Integral Science:
Toward a Comprehensive Science of Inner and Outer Experience

Thomas J. McFarlane

This article previously published as

McFarlane, Thomas J. (1996), 'Integral Science: Toward a Comprehensive Science of Inner and Outer Experience', Journal of the Western Regional Chapter of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association, 6 (2), pp. 4-15.


Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

-Albert Einstein[1]

Physical science has had a profound impact on both the material and spiritual conditions of life in the West. While on the one hand, physical science has improved the material conditions of life, on the other hand, it has undermined the spiritual traditions which were the foundation of our religious and moral values. As a result, we are materially rich, but spiritually bankrupt. And the consequences of this imbalance are profound. For example, although technology has given us an unprecedented power to change the outer world, we often exercise this power with no guidance from moral or spiritual values. Although we enjoy material comforts today more than ever before, we are no closer to finding enduring happiness. Although we have sophisticated scientific theories that explain subtle phenomena of the outer world, we know precious little about consciousness and its relationship to matter. Our knowledge and understanding of the outer world has developed to such an degree that it has overshadowed, ignored, or even denied knowledge of the inner realities. So there is a great need for a balance between our inner and outer knowledge, for an integration of spiritual wisdom and physical science.

A primary obstacle to the integration of inner and outer approaches to reality is the apparent incompatibility between, on the one hand, the ontology and epistemology of physical science and, on the other hand, those of the religious traditions. As they are commonly conceived, science and religion are indeed incompatible. But if properly understood and appropriately extended, they may be embraced within a framework that is at once true to their differences and yet comprehensive of both. This framework, which I call integral science, is based upon a generalization of the scientific method which includes both inner experience and outer experience within its domain. In addition to providing a context for the balancing of inner and outer experience, and for the reconciliation of spiritual traditions and physical science, integral science offers new perspectives on various problems such as the relationship between consciousness and the physical world and the measurement problem of quantum mechanics.

Inner and Outer Ontology

One of the primary points of difference between our common conception of science and that of religion is their claims about external reality. On the one hand, the scientific view of the world has long been dominated by a materialistic philosophy which takes matter as the fundamental reality and regards inner phenomena as mere epiphenomenon. The religious traditions, on the other hand, generally embrace an idealistic philosophy which takes God or spirit as fundamental and regards matter as derivative. In spite of the long history of this polar opposition, however, neither science nor religion can ultimately maintain either of these extremes.

The revolution of modern physics has unquestionably raised profound philosophical challenges to the common conception of science. In particular, quantum theory challenges the assumption that objects have an independent existence. Since mystics throughout the ages have made similar statements, here we have a hint of a deeper level at which physical science and the spiritual traditions may be integrated. Because the denial of the independent existence of objects is very radical, however, such an integration would likely be quite shocking. Indeed, quantum theory and the spiritual traditions have at least this much in common: they are shocking to anyone who really understands them.

Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.

-Niels Bohr[2]

The shock is, as it were, a discharge across the large psychological gap between what they say is true about the world and what we normally take to be true. On the one hand, the mystics make the outrageous claim that our belief in a real objective world is a delusion. Take, for example, the following statements by a Western and Eastern mystic, respectively:

Everything is of the nature of no thing.


For the wise, all "things" are wiped away and even the state of imagelessness ceases to exist.

-Lankavatara Sutra[4]

Since these claims seem to be in blatant contradiction with both our immediate experience and everything most of us were ever taught, our natural response is to dismiss them as ludicrous. For a typical modern Westerner, it is easy to dismiss the radical claims of a few isolated mystics. But it is not so easy to dismiss modern physicists, whose statements are often just as radical. Take, for example, the following words of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg:

An independent reality, in the ordinary physical sense, can neither be ascribed to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.

-Niels Bohr[5]

If one wants to give an accurate description of the elementary particle. . .the only thing which can be written down as description is a probability function. But then one sees that not even the quality of being. . .belongs to what is described.

-Werner Heisenberg[6]

These statements, like those of the mystics, fly in the face of our common assumption that objects have an independent reality, that they can accurately be described as existing even when we are not looking at them. Not only does this challenge our common sense, but it also challenges the materialist ontology that has dominated science for several hundred years. This radical challenge to our common-sense ideas of an independent objective reality should indeed shock us.

Our resistance to this shock is considerable because our experience, for the most part, conforms to the idea that there really is an objective world. Most of us take thousands of objects to be real every day and find that there is no contradiction with experience at all. Nevertheless, both the mystics and these physicists claim that if we examine our experience closely, we will find that the objective world does not exist the way we think it does.

If our common-sense idea of an objective world is wrong, why does it seem so right? Simply because our common-sense idea of the world is based on our limited experience. For example, the idea that the world is flat is consistent with our common everyday experiences, as is the idea that the sun orbits the earth. These models of reality fit almost all of our experience. It is only when we extend our experience to include subtle astronomical measurements that these world views are found to be false. Although they are valid in limited domains of experience, they are ultimately only useful fictions. So we should expect that as our experience expands, our common sense assumptions of reality will face ever more radical challenges. To quote Bohr and Heisenberg once more,

As our knowledge becomes wider, we must always be prepared. . .to expect alterations in the point of view best suited for the ordering of our experience.

-Niels Bohr[7]

The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word 'understanding'.

-Werner Heisenberg[8]

We should be very careful, therefore, not to assume that just because our present scientific world view fits our present experience, it will fit all future experience. As physical science expands to include more and more subtle phenomena of outer experience, it will force upon us ever more radical revolutions or paradigm shifts in our conceptions of the world. We may be required to give up even the idea of independent objective existence.

Inner and Outer Epistemology

Even though physical science may continue indefinitely to expand the range of outer experience it comprehends, this expansion still takes place only within a limited domain of experience, namely, the outer sensory domain. Consequently, the corresponding theories are only theories of the outer sensory world. With the epistemological boundaries of science restricted to the outer sensory domain, any claims science may make about inner experience, such as consciousness, are unverifiable. Thus, no matter how far physical science expands into the outer domain of sensory phenomena, no matter how sophisticated or elaborate its theories become, as long as its methods of verification are restricted to the outer sensory domain, it can never answer questions about the inner domain of experience, which includes, among other things, consciousness and the spiritual dimensions of experience. Thus, if there is any hope of attaining genuine verifiable knowledge of this inner domain of experience, we must be willing to extend the scientific method into other domains of experience as well, in particular, into the inner domain.

One of the most fundamental principles of modern science is the method of experimental verification. More specifically, this principle states that scientific propositions are subject to independent experimental verification by a community of trained practitioners. In addition, empirical science requires that the experimental verification take place within the domain of outer sensory experience. Prior to such experimental verification, propositions of science are considered to be merely hypothetical. In contrast to scientific systems, dogmatic systems contain pronouncements that are asserted as true without being subjected to experimental verification. Therefore, insofar as religious doctrines take the form of dogmatic assertions, religion is fundamentally opposed to the most fundamental principle of science. This opposition, however, is based upon the unnecessary restriction of scientific verification to outer sensory experience, and upon an ignorance of the esoteric or mystical aspects of spiritual traditions which question statements and test them against inner experience rather than accepting them on faith alone.

In contrast to the dogmatic religious institutions, the mystics of the spiritual traditions of the world have based their propositions upon direct and immediate inner experience. Moreover, they themselves emphasize that their teachings are not to be taken as dogma, but are to be taken as hypotheses to be verified in an inner experience or realization. As Shankara, the founder of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu Philosophy, said,

Erudition, well-articulated speech, a wealth of words, and skill in expounding the scriptures -- these things give pleasure to the learned, but they do not bring liberation. Study of the scriptures is fruitless as long as Brahman has not been experienced.[9]

Like physical scientists, the community of practitioners in various spiritual traditions have developed sophisticated theoretical frameworks and elaborate experimental procedures which may be used to test their claims. Perhaps the purest and most highly developed of these inner sciences is found in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. These schools have developed over more than a millennium an extensive array of meditative practices and techniques that are designed to lead the practitioner to specific insights. In addition, these experimental techniques are practiced in conjunction with the study and debate of refined theoretical systems.

It is a fundamental epistemological premise of these spiritual traditions that inner experience is a valid basis for obtaining knowledge of reality. This premise is supported both by the intersubjective agreement that is found within specific traditions, as well as by the agreement between traditions. Though their statements are variously inflected by their particular cultural contexts, there is a remarkable agreement among the mystics of different spiritual traditions.

The unanimous witness of the sages and the saints, over the whole surface of the globe and throughout the ages, is a sign or a criterion which no man of good faith can despise.

-Frithjof Schuon[10]

Thus, there is good reason to believe that there is a realm of inner experience that may be investigated by methods analogous to those used in the physical sciences. The most convincing and definitive evidence, perhaps, for a science of inner experience is the science of mathematics. Mathematical propositions are not verified or falsified by subjecting them to our outer experience. On the contrary, their truth is tested through the inner examination of their logical coherence by the community of trained mathematicians. The Pythagorean theorem, for example, is and will always be true regardless of any sensory experiences. Its truth depends only on the inner logical coherence of ideas, and anyone who assumes the assumptions and definitions of Euclidean geometry can verify that the Pythagorean theorem is a logical consequence. The existence of mathematics, therefore, demonstrates that at least a portion of inner experience is not necessarily private and that because this portion of inner experience is commonly accessible to a community of practitioners, an inner science is possible.

Since inner experience is not necessarily private experience, the distinction between inner and outer does not coincide with the distinction between private and public. The result is the division of experience into four regions, as shown in the following table.

Personal or Private Interpersonal or Public
Outer Domain Private Sensory Experience Outer, Physical Science
Inner Domain Private Mental and Emotional Experience Mathematics, Archetypes, Inner Science

Both the inner and outer domains of experience contain elements that are personal or private, and elements that are public or interpersonal. For example, our visual perceptions of the outer world are private insofar as the world appears to each of us from entirely different physical points of view. Actually, we all perceive different worlds. Nonetheless, societal conditioning and physical science, by subjecting our experiences to intersubjective agreement, train us to isolate and abstract from these private experiences the universal aspects that are independent of the observer. A similar process of abstraction takes place in the inner domain. In mathematics we are trained to discriminate between logical inferences that are universally true and those that are not. And spiritual practices train us to abstract the universal elements of spiritual experience from the personal elements by determining those that agree with the community of practitioners and those that do not.

Communication of Inner Experience

Mathematics demonstrates also that it is possible to share or communicate inner experience between people. For example, although the insight of the mathematician can only be expressed to others indirectly using symbols and words, if those symbols and words evoke a similar private insight in another person, the knowledge has been shared, and can thus be considered interpersonal rather than personal. Similarly, even though it is an inner experience, spiritual knowledge can be transmitted and passed between spiritual practitioners, each of whom verifies the knowledge in an inner experience.

The communication of inner knowledge is always indirect and evocative rather than direct and descriptive. For example, if a friend has never known the taste of a bran muffin, you can never -- no matter how many words you use to describe it -- give your friend real knowledge of that taste. What you can do, however, is give your friend a recipe describing how to make muffins. If your friend then follows the recipe, and tastes the muffins, the knowledge will be shared. This is analogous to how mathematical knowledge is shared among mathematicians through instructions to follow the steps of a proof. It is also the way spiritual knowledge is shared through instructions to undertake specific spiritual practices. In fact, if we examine our experience carefully, this is even how knowledge of the physical world is shared also.

It is significant that, like mathematical knowledge, the transmission or communication of spiritual knowledge is contingent on the development of certain abilities in the receiver. In fact, many of the spiritual disciplines and practices taught by the mystical traditions of the world are designed specifically to develop these abilities, and anyone who has not undergone such training will not be able to make sense of what many of the mystics say. This situation, however, is no different from the situation in mathematics where one must undergo years of training and mental discipline in order to be able to understand (not to mention verify) certain propositions. Consequently, while the statements of the mystics are not comprehensible to those untrained in spiritual disciplines, one mystic can communicate perfectly with another.

Because a prerequisite for comprehending spiritual knowledge involves extensive training and discipline without any advance certainty that the knowledge is valid, the practitioner must, in the beginning, have faith in the tradition. This faith, however, is not a substitute for knowledge, but a stepping stone to knowledge. It serves this essential role in the mathematical and physical sciences as well. The first step in the training of a physicist is to provisionally accept on faith the teachings of the physicists at the university. Only after years of training in the theories and experimental methods of physics is one capable of actually testing for oneself whether or not the teachings are true. Then faith is replaced by knowledge. The understanding of faith in integral science, therefore, is that any acceptance on faith is provisional only, and the truth of any hypothesis is always subject to experimental verification.

The Fundamentals of Integral Science

In view of the above, let us generalize the principle of scientific verification by relaxing the restriction that verification take place within the limited domain of outer sensory experience. The first fundamental principle of integral science, then, is

1. Propositions are subject to verification in the inner and/or outer domains of experience by a community of trained practitioners.

Since this extension of the epistemological basis of science embraces both the outer domain of physical science and the inner domain of spiritual traditions, it provides the foundation for an integral science that is comprehensive of both inner and outer experience.

Insofar as outer and inner domains of experience are merely two aspects of a single coherent field of experience, integral science is simply a science of experience, both inner and outer. It therefore has at its foundation no bias toward either subjective idealism or objective realism, toward the inner domain or the outer domain. Instead, it provides a common ground for both.

Since there has never been, and never will be, any experience or knowledge outside of consciousness, and since any scientific verification takes place in experience, the foundation of both inner and outer science is consciousness. Indeed, consciousness is the foundation of all knowledge, whether personal or public. Any assertion regarding anything outside of consciousness is, by definition, not accessible to any experience and, therefore, not verifiable. Since an assertion regarding anything outside of consciousness is not verifiable, it cannot be a proposition of science. We thus arrive at the second fundamental of integral science:

2. Scientific propositions are propositions about experiences within consciousness, i.e. within the pure space of awareness that contains all experience.

It should be emphasized that, although experiences are plural, consciousness is singular: there is only one space of awareness in which all experience arises. The singularity of consciousness, however, does not imply solipsism since consciousness is prior to the distinction between inner and outer, public and private. Since all of experience, objective and subjective alike, is permeated with consciousness, there is no basis for attributing or restricting consciousness to the inner domain while excluding it from the outer domain. Consequently, consciousness is not limited to inner experience any more than outer, is not limited to private experience any more than public, and not limited to subjective experience any more than objective. Since it is the ground of all these types of experience, it is equally present in them all. Consciousness, therefore, is a common ground or context for both the subjective world and the objective world, both the inner world and the outer world.

Within the framework of integral science, both the inner and outer worlds arise as interdependent fields of experience. When we imagine the distinction between inner and outer domains of experience, however, and further imagine that consciousness is restricted to the inner domain, then we are projecting an unconsciousness upon the outer world when it is, in fact, permeated with consciousness. Nevertheless, if we are successful in obscuring or ignoring this fact, then the outer world is experienced as something outside of and other than consciousness. If the outer world were truly other than consciousness, however, it would not be appearing in consciousness. Therefore, because the outer world is in consciousness, consciousness is not actually restricted to the inner world as we imagine.

Insofar as we restrict or obscure consciousness through this trick of the imagination, an outer world appears to us as containing independently existing objects. As both the mystics and quantum physicists tell us, however, this is a delusion. And this delusion arises from an ignorance of the unlimited nature of the space of awareness which contains all experience. In terms of quantum physics, the independent existence of objects arises in association with the projection of the state vector which transforms the system from a state of potentia to a state of actuality. Interestingly, this projection consists precisely in ignoring or obscuring certain components of the vector which were previously known to us. In other words, the state vector is projected not by consciousness (as many people have proposed), but by unconsciousness or ignorance. Moreover, since the obscuration of consciousness that creates the illusion of an objective world is not a real event but an imagination, it follows that the projection of the state vector is not a real event either. Here we have a novel perspective on the measurement problem of quantum mechanics that connects it at a deep level with the very process by which an unconscious objective world appears to arise within consciousness.

The framework of integral science also reveals a surprising and deep relationship between physical and spiritual laws. Because the inner and outer worlds arise in interdependence upon each other, there are, as it were, levels within the psyche that correspond to levels of physical manifestation. The deep levels contain invariants over very large classes of phenomena. At this level are subtle forms and archetypes that are common to all creatures by virtue of our common existence in this same physical universe. Through the act of obscuring consciousness, these inner forms are projected and experienced as objectively existing. At shallower levels within the psyche, there are invariants that correspond to more limited classes of phenomena, e.g., invariants that are shared among all humans, but that humans do not necessarily share with animals, plants, or inanimate forms of manifestation. These levels are also usually unconsciously projected and experienced as objectively existing. Thus we experience a shared human world as objective. Certain invariant forms at this level that are not projected will form the elements of our inner shared world. At even shallower levels are cultural conditionings and paradigms. These also condition our experience and are shared by large groups of people, but they are not common to all humans. Here we begin to enter the realm of what is normally considered personal since, unlike the deeper levels, one can, without extraordinary effort, become conscious of these levels, see their variation among humans, and withdraw the projection. At still shallower levels of the psyche are the more personal habits and conditionings that are often unconscious and projected, but can be made conscious with a little insight. These shallow levels are hardly invariant even in one human.

The levels of the psyche, therefore, get progressively more universal as they deepen, and because the deeper levels are invariant among larger and larger classes of manifestation, they are more difficult to consciously recognize and are consequently projected as being objectively real. So the laws of nature correspond to a deep level in this scheme -- much deeper than cultural levels of conditioning. Our conscious understanding or representation of these laws, however, are certainly influenced by our cultural conditioning. That conditioning, however, is merely the form in which the archetypes are represented, like the cultural inflections of the universal archetypes of mythology.

Although it is possible in principle to change the objective world by changing subjective preconditions of experience, this would likely involve extremely profound psychological penetration requiring years of meditative practice. More superficial changes in personal and cultural presuppositions can alter our experience in small ways (e.g. optical illusions) but do not affect physical laws, e.g., the rate of fall of objects. The levels of the psyche that go far deeper than the merely personal or cultural levels of conditioning are the inner correlate to the outer physical laws. If they change, so will the world that is experienced. But this would correspond to very radical psychological transformation, and it would not be accurate to even call such an experience human anymore.

As humans, we are by definition living in this particular world that has arisen in dependence on our characteristically human preconditions of experience. That being given, understanding the world means for us understanding the true nature of this particular world and this particular psyche. Superficial beliefs that are not in harmony with the human mode of existence naturally lead to conflict and confusion. So it is wise for anyone who desires harmony and clarity of understanding to understand the nature of this human world with minimal distortion from the more superficial levels of the mind. But this human mode of existence is not the only way a world can be, and is not the only way conscious experience can be structured. There are thousands of worlds with thousands of beings. The ways of consciousness are infinite, and we see here but a thin sliver of all that is possible.

The Limits of Theoretical Knowledge

Although integral science expands and harmonizes human knowledge, the ultimate truth cannot be grasped by a conceptual theory. As the seminal Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna puts it,

The ultimate truth transcends all definitions and descriptions, transcends all comments and disputations, transcends all words.


Any system of thought is limited in some way by the very nature of concepts which distinguish, define, and thereby implicitly limit and exclude. So no conceptual system is an all-inclusive theory of everything. As Gödel's theorem has demonstrated, any sufficiently complex axiomatic system of mathematical symbols cannot completely capture mathematical truth. Once we have expressed mathematics in a clear axiomatic system, it falls short of truth. This is not to say, however, that mathematical truth cannot be known at all. It is only to say that it cannot be completely represented in an axiomatic system. There is still the possibility open, which Gödel recognized, that mathematics can be known in a non-representational insight which is not constrained by the result of his theorem. Similarly, although the ultimate truth of the mystic cannot be completely represented in words, this does not imply that it cannot be known in a non-conceptual insight. Indeed, the mystics affirm that it can be so known.

By tracing the roots of any world back far enough, and freeing ourselves of the structures that limit us exclusively to one particular world of experience, we may recognize the common formless basis of the worlds that we previously saw as distinct. The ultimate recognition, however, is the recognition that the worlds of form are really no different from the formlessness out of which they arose.

At the beginning of the beginning, even nothing did not exist.


Worlds can be considered to arise through a process of division and obscuration within consciousness. If we begin with no distinction at all, then we are prior to thought. Indeed, we cannot consistently conceive of there being no distinction since in doing so we would be implicitly distinguishing non-distinction from distinction. Thus, at this ineffable point of ultimate simplicity and degeneracy, there is no difference between distinction and non-distinction, between subject and object, or between any opposites whatsoever. This is the true Absolute ground, where there is no difference between emptiness and form, between substance and void, between something and nothing. In the words of the mystics:

God dwells in the nothing-at-all that was prior to nothing, in the hidden Godhead of pure gnosis whereof no man durst speak.

-Meister Eckhart[13]

There is not Nirvana except where is Samsara, and no Samsara except where is Nirvana. All duality is falsely imagined.

-Lankavatara Sutra[14]

An understanding of God is not so much an approach towards something as towards nothing; and sacred ignorance teaches me that what seems nothing to the intellect is the incomprehensible Maximum.

-St. Nicholas of Cusa[15]

Although theoretical models, teachings and scriptures will always fall short of an exhaustive explanation of reality, they may help carry us upward through the levels of understanding toward a recognition of the Absolute ground, just as axiomatic systems of mathematics aid us in attaining non-conceptual insights into mathematics. Although these teachings may be inspired by a perfect recognition of the Absolute, they are nevertheless clothed in words and concepts, and consequently share in the imperfections of relative knowledge. They are pointers beyond themselves, symbolizing and urging us toward that which they cannot directly indicate. No matter how refined and subtle a theory or teaching, it inevitably falls short of perfectly reflecting the true Absolute. Nevertheless, they can be of great value so long as their relative status is kept in mind and they are not confused with the Absolute itself.

The levels of understanding and perspectives form a hierarchy graded by the degree to which they are conditioned. Some views near the top of the hierarchy are very subtle and reflect the Absolute with a high degree of purity, while other views are more restricted and give a more distorted reflection of the Absolute. Thus, relatively speaking, the higher levels are endowed with more truth, value, and reality than the lower levels. As conditions and limitations are superimposed upon the Absolute, its true nature is progressively veiled or obscured as one descends down the levels of the hierarchy. The ascent is thus characterized by removing the limitations and conditions to reveal the Absolute in its purity.

Although the gateway to the Absolute is at the top of the hierarchy, the Absolute itself transcends the hierarchy. At the same time, the Absolute is immanent in every level of the hierarchy. Like space, it both transcends the boundaries defined by objects within it and is immanent in all objects. Thus, in the relative view, the path to the Absolute is upward through the hierarchy by purification. Yet the ultimate truth is that the Absolute comprehends the hierarchy in its entirety, Thus, one does not reach the Absolute by rising up the hierarchy, but by realizing that the hierarchy is the Absolute and there is therefore nowhere to go -- you already are the Absolute.

End Notes

[1]Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 46
[2]Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond, p. 206
[3]Parmenides, cited in Whitall N. Perry, A Treasury of Traditional Wisdom, p. 789
[4]D. Goddard, A Buddhist Bible, Beacon Press, 1970, p. 302
[5]Niels Bohr, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, Vol. I, Ox Bow, 1987, p.54
[6]Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, Harper, 1962, p.70
[7]Niels Bohr, The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr, p. 1
[8]Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p. 201
[9]Shankara, Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, Vedanta Press, 1978, p. 41.
[10]Frithjof Schuon, Logic and Transcendence, p. 66.
[11]K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna's Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, 1966, p. 272
[12]Perry, p. 26
[13]Perry, p. 41
[14]Goddard, p. 292
[15]Perry, p. 723