dictionary, the word "metaphysics" has two quite different meanings.

- The first meaning is a branch of philosophy comprising both ontology, dealing with the question "What is reality?", and epistemology, concerned with the question "How do you know?". (As one of our consultants wrote: "When the soprano sings `I know that my redeemer liveth...' the ontological question is `Who is your redeemer?' and the epistemological question is `How do you know?'")

- The second meaning is the study of the transcendent or supersensible, the contacting of the reality that lies "beyond the physical". This meaning, which has come down through the ages, is essentially the "perennial wisdom" of the world's spiritual traditions -- the kind of knowledge that comes from inward-looking disciplines like yoga and meditation.

We use both meanings in this article as we explore what Henri Bergson called "the much-desired union of science and metaphysics".

Scientific inquiry is set in the context of the activity, values and assumptions of science.( 1) An IONS-sponsored research project is examining the third aspect -- the adopted assumptions of science.

The activity of science. Creating, testing, and applying conceptual models is the chief activity of scientists. It is not unique to science; the main way in which little children learn about their environment is to create mental models and test them by experience. The uniqueness of scientific inquiry lies in the next two aspects.
The values of science. Chief distinguishing values are openness of inquiry, healthy skepticism, and public validation of knowledge.
The adopted assumptions of science. Modem science tends to be characterized by certain basic ontological and epistemological assumptions which are the result both of long-standing characteristics of Western culture and of the tension between science and the Church around the seventeenth century.
It is these adopted assumptions which tend to preclude any "union of science and metaphysics". Also it is here that our present form of science is most vulnerable to challenge.

Among the metaphysical assumptions which have been assumed intrinsic to modern science, the most important are

Objectivism: the assumption of an objective world which one can hold at a distance and study separately from oneself;

Positivism: the assumption that the real world is what is physically measurable; and

Reductionism: the assumption that we come to really understand a phenomenon through studying the behavior of its elemental parts (for example, fundamental particles).

By the middle of this century there was almost complete consensus that these are the proper foundational assumptions for science. These are essentially the assumptions of logical empiricism. They amount to the premise that the basic stuff of the universe is what physicists study, namely, matter and physical energy -- ultimately, "fundamental particles", their associated fields and interrelationships.

To be sure, these underlying assumptions have been modified with the advent of quantum physics. That modification has been much discussed( 2) and it would be presumptuous to think of adding significantly to that dialogue. I want to point, instead, to the possibility of an even more fundamental change -- change at the level of underlying metaphysics (first definition, page 5).

Underlying these (modified) classical assumptions is an ontological assumption of separateness: separability of observer from observed; of man from nature; of mind from matter; of science from religion; separateness of "fundamental particles" from one another; separability of the parts of a system or organism to understand how it "really" works; separateness of scientific disciplines and of investigators, competing over who was first discoverer.

The assumption of separateness leads to the hubris that humankind can pursue its own objectives as though the Earth and the other creatures were here for its benefit; to the myth of the "objective observer"; to reductionist explanations; to the ethic of competition. It implies the locality of causes, that is, it precludes "action at a distance", either in space or time.


A major Noetic Sciences research project, analyzing causal models in science, has identified a number of research findings which seem at odds with a metaphysical assumption of separation. Two areas are summarized below. A more complete discussion is available from IONS.( 3)

The Concept of the Self

The self constitutes a particularly challenging aspect of the consciousness puzzle. The conscious self is ineluctably involved in observation; yet the science constructed from those observations contains no place for the self. Psychologist Gordon Allport wrote in 1955, in a little volume entitled Becoming, "For two generations, psychologists have tried every conceivable way of accounting for the integration, organization and striving of the human person without having recourse to the postulate of a self." The issue remains controversial to this day. Consider the implications of the following:

- Research on the well-documented placebo effect implicitly assumes that there is a "self" which believes in the efficacy of the placebo.

- Research on subliminal perception, hypnosis, psychotherapy, and other areas reveals that there is a "hidden mind" ("unconscious processes") which basically does all the things the conscious mind does -- and possibly much more.

- Research on hypnosis reveals that there is within the human mind an "inner observer" which is not deceived by the suggestions of the hypnotist (or, presumably, by the "suggestions" from the person's cultural surround).

- Research in the area of psychic phenomena, although results are admittedly erratic and findings are controversial, seems to suggest that at some deep level our minds are interconnected in some nonphysical way.

- Research on creativity and intuition reveals that the capabilities of the "hidden" creative/intuitive mind appear to be influenced by beliefs and by the extent to which one trusts in and depends on that part of the mind. Thus we do not know what are its ultimate limitations (if any).

- Research on out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences seems to suggest that consciousness is something other than just physico-chemical processes in the brain.

- In research on "multiple personality disorder", the shift from one self to another may be accompanied by measurable physiological changes, suggesting that "personality" is a holistic, non-reducible concept that can have real effects in the world.

- In such cases of multiple personality there appears to be, in every case, one alternate personality which is different from the rest in that it claims to neither be born nor die, but to simply "be".

- Research on children's recollections of past lives seems to show that these can sometimes be successfully checked for veridicality, lending strength to some concept of reincarnation.( 5)

- There exists a great body of evidence, some meticulously gathered, that suggests that the personality in some sense survives the phenomenon of physical death, and may subsequently communicate back to living persons in various ways. Although science by and large ignores this evidence and its implications, to most who have chosen to look deeply into the subject, the amount and quality of the evidence are quite impressive.

- In studies of comparative religion it appears that, besides the many exoteric (public) forms, there is within any of the major traditions an esoteric or "inner circle" form, which is essentially the same for all traditions. This "perennial wisdom" seems to recommend an inner search involving some sort of meditative or yogic discipline, and discovery of and identification with, a "higher" or "true" Self.

The typical scientist at some point gets off this train of argument. But on what basis? This relates to the implicit metaphysical assumptions, as further discussed below.

Action at a Distance

Another persistent puzzle is that of "action at a distance" or non-local causality. This shows up especially in the far reaches of quantum physics and in the area of what John Beloff calls "meaningful coincidences"( 6), where "meaningful" may refer to the subjective judgment of the observer, or to a judgment based in historical data (as in the case of astrology or the I Ching). Use of this term is intended to include Carl Jung's "synchronicity"( 7) and most of the range of the "paranormal"; its advantage is that it does not imply any particular kind of explanatory conceptual framework.

Examples of "meaningful coincidences" include, for example, apparently "telepathic" communication, seemingly clairvoyant "remote viewing", and the "coincidence" between the act of prayer and the occurrence of the prayed-for, such as healing. Another example is the feeling of having a "guardian angel" when a person feels warned about a danger, or is provided with a particularly fortuitous circumstance in life. Other examples are in the area of "miracles" and "psychic phenomena".

The most common approach by scientists to "meaningful coincidence" has been to search for some kind of connection: There must be some kind of wave passing back and forth, or particle exchange. But the distinguishing feature of these phenomena is that they seem to exist whether or not there is any explanation for them.

The metaphysical assumption of separability led to a very puzzling question: How can physically separated objects, like the Earth and the moon, interact? In fact, Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation was initially attacked by critics because "action-ata-distance" seemed to amount to reviving the idea of "occult properties" which were presumably being left behind with the Middle Ages. The psychological uneasiness of imagining seemingly separate things interacting was relieved by invention of the gravitational field. We have by now gone through generations of scientists trying to make us comfortable with action-at-a-distance by postulating electric fields, magnetic fields, electromagnetic fields, morphogenic fields, and so on. These field concepts are mathematical devices that link things, and they are very useful where they fit.

Almost all of present science is based, at least implicitly, on this ontological assumption of separateness, and an epistemological assumption that all knowledge is based on physical sense data -- leading to this need to contrive "fields" to account for interactions between remote things.


These assumptions of science are typically taken to be inviolate, to be an inherent and ineluctable part of the definition of science. But the contrary suspicion is growing stronger, namely, that it is precisely here that the resolution of some of the most fundamental puzzles in science may lie.

Thus we could imagine a different and complementary science, based on different assumptions -- an ontological assumption of oneness, wholeness, interconnectedness of everything, and an epistemological assumption that we contact reality in not one but two ways. One of these is through physical sense data -- which form the basis of normal science. The other is through ourselves being part of the oneness -- through a deep "inner knowing". This is obviously a very basic and controversial issue, namely, whether our encountering of reality is limited to being aware of, and giving meaning to, the messages from our physical senses (sometimes referred to as "objective"), or whether it includes a subjective aspect in an intuitive, aesthetic, spiritual, noetic and mystical sense. (It should not escape our notice that an intuitive and aesthetic factor already enters into normal science in various ways -- for example, the aesthetic principle of "elegance"; the "principle of parsimony" in choosing between alternative explanations.)

The "Primordial Tradition"

If we were to take seriously the disclosure of an ontological and epistemological bias in Western science, it would lead to a very different attitude regarding what might be learned -- and how it might be learned -- from knowledge systems that start from a different perception of reality, such as Chinese medicine, Tibetan Buddhist psychology, or Native American interaction with nature.

The central finding of the study of comparative religion over the past half century or so has been that within any of the religious traditions there are typically various exoteric or public versions, and an "inner-circle", esoteric version. The latter tends to be more experiential and less sacerdotal, and usually involves some kind of meditative discipline or yoga. Although the exoteric versions may vary greatly from one another, and from one tradition to another, the esoteric versions are essentially the same. This "primordial tradition" or "perennial wisdom" is to be found in every religion and can be owned exclusively by none. "The Primordial Tradition is not merely an ancient system of belief and practice....It is, rather, a whole set of archetypical realities waiting to be discovered, at the highest reaches of the human consciousness, by all people."( 8)

The "perennial wisdom" tends to include convictions such as that Nature is directed from within by a higher intelligence or mind; that all minds in the universe are linked together by participation in one universal mind or source; that various mental or physical rituals can sometimes effect what they symbolize, or set the proper conditions in motion for the desired events or result to occur; that prayers, thoughts and mental projection might directly heal sick and diseased persons through the release of powerful, life-giving energies; that all individuals have a powerful, if hidden, motivation to discover and identify with a higher Self which is, in turn, in immediate connection to the universal mind. Since this "perennial wisdom" has been distilled from inquiry persisting over a far greater span of time than the duration of modern science, it can hardly be simply set aside as inconsequential.

Characteristics of a "Wholeness Science"

We have been led to the idea of a "wholeness science" complementing the very effective present science which is based on (a) an ontological assumption of separateness and (b) an epistemological assumption of physical sense data as the sole evidence on which the scientific picture of reality is to be based.

A proposed complementary science might, then, be built upon (a') an ontological assumption of oneness, wholeness, interconnectedness of everything, and (b') an epistemological choice to include "all the evidence".

By "all the evidence" we mean to include all of the following:

Those data admissible in the strict logical empiricism model -- namely measurements of physical parameters.
Data depending on the connoisseurship of expert judges, such as those on which systematic (taxonomic) biology is based.
Data which are essentially self-reports of subjective experience, obtained in an environment that promotes high levels of trust and candor, subjected to sophisticated skepticism because of our known capability for self-deception, and checked in other ways wherever possible.
The subjective self-reports of trained "inner explorers" of various cultures.
In none of these categories, of course, are data to be accepted without some sort of careful consensual validation.

(For further examination of a wholeness science, see the complete paper available from IONS.)( 3)


If science were to come to include a complementary body of knowledge based on the unitive or "wholeness" assumption, several important consequences can be postulated:

It would tend to foster different attitudes toward nature. We can imagine very different attitudes toward such issues as taking care of the environment; preserving species and habitat; avoiding irresponsible climate change, desertification, salination, etc.; raising animals for slaughtering; using animals in research, etc. This is not just a theoretical point; we have examples to look at. The worldview of the Native American Indian (and most other indigenous peoples as well) is just such a wholeness-based view, and the associated attitudes toward the Earth and our fellow creatures are there for anyone to observe. The Indians' relationship to their environment has proven to be sustainable over many centuries, which has not been true for most of the civilizations that have appeared throughout history.
It would result in science's being more sympathetic to, and more amenable to, research relating to "meaningful coincidences". Survey research discloses that most people are aware of these "coincidences" in their lives; they say they definitely do not feel like random events. These include, for example, the "coincidence" of feeling that a distant loved one is in danger, and then receiving a confirming report. Other types are sometimes described as paranormal or religious phenomena, "hunches" or "miracles".
It would tend to stimulate research in the entire spectrum of states of consciousness. These include "religious experiences"; experiences of "mystical" states of consciousness, of "other dimensions of reality". These experiences have been at the heart of all cultures, including our own. They have been among the main sources of the deepest value commitments. They cannot be ignored; yet modern science has denied their significance.
It would tend to foster a worldview supportive of the highest values of all societies. Such a worldview would contribute toward societal consensus with regard to central values, meanings, and purposes.
Resolving this issue of need for a "wholeness science" deserves to be a high-priority agenda for science. It should help achieve unity among the various sciences, and help resolve long-standing dichotomies and paradoxes of science (for example, mind versus matter; objective versus subjective; free will versus determinism). It could help science move toward paradigms that are rigorous and valid, and yet more in accord with the kind of wisdom we attain through life experience. It could clarify the relationship between science and values.

(1) Robert A. Rubenstein, Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., and John McManus (1984), Science as Cognitive Process: Toward an Empirical Philosophy of Science. University of Pennsylvania Press.

(2) David Bohm and F. David Peat (1987), Science, Order, and Creativity. Bantam Books. Werner Heisenberg (1958),Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. Harper & Row. Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne (1987), Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. C.G. Jung and W. Pauli (1955), The Interpretation and Nature of the Psyche. trans. R.F.C. Hull and P. Silz. Pantheon. Richard F. Kitchener, ed. (1988), The World View of Contemporary Physics: Does It Need a New Metaphysics? State University of New York Press. Eugene Wigner (1967), "Explaining Consciousness," Science, 156, 798-9.

(3) Willis Harman (1990), "Reconciling Science and Metaphysics". Complete paper, #PRS1S001, available from IONS for $4.00 (member), or $4.50 (non-member).

(4) Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh (1989), The Temple and the Lodge, page 145. Arcade Publishing.

(5) Ian Stevenson (1987), Children Who Remember Previous Lives. The University Press of Virginia.

(6) John Beloff (1977), "Psi Phenomena: Causal Versus Acausal Interpretation." Jour. Soc. Psychical Research vol. 49, no. 773; Sept. 1977.

(7) F. David Peat (1987), Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind. Bantam.

(8) John Rossner (1989), In Search of the Primordial Tradition. Llewellyn Publications.

Institute of Noetic Sciences.


By Willis W. Harman

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