On The Leading Edge Of Knowledge and Discovery
Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "Science and Religion," and
my guest, Dr. Willis Harman, is a member of the Board of Regents of the
University of California, a professor of engineering economic systems
Stanford University, and president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
Dr. Harman is the author of An Incomplete Guide to the Future
co-author of Higher Creativity.
know, science and religion have historically been thought
antagonistic, and even today the debate over evolution and creationism
still seems to be raging. Yet you seem to be pointing out that there's
another, opposite trend, which is the convergence of
and religion, the unification of these two seemingly vastly
HARMAN: I think
I think both trends are happening at the same time, and that's typical
when a society is going through a major change -- you have the old
still continuing, and you have a new one starting. Now, the religion
is part of the old trend is not the same as the religion that's part of
the new trend, and the science of the old trend is not the same as the
science of the new trend.
then, by distinguishing between what you might think of as the
religion, or the old-time religion, and the new-trend religion.
HARMAN: Well, there
a lot of differences. In the first place, there were a lot of
and I think what's emerging is one spirituality. And then some of the
at least, tended to put a lot of stress on what you believe, and seem
emphasize sin and guilt, whereas what's emerging seems to look upon sin
and guilt more as pathologies to be outgrown, and tend not to put so
emphasis on what you believe as on your experience, and encourage the
of the divine within. I guess that's another difference, too -- that
some of the old religious forms seem to put the emphasis on God out
somewhere, as contrasted with discovering the divine nature of
comfortable with the concept of new age religions, to describe this new
HARMAN: I feel
enough with the concept, but new age has so many meanings it's not a
useful term. New thought religions is a term that is a little bit more
precise, I think, these days -- that's the Church of Religious Science,
Unity, and things of that sort. I believe that's gotten to be a fairly
precisely defined term.
one thinks of the ecumenical movement, the attempt to find the common
that all religions share in common, one would move more and more in the
direction of these new thought religions.
HARMAN: Well, either
or move back to the esoteric, timeless core of all the spiritual
which is essentially the same thing.
Huxley called the perennial philosophy.
the perennial wisdom. The reason it's not been so obvious to us is
it has been esoteric for a number of reasons, one being that heresy
be hazardous to your health in certain eras, in certain times.
HARMAN: You can
tenure, or fail to get it.
distinction, then, between the old scientific viewpoint, which
somehow antagonistic to religion, and the new scientific approach,
which is not?
HARMAN: Well, I
a little harder, especially since the new science isn't really here
to nearly the same extent that the new thought churches are here. But
course the new science includes the old. It's really an expanded
And I think if you think back, we have had controversies within
quite apart from the science-versus-religion controversy -- determinism
versus free will, and vitalism in the life sciences, and various
as to how we come to be here, evolution, creationism, and so on.
how do you
deal with consciousness, or how do you deal with action at a
There have always been paradoxes, mysteries, in science.
HARMAN: I think there
are two new principles -- they're not new, but understanding the
of them is a little bit new -- that help us get a start here. One is
principle of complementarity, which emerged first in physics.
you think of light as having a wavelike nature, or you think of light
having a particle nature, those are not contradictory positions; those
common sense they would seem to be contradictory.
if you apply the same thing in science, a science which is
and a science which includes the concept of human consciousness as a
factor in the universe, would seem to be contradictory, but then we
to recognize that they are more complementary. The other
is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is to
that when you consider whole human beings, or a whole universe, you may
run into things that you can't really explain in a science which is
reductionistic and focused on studies of the parts.
that I have when you say, for example, that determinism and free
really complement each other in science, is that you have a larger
view of science that takes into account a deterministic level, and then
another level of human affairs, for example, where free will is part
parcel of that level.
HARMAN: Now here it
a little complicated, but here I think you have to have at least
levels in the extended science. One of them is the physical
sciences, more or less as we know them. Those are objectivist -- that
you can study them from the outside more or less. They're
they're positivistic -- that is, what you study is what you can
measure. Now a second level on top of that is the life
and there you have to introduce new concepts, teleological concepts.
have to be able to think in terms of a stomach not being just something
with a certain shape and a certain chemical composition, but it has a
It has the function of digesting food. So you bring in something new, a
sense of function.
function doesn't exist, then, in basic physics or chemistry.
HARMAN: No such
such thing in the physical sciences, yes. Now, at a third level you
into the human sciences, and you have to introduce something
still, which is human consciousness causes things to happen. And
no place for that in the deterministic physical sciences. Then there's
a fourth level, which I would call the spiritual
and we don't have very good representations of that yet, although some
of the Tibetan Buddhist psychological work certainly would qualify as
of that. There are certain things in the Gnostic tradition of
that would, and transpersonal psychology.
if one searches the great spiritual literatures of the world,
certain times and places there have been very precise and rigorous
which have been developed, such as the yoga sutras, for one, to deal
the laws of this realm.
and of course the way you verify things in that area is different from
the way you verify things in the physical sciences. We probably should
come back to that, because it's an important point. But that's been one
of the problems, is that there wasn't widespread understanding of how
do you validate knowledge. But another problem has been that these
things were essentially in different languages in different cultures,
I don't mean just language as we ordinarily consider it, but they were
out of totally different traditions, with what seemed to be different
a completely different paradigm or context.
HARMAN: Yes. So they
hard to compare, and it was hard for anybody to say, well, underneath
of that, there really does seem to be one thing -- one growing body of
knowledge that you add to, that accumulates just as knowledge in the
does. And yet, if you look back over the centuries, that would seem to
be so. There were even research laboratories, and recognized as such,
we didn't recognize it for a while because they were called monasteries.
a very interesting analogy.
HARMAN: It's not an
it's an observation -- that their particular field of study happened to
be the world of inner experience rather than the world of outer. But
went about it in very much the same way a scientist goes about the
of science. You build knowledge on knowledge on knowledge, out of
century, Wilhelm Wundt, the father of modern experimental
began using a method called introspection to deal with direct
and it's kind of been discarded by psychologists today, who felt that
experience wouldn't conform to the positivistic standards of a science.
But I guess what you're saying is people are now reexamining that,
at that anew.
HARMAN: I'm glad you
people, because it's not just scientists that we're examining. There's
a great heresy abroad, really, and it's ordinary, reasonably well
people who are doing something quite parallel to what happened in the
century with the scientific heresy. In the seventeenth century you had
a widening group of people who were saying, first quietly to one
and then finally out loud, "You know, there's something wrong with the
picture of reality that the church authorities have been giving us. It
doesn't correspond to our total experience." So then they leapt on
like the new theories of Copernicus and the observations of Galileo,
this spread very rapidly, and it spread among non-scientists as well as
we call the Age of Enlightenment.
HARMAN: We call it
specifically the scientific revolution; that was a part of the whole
And of course that marks the end of the Middle Ages, the beginning of
times. It changed everything.
at the same
time, amongst these thinkers, didn't they develop the concept of a natural
religion -- rather than being handed down through dogma, a religion
that one experienced by being attuned with nature?
HARMAN: I think
as nearly as I read history. But it was also true that about the same
there was a sort of division of territory between the scientists and
church. The scientists would look at the measurable outer world, and
church would keep the soul and the spirit. And so the natural religion
gradually got kind of pushed out. It wasn't really very scientific. And
so we developed these -- I would call them prejudices, and I don't mean
something disparaging by that -- certain kinds of bias that entered
the scientific inquiry -- the objectivist one, the positivist one, the
reductionist one. And so science took on a particular character. If
had developed in India first, it would have taken on a different
But it didn't; it developed in Western Europe. You know, getting back,
if I may, to science and religion, there's one important point that's
mentioning along with the things that we've talked about. You develop a
science, or you create a religion, or you get involved with one or the
other, because you want to understand things, you want to explain
And if you think of the hierarchy of physical sciences, life sciences,
human sciences, spiritual sciences, part of science's prejudice was
explanations that are scientific are sort of downward-looking
They're explanations in terms of how those atoms and molecules are
around in the electromagnetic field, or what kind of chemical juices
causing your behavior.
we want to explain psychology by resorting to biology, and explain
by resorting to chemistry, and explain chemistry by resorting to
the kind of downward, reductionistic explanation. And
came gradually to be thought of as the only valid kind of explanation,
certainly in academic scientific circles. Now, over in the religions,
had the other kind of explanation, the upward-looking
If I want to really understand you, I need to understand your spirit, I
really need to understand you in a God-permeated universe. And so I'm
looking in the other direction.
speaking we're talking about the difference between analysis and
HARMAN: I'm not sure
that fits or not, but maybe; I just haven't thought that much about it.
But at any rate, it's what used to be one of the many distinctions
science and religion. In the extended science I think you'll have both
of these things. In a certain sense, you see, they're both kinds of
that's why I staggered with that thought a little bit. But in one case
I'm analyzing in terms of a downward-looking cause -- what's the
and physics that's bringing about my behavior, say? In the other case,
I'm looking upward for the understanding. I want to explain in terms of
perhaps the level of human causation, conscious and unconscious
or perhaps the level of spiritual causation.
there's an event in somebody's life history that creates a biochemical
change in the body.
HARMAN: Yes, both
of explanation can go at the same time. And for that matter -- see, it
isn't that one is true and the other isn't. They're complementary;
both true at the same time.
forty years one of the revolutions I've noticed in science has been the
development of general systems theory and systems science, which
makes a basic point of the fact that the whole is really greater than
sum of the parts. That approach has really influenced almost every
HARMAN: A little
was a step; the general systems theory was a step. I think what we're
with is a giant leap now. But the important thing is that it is coming
not primarily from the scholars themselves, it's coming from a shift in
the culture -- people insisting that I have to validate my own
regardless of what the authorities say. And that's why it's another
in a certain sense. Whereas the scientific heresy was people saying the
world is not like the church authorities told us, and we have a new way
of looking at it -- we call it empirical science, or we did eventually
-- this heresy is saying the world isn't like the secular authorities
us either. Reality is not like any authorities tell us; reality
out of my own experience. But if I'm going to then represent that
best I can with some conceptual framework, we need some broader
than the ones in conventional science.
in a sense,
when we're talking about the unity or the synthesis of science and
this is a personal search that probably thousands of people out there
all engaged in simultaneously now; it's a groundswell of activity.
it. I'm sure it's five to ten percent of the population, at any rate,
has already shifted over to a totally different metaphysic. Now that's
not a majority by any means.
it may be
an influential minority.
HARMAN: It's not
influential minority, but it's a spreading one. There are a lot of
indications, too, that this thing is moving very rapidly.
of the research you were involved in at SRI International indicate that
there is an elite group of people -- the inner-directed people -- who
the leaders, the movers and shakers, who are really asking these
questions and developing these new metaphysics?
HARMAN: That's true.
early survey data that came up, that indicated this shift -- some was
a man named Daniel Yankelovich, and some was done at SRI, the so-called
VALS study, Values and Life Styles; and there were various other
But it all seemed to indicate that sometime between about the
and the early eighties, there suddenly came into being a group which
maybe as large as twenty percent of the adult population in the
that were living their lives on the basis of more inner-directed values
and less outer-directed, esteem-related values -- position in the
position in society, and so on. More inner-directed, ecological,
spiritual kinds of values. Now, I don't by any means think that all of
those people were really seeing reality differently, with a different
of metaphysical assumptions. But some fraction of them certainly are --
not just in this country, in any country I go to, even the Soviet
which is rather interesting, because there's a certain dogma that would
to a point you raised earlier, which is in the so-called spiritual
the notion of verification, and establishing a consensus view of what
is. How does that seem to work?
Interestingly, the spiritual
traditions have had a tradition of validating data in various ways,
just as the sciences have. But because it's a different kind of data,
a different kind of experience, the validation procedures had to be
You can't very well do a controlled experiment with spiritual
It doesn't work that way. But there were at least three tests that have
traditionally been used. That is, the person who wanted to do his own
in these terms, or move up in the priesthood, get involved with this,
encouraged -- just as you don't believe everything you see, because
are optical illusions, you don't believe everything you see inwardly.
don't believe everything that seems to be a vision. You don't believe
that seems like an inner voice.
to be a test, or a method of discernment.
HARMAN: And so one
tests was, how does this check with what other people have experienced,
down through the ages? In other words, how does this check with
Not really how does it check with church dogma in some rigid sort of
but how does it test out with regard to other people who have made
explorations and reported them? And then a second test is, how would
world be if everyone behaved in accordance with this great insight
got? Does it really work in society, in other words?
it were a
moral principle, for example.
HARMAN: If you got
that says, "God says I should do so and so," how would it be if
in the world followed that sort of precept? Then the third test is,
it still feel noetically true? Does it feel as though intuitively you
it's so, even though you can't demonstrate it? Does it still feel that
way? If it does now, does it feel that way tomorrow, or next week, next
month? So there is a tradition of testing, there is a tradition of
knowledge, and now we're finally getting to the point where we can open
up the concept of science to include all of that. Not very many
ago, really, that was a sort of taboo thing to try to do.
science itself -- science is not monolithic, there are a thousand
disciplines, and if one is attempting to verify some scientific
it really has to be verified and tested and reviewed by a small group
specialists in any particular scientific area. I would think in the
areas it's much that way. I look at Zen, yoga, the Sufi tradition, the
hasidic tradition, the Buddhist traditions. It seems me, Willis, as if
each of these traditions has been cultivating or nurturing very
states of consciousness, each different from the others. And through
often through twenty or thirty years of discipline, these states of
get passed down from generation to generation, and the verification of
the truths might almost be viewed as state-specific research -- a term
that Charlie Tart introduced.
HARMAN: Yes, I'm not
how different they really are. They may be more different in the
than they are in the experiencing. But it certainly is true that the
frameworks used are different from one tradition to the other. What I
you were also saying is true -- that in each tradition there is a
of connoisseurship. That is, the master can tell your level of
development. The reason he can tell it is because he's been there.
HARMAN: Well, he may
moved beyond that, but he at least knows that. So that's a big
between the level of the spiritual sciences and qualifying to be an
on the level of the physical sciences. You know, it's fairly cut and
how you become qualified as an expert in physics. It's a little bit
so in an area like systematic biology, because there's a lot of
that comes in there. How can you tell whether this plant is really a
species or not? You use a lot of intuition, a lot of pattern
It's another ball game. In the human sciences it's even more so -- how
do I recognize a personality trait? But in the spiritual sciences,
there's not only more connoisseurship involved, but also you have to
yourself to be changed internally. You have to undergo change in
to understand the concepts at that level, whereas in the physical
-- well, you undergo change of a sort, but it's more intellectual
This is a more total character change.
as if the
Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which says when you observe a
you change that particle, is really applied to the maximum in the
HARMAN: And in the
direction. It's as though you were in the physical laboratory and you
when you observe a particle, the particle changes the physicist. Except
you're not observing a particle, you're observing something that is
not only a whole, but wherever you're looking, you're always observing
yourself, at that level.
I referred to the different states of consciousness that each tradition
might cultivate, I was thinking of, for example, research that shows
the brain waves of meditators practicing yoga show a different pattern,
say, than the brain waves of advanced practitioners of Zen meditation.
HARMAN: So that
that certain traditions may seem to cherish certain states, or put more
emphasis on them.
It almost looked to me analogous to the various little disciplines that
exist within science. Do you see us moving to a point in history where
the so-called spiritual sciences will be integrated, synthesized with
science -- maybe even acknowledged, say, by the American Academy, or
Association for the Advancement of Science?
HARMAN: Well, those
always take a generation, for obvious reasons. Yes, I think we're
moving that way, because the power is coming from a cultural shift. I'm
not sure that given the structure of universities, divided up into
that there's very much force coming from the universities toward this
of unification. There's a lot of force coming from just ordinary people
changing and saying, "Look, it's one world, one experience. It doesn't
feel right to have it all carved up in little bits."
necessarily the type of discussion that would go on at meetings of the
Board of Regents.
HARMAN: Well, not in
meeting room. Maybe in the halls.
groundswell, and it keeps growing. You think it's really pushing us in
HARMAN: Yes, and
for feeling so certain of that is first of all, I've been tracking it
for about twenty years, and personally as well. We were not at all sure
of this when we first began to talk about it at SRI around 1969. Then
farther we went with it, and the more things we watched, the more clear
the pattern seemed to become. And then, in the last few years, there
just indications all over the map. But if you go back twenty years, who
was talking about near-death experiences? Who was talking about
Who was talking about karma? Not only were they not being talked about,
but there wasn't any sense that there was anything there to talk about.
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