Ever since Francis Bacon, progress in science has resulted in an accompanying change in philosophy to explain the world and our place in it. The unfortunate result of relying strictly on science to interpret life has led to the creation of a mechanistic view of the universe and humanity itself. Today’s materialistic philosophy permeates our culture and is unquestionably reflected throughout society and its institutions. This philosophy does not mirror life. The materialistic world view is based on a conception of life that has outlived its time but never ceases to burden the upward evolution of humanity.
Here is my brief explanation of the philosophy of materialism. Nothing exists apart from matter. Having pointed its telescope to the heavens, it saw no God; having examined the body, it found no soul. Ipso facto, there is no soul; there is no God. Science defines reality and knowledge; nothing exists beyond its boundaries. The materialistic view dispensed with the mystery and sacredness of life and with it, man’s connectedness with the living cosmos of which he is an integral part. It segregated belief from knowledge. In this view, traditional religious concepts are the irrelevant myths of civilization’s childhood. Ultimate meaning is nonexistent. God is a subconscious projection. A new creation story was born, “In the beginning, there was a big bang” …and the supramundane echoes of eternity faded away into the empty nothingness of endless space.
Richard Tarnas points out the extraordinary irony and soullessness of the materialistic world view, “…just when the modern mind believes it has most fully purified itself from any anthropomorphic projections, when it actively construes the world as unconscious, mechanistic, and impersonal, it is just then that the world is most completely a selective construct of the human mind. The human mind has abstracted from the whole (Cosmos) all conscious intelligence and purpose and meaning, and claimed these exclusively for itself, and then projected onto the world a machine. As Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out, this is the ultimate anthropomorphic projection: a man made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature.”
The philosophy of materialism traces its origins as far back as Greece, to Democritus in particular. However, it was the extraordinary successes of the natural sciences during the modern period, the belief in unlimited progress fashioned by the rational mind that led to its preeminence. Its sphere of influence came to encompass the whole of world affairs.
Its tragic legacy is found in the rubble of the Twentieth Century. In the midst of war Winston Churchill expressed the fear in the minds of many, the possibility that humanity could “…sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
The materialistic worldview was the common denominator of social Darwinism, eugenics, social engineering, and the rise of the totalitarian state, all under the promise of a brighter future and always and ever projected from the top downward. The faith expressed in the flawed theories and assumptions of such icons as Darwin, Marx and Freud have been misplaced but the idolatry of science remains. The past is prologue but the past also cries out its own prophecies and warnings.
The pervasiveness of materialism is so ubiquitous that we don’t see its darkening, gray hues as the backdrop of our unconscious assumptions and attitudes about what we believe to be the nature of things. We don’t notice the noxious vapors simply because we have become accustomed to them and remain mostly unaware of its effects in our organizations, institutions and communities. Childhood education provides just one descriptive illustration.
John Dewey, whose philosophy informs present day educational practice, wrote in the spirit of scientific socialism. “Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is interdependent.” (Think about that for a minute. Think of the life-denying arrogance of that statement.) Besides mounting concern for the well documented psychological and social indoctrination that takes place within our schools, (which is at variance with our traditional values) is the nature the public school’s archaic organizational structure which reinforces it. Peter Senge observes the following:
“Students sit passively in separate classrooms. Everything is coordinated by a predetermined plan, with bells and whistles marking time, and tests and grades to keep things moving like one giant assembly line. Indeed, it was the assembly line that inspired the industrial-age school design, with the aim of producing a uniform, standardized product as efficiently as possible. Though the need to encourage thoughtful, knowledgeable, compassionate citizens in the twenty-first century differs profoundly from the need to train factory workers in the nineteenth century, the industrial-age school continues to expand, largely unaffected by new realities. As long as our thinking is governed by habit – notably by industrial, “machine age” concepts such as control, predictability, standardization, and “faster is better” – we will continue to re-create institutions as they have been, despite their increasing disharmony with the larger world.”
The final coup de gras is the medication of the “maladapted child.” Rather than change the system, we will drug the child. (Statistically, it is the boys that suffer most.) The free spirit of the every-child is entombed in the sarcophagus of our system of compulsory miseducation. Whose death mask should adorn the coffin lid? The adventurous, happy-go-lucky Huckleberry Finn? The young and brilliant Albert Einstein?
Underlying the dogma and fundamentalism of the materialistic perspective lays an unseen specter. “Nihilism stands at the door,” wrote Nietzsche. “Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?” I will answer: from the ideological preserve of materialism and the custodians of the soulless society, self-appointed engineers whose unconscionable arrogance, nonaccountability and irresistible will for power and control has inevitably, historically, led to the decline of culture, the loss of individual freedom and the suffocation of the human spirit. (More on this in future articles)
I am not just speaking here of the all too familiar line up that would include Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, et al. I am speaking of the long forgotten intellectuals of the 19th century whose vision for society created the milieu that gave birth to and provided the philosophical justification for the totalitarian state. More to the point, I am talking about intellectuals and power brokers today whose vision is shaping our world and our future. We need to beware of our own role and complicity in its creation and acquiescing to the next tyranny of “good intentions” imposed from above.
Where do we stand today? All talk of social progress is belied by the loss of grace, beauty and light in our culture, in our arts and in everyday discourse. This need not be.
Life will not be denied– a revolution is afoot. New discoveries in science such as theories of the holonomic universe, quantum theory, morphogenetic fields, dissipative structures, the participatory universe, systems theory, chaos theory etc. are challenging the materialistic perspective and inspiring new ways of thinking. Every field of human endeavor at the beginning of the 21st Century seems to be freeing itself from the strictures of materialism. It now appears that physics describes the world, in Sir James Jean’s words, not so much a great machine as a great thought.
What is doubly extraordinary is that today, leading thinkers in the field of organizational and social change are not only taking into account the implications of the new discoveries of science but are also moving into the area of Eastern teachings to form a deeper understanding of communities and consciousness. For instance, one may find titles such as Leadership and the New Science side by side with The Diamond Cutter.
As an example of Eastern thought merging with science to help us better understand the nature of community, I would cite Peter Senge, Joeseph Jaworski, Otto Scharmer and Betty Sue Flowers who wrote a book which I highly recommend, Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. They write that to understand community, it is important to understand the nature of the whole and how parts and wholes are interrelated, that each contains the other within itself; to effect one is to effect both. Community is not like a machine but a living system, a higher form of sentient life. They write:
“One of the most important books in Mahayana Buddhist tradition is The Awakening of Faith. Written in or about 500 AD, it provided a crucial bridge in bringing Buddhist philosophy and practice from India to China and hence, throughout the Asian cultures. The faith of which the book speaks is a deep conviction that enlightenment is possible, that we each carry within ourselves immense possibilities for connecting to the universe and participating in its generative process. In more religious terms, you could say the book’s aim is to show that the infinite or absolute and the phenomenal, God and man are inseparable and that we have the potential to co-create our realities. But to do so we must first transcend the myth of separation that modern culture has taught us—separation from one another, from our higher selves, and the regenerative processes of nature. Awakening our faith that the future can be different from the past will take nothing less than rediscovering our place and that of our [communities] in life’s continual unfolding.”
It has taken about five hundred years for mankind to arrive at the place of autonomy and isolation to finally admit and yield to the possibility of the oneness of all life and heals humanity’s debilitating sense of insignificance and cosmological estrangement. Science has been the dominant thread in the weaving of our cultural fabric but it has created its own myth and worldview and it has required science itself to break many of the dogmatic cultural assertions made on its behalf by materialism. We are indebted to those whose work has begun to collapse the foundational basis of the old order and its confining worldview. Yet, I don’t think we need science to validate the higher evolution of society. Einstein was leery of “the present fashions of applying the axioms of physical science to human life.” and I am too.
Ken Wilber put it succinctly. “Physics deals with the world of form, and mysticism deals with the formless. Both are important, but they cannot be equated. Physics can be learned by the study of facts and mathematics, but mysticism can only be learned by a profound change in consciousness. To confuse these two is to misunderstand and distort both science and spirituality.”
For too long spirituality has been segregated and marginalized in any discussion of societal change and evolution, notwithstanding the fact that every civilization that has come into existence rose on a religious theme. Huston Smith wrote, “We have dropped Transcendence not because we have discovered something that proves it nonexistent. We have merely lowered our gaze.” Perhaps we should look at science and religion in a new light. Properly positioned in relationship with one another, they are as twin pillars of progressive revelation; divested of all dogmatism they will provide light on the path. But science is objective; it is neutral; it does not have consciousness and cannot provide moral judgments. I believe our founding faith traditions, guided by an awakened and genuine spirituality, will provide the best guide in creating a better world.
World change will not come from the top down but from the bottom up or rather from the within to the without. It is entrusted to us. Our communities will be where change must begin. Community is the gateway to the future. Perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is not so much what we do or how we do it but as Otto Sharmer says, “…who we are and the inner place or source from which we operate, both individually and collectively.” When that inner source is the heart, when we allow our higher Self to act, when we seek to be in harmony with the eternal, immutable laws of the Spirit that both govern Cosmos and guide our soul, we will then be able to make the jump into the quantum future with grace.