Physical and Spiritual
© Thomas J. McFarlane 1995

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

           -Albert Einstein [26]

Since the scientific revolution, experimental verification has been hailed as the touchstone of truth, and the remarkable success of the physical sciences has testified to the great importance of this principle. Religion, on the other hand, is often viewed as a dogma without any grounding in experience. Although this view of religion may be an accurate description of exoteric religion, it overlooks esoteric dimensions of religion and ignores the possibility of a spiritual science that, like physical science, is based on experimental verification.

The fundamental principle of any science, whether spiritual or physical, is the requirement that propositions be subject to independent experimental verification by trained practitioners. Science in the domain of the physical is physical science, and science in the domain of the spiritual is sacred science. In contrast to science, dogmatism makes claims to truth without requiring that they be subject to experimental verification, or even denying that experimental verification is possible. Dogmatism in the sphere of the spiritual is dogmatic religion, and dogmatism in the sphere of the physical is scientism.

PHYSICAL Physical Science Scientism
SPIRITUAL Sacred Science Dogmatic Religion

Dogmatism results from an epistemological error, i.e. a mistake about what is knowable. Dogmatic religion is characterized by the denial of direct spiritual knowledge. As a result, religious claims are based on a scripture whose ultimate validity can never be known. Ironically, the denial of the possibility of spiritual knowledge by dogmatic religions is contradicted by the very mystics who founded them. These mystics have all testified that there is, indeed, a faculty of spiritual knowledge that can be awakened.

"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 [27]

Dogmatic science, like dogmatic religion, also denies the possibility of direct spiritual knowledge. It asserts that the only true source of knowledge or experimental verification is the physical senses. Consequently, the only true science is physical science, i.e. science whose domain of experimental verification is limited to physical data. Ironically, this assertion that non-physical claims can not be verified and must therefore be rejected from science is itself a non-physical claim. If it is true, then this claim itself can not be verified and must be rejected from science. In other words, physical science, which is by definition limited to physically verifiable claims, becomes dogmatic by making claims about what is beyond the realm of the physically verifiable.

The dogmatic denial of spiritual knowledge inevitably leads to the dogmatic denial of spiritual realities as well. That such realities are not verifiable by sensory knowledge, however, does not in any way prove that they are not verifiable at all. As the Sufi poet Rumi reminds us, "The proof of the Sun is the Sun: if thou require the proof, do not avert thy face!"[28] Just because physics only studies the shadows on the wall of the cave, it is not justified in concluding that only the shadows exist.

Because true science requires verification, the possibility of a spiritual science rests on the existence of an organ of spiritual knowledge. In addition to the testimony of the mystics, the science of mathematics provides evidence of a non-physical form of knowledge. A mathematical theorem is verified by a mental examination of its logical coherence and consistency, and its truth is not in any way subject to agreement with sensory experience. The existence of mathematical science, therefore, establishes the possibility of other non-physical sciences whose propositions are verified by forms of knowledge other than physical.

The fact that spiritual knowledge is not active or highly developed in everyone does not imply that it can not form the basis for a science. The principle of scientific verification requires only that propositions must be verifiable by trained practitioners. Physicists must be trained for years to verify the esoteric propositions of high energy particle physics. Mathematicians must be trained for years to verify the abstract theorems of algebraic topology. So we should not object if monks must be trained for years to verify the subtle insights of Buddhist philosophy. As in any science, the practitioner must undergo years of discipline and training in order to understand and experimentally verify the propositions of the science. In principle, however, we all have the potential to verify the claims made by spiritual science, provided we awaken and train our faculty of spiritual discernment through appropriate disciplines.

The fact that a non-physical form of knowledge is private does not imply that it can not be subject to independent verification. Private knowledge can be universal intersubjective knowledge. For example, although mathematical knowledge is verified in a private insight, it is one of the most universally valid forms of knowledge we have. The truth of a theorem is not a matter of opinion and does not depend upon personal or even cultural conditioning. Mathematics, therefore, gives an excellent example of private knowledge that is nonetheless universal in nature.

It should be pointed out that even our perceptions of the physical world are ultimately private. Our knowledge of the physical world is highly individualized. Nonetheless, physical science, by subjecting our experiences to intersubjective agreement, trains us to isolate and abstract from these private experiences the universal aspects that are independent of the observer. In mathematics we are trained to discriminate between logical inferences that are universally true and those that are not. Similarly, spiritual science trains us to distinguish between the personal elements of spiritual experience and the universal elements by subjecting these experiences to independent verification.

Intersubjective agreement is a means for preventing the confusion of private insights of a personal nature with private insights of a universal nature. It is to address this difficulty that traditions rely upon a group of peers to validate personal experiences. For example, the recent proof of Fermat's last theorem by mathematician Andrew Wiles began as a personal insight in his consciousness. It was not generally accepted until it was validated by a group of qualified peers. Recent experimental evidence for the top quark was similarly subjected to review by qualified peers before it was accepted as valid. This peer review checks the experience or experiment against accepted methods of verification, proper use of relevant tools, and internal consistency. The same takes place in spiritual sciences where, for example, a spiritual master may validate (or not) the student's interpretation of an experience. Although this method of validation reduces the possibility of error in the interpretation of private experience, it does not eliminate the possibility of error entirely. This difficulty, however, is present in all sciences.

The fact that private non-physical knowledge can be shared is demonstrated by mathematics. Although the insight of the mathematician can only be expressed to others indirectly in symbols and words, if those symbols and words evoke a similar private insight in another person, the knowledge has been shared. Similarly, spiritual knowledge is transmitted and passed on down through generations of spiritual practitioners, each of whom verifies the teachings in private 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 spiritual knowledge is shared in sacred sciences through instructions to undertake specific practices. It is also the way mathematical knowledge is shared among mathematicians through instructions to follow the steps of a proof.

It is significant that, like mathematical knowledge, the transmission of spiritual knowledge is contingent on the development of certain abilities in the receiver. Indeed, many of the spiritual disciplines and practices taught by the mystical traditions of the world are designed specifically to develop these abilities. The transmission of spiritual knowledge, however, requires a much deeper development of abilities in the receiver than does physical or mathematical science. Consequently, it may appear that it is not possible to share or transmit spiritual knowledge when, in fact, it is merely much more difficult to do so.

"Religious blameworthy only when it usurps intelligence and opposes truth, and not when it prolongs the first and serves the second, this being its normal function." [29]

Because the transmission and communication of spiritual knowledge demands so much of the receiver, anyone who wishes to verify -- or even understand -- the claims of the mystics must commit to extensive training and discipline without certain knowledge of their validity. Spiritual science, therefore, requires faith. But it does not demand faith to the exclusion of truth or reason. Faith is merely a stepping stone to knowledge. Faith serves this essential role in the mathematical and physical sciences as well. The first step in the training of a physicist is to 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 verifying for oneself that the teachings are true. Then faith is replaced by knowledge. The understanding of faith in sacred science, therefore, is that any acceptance on faith is provisional only, and the truth of any hypothesis is always subject to experimental verification.

It is often pointed out that the statements made by mystics are contradictory. This is not, however, a phenomenon limited to sacred science. In physics, for example, there was a time when there were two contradictory theories of light. One theory claimed light is a particle that is localized in space. The other theory claimed light is a wave that is not localized in space. There were experiments to justify both positions, and the positions were clearly contradictory. This was a real crisis in physics. The open minded scientist who is interested in truth will not dismiss one position and defend the other, but rather seek a reconciliation of the two. It was this attitude that led to the development of quantum mechanics, which explains both the wave and particle experiments with one unified theory. Similarly, in sacred sciences, we should not reject contradictions but allow the tension to feed a creative insight into a deeper understanding.

Certain contradictions in spiritual traditions, however, are inevitable and irreducible. The mystics of all traditions have emphasized that the ultimate spiritual knowledge can not be represented in a logically consistent conceptual system. Short of this ultimate knowledge, however, there is the possibility of consistent conceptual representation of spiritual laws or principles. For example, in analogy to the physical law that to every action is an equal and opposite reaction, one may formulate a spiritual law of karma that as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

A spiritual law, like a law of physics, is a testable proposition that states a certain relationship between properties or states. Laws are generally invariant to the time, place, and person conducting the verification. Laws, however, are relative and not absolute. Recognizing the relative nature of laws often resolves apparent contradictions between them. For example, an important factor contributing to the contingent nature of a scientific law is its limit of applicability. Just as Newton's laws of motion are not valid on the quantum scale or at relativistic speeds, so the law of karma is valid only in a limited domain. Thus, even though the more general laws of relativity and quantum mechanics contradict the laws of classical physics in certain cases, they nevertheless agree in a certain limited domain.

In understanding the relationship between laws of differing degrees of generality, mathematical concepts are often useful. One such concept is the idea of dimensionality. The full Reality is like an infinite dimensional space. Subtle levels correspond to viewing Reality as it is projected into high dimensional spaces. Gross levels correspond to viewing Reality as it is projected into low dimensional spaces. There is a lot more distortion in the lower dimensional projection since more information is lost. Moreover, the full Reality can never be captured or described within a finite dimensional space. The act of projection is an ignorance of certain dimensions of Reality, and the result of the projection is a limited aspect of Reality. If one is unconscious that any projection is happening, then there is no knowledge of ignorance of the other dimensions and the projected reality is mistaken for the whole thing. If one becomes conscious of the act of projection, however, then the illusion is gone and one will never be fooled into thinking that a finite dimensional projection is anything more than a limited slice of the infinite dimensional Reality. There can be successive projections as well. The gross levels can be seen to arise from projections of subtle levels which are themselves projections of the infinite Reality. And there can be many different gross projections of the same subtle projection, just as there are many different ways to manifest an archetype. The number of possible low-dimensional projections is very large, and each arises from further limitations, restrictions, or acts of ignorance of certain dimensions of the high dimensional projections.

The degrees of generality of law can be illustrated by examples from physical laws. For example, Newton's universal law of gravity, F = G m1 m2 / r^2, is a more general law than the instance of that law as it applies to the gravity of the earth, F = mg. Applications of physical laws correspond to adding limitations and restrictions to those laws so that they apply to specific circumstances. They become more contingent and dependent and less universal and general. They contact particular phenomena and measurements in the gross, concrete world and leave behind the abstract generality of the universal law. Applying physics corresponds to tracing the process of creation of the world through the introduction of distinctions and limitations and ignorance of certain possibilities while focusing only on particular phenomena. Going in the opposite direction are the theoretical physicists who are reaching from the specific phenomena and limited equations to more general laws that are more universal and comprehensive. This is a connecting back to the more subtle levels of manifestation, a re-ligion in the etymological sense of the word. This is a very beautiful way of viewing physics that reveals its sacred component.

Outer space is within us inasmuch as the laws of space are within us; outer and inner space are the same. [30]

Physical and spiritual laws, in fact, are intimately related. 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. These correspond to the high-dimensional spaces in the spatial metaphor discussed above. 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. These forms are usually projected (in the psychological sense -- although this also alludes to the spatial metaphor) and experienced as objectively existing rather than as subjective preconditions of experience. 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. 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 objective in origin. 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 involve extremely deep psychological penetration. 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 subjective correlate to the objective physical laws. If they change, so will the world that is experienced. But this would correspond to very radical change, 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.