Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet

It is said that we live in an age of light, but it would be truer to say that we are living in an age of twilight; here and there a luminous ray pierces through the mists of darkness, but does not light to full clearness either our reason or our hearts. Men are not of one mind, scientists dispute, and where there is discord truth is not yet apprehended.

– From The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary, by Karl von Eckhartshausen

What is it about the pursuit of truth that leads to so many conflicts? Eckhartshausen was writing in the late 18th century, and yet his statement reads no less true after 300-some years of “progress.”

An opinionated conflict rages today as it did during the Enlightenment — highlighted in many public disputes, provoked by writers such as Richard Dawkins — over trivial matters that have already been settled and problems that have already been overcome by leading thinkers across the history of intellectual endeavor. Yet, at heart, anyone who honestly applies to a study of existence, including even Dawkins himself, cannot help being seduced beyond conflict by the beauty of life.

Jerry L. Martin, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, posted a quote from Richard Dawkins on his Facebook page that draws out this truth:

There’s poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.

To this Martin added a simple, appended question:

Is he right?

And I have to respond: certainly. Science is one of the most direct, beautiful, and complete means of accessing the glory of existence, a raw and unequaled poetry! However, this assertion comes with the caveat that it only true when viewed through a proper interpretation.

 

 

As many have pointed out, including figures within Dawkins’ own milieu, his idea of what science actually is seems quite crippled. We should carefully note that one of his “discoveries,” the fruit of his inquiry, has been termed “the selfish gene.”

An important aspect of being a public intellectual is the ability to project proper leadership, and to be humble in that task. Calling someone like Royal Astronomer Lord Martin Rees a “compliant Quisling” for his appreciation of spiritual traditions does not speak well of Dawkins’ ability to lead without bias. Science, if it is approached with the proper humility, can be so much more than gross refutation or a basis for proselytizing and propagandizing in favor of a personal belief.

Contrast, for instance, Dawkins’ public persona with that of another leading popular scientist, Michio Kaku. In the following clip, taken from a speech delivered at the 4th Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Kaku discusses the potential of scientific progress for changing our culture:

From the same conference, here is Jacques Vallee offering an equally inspiring vision of open-minded inquiry:

Vallee and Kaku are discussing one of the most “fringey” topics in current discourse, UFOlogy, and they are providing a vision for it that brings it out of the tabloid press and into the realm of human potential.  There is no scoffing in their presentations, no dreary effort at debunking, as they move past speculation on either side of the issue and open up the conversation to examining whatever the phenomenon in question may mean to the further progress of knowledge.

Kaku even cites Giordano Bruno, the late Medieval Hermeticist, as an inspiration. And he doesn’t spend time nitpicking Bruno’s philosophy by parsing it out and gloating over what he got wrong or justifying what he got right. Instead, Kaku takes the flame of inspiration that Bruno carried and uses it to spark a vital vision of future development.

Now let’s look at Randall Carlson, the visionary behind Sacred Geometry International, as he uses an almost identical language to discuss the exoteric principles behind the Hermetic Great Work:

The difference in Carlson’s approach is based on his specialty, sacred geometry, which takes the basic principles of mathematics and brings them into art, architecture, and human experience, where they can be used to shape society. Yet here, even with a different focus, the message is the same as Kaku’s and Vallee’s, as Carlson calls out our responsibility to work toward true progress for both society and the individual.

Our digital media allow us to move past being passive observers in this process. We are no longer allowed the safety of dinner-table discussions that can then be pushed aside with the dismissive descriptor of “solving all the world’s problems.” Our individual participation in a global society has become much more active, much more direct, and the opportunities to raise our awareness have never been more openly available.

“There is ultimately no difference between true Rosicrucians and true scientists. Science is observation, not inflammatory exposition, just as worship is a whisper of the devoted lover towards an illuminated infinity, not a degenerate dogmatism.”

At the center of this for each of us is our own personal, individual development. Dawkins’ flaw is his personality, his bitterness, the interior vision that led him to discover selfishness in a neutral biological process, and his inability to see past his own biases to glimpse the poetry of science that he verbally espouses. This is the same flaw that leads to ranting diatribes in the public comment fields of most heavily trafficked websites. As above, so below.

Jeanne Guesdon, S.R.C., the Former Grand Master of AMORC in France, discusses this tendency toward inner pollution via too much loud and empty talk in a wonderful article from 1978 titled “Inner Learning through the Power of Silence”:

The main trouble with today’s world is the lack of silence. Not only is contemporary society literally poisoned by the tumult of machines (including talking ones), but also — and especially — it is saturated with loud and empty words. It is a question of who will speak the loudest, who will make the most statements, who will tell his or her story with the most trifling details.

How correct was Kierkegaard, the great Scandinavian thinker, when he wrote: “The world in its present state is sick! If I were a doctor and was asked for advice, I would answer: ‘Be silent!'”

Yes, true Rosicrucians can be recognized by their oral temperance, among other virtues. They speak only sparingly, and the words they speak are rich in meaning. They practice the following advice from a Sufi teacher: “If the word you are going to speak is not more beautiful than silence, then do not say it!”

—  Jeanna Guesdon, “Inner Learning through the Power of Silence” (PDF), Rosicrucian Digest, Vol. 87, No. 1 (2009), reprinted from Rosicrucian Digest, December 1978

In the context of this important lesson, there is no difference between true Rosicrucians and true scientists. Science is observation, not inflammatory exposition, just as worship is a whisper of the devoted lover towards an illuminated infinity, not a degenerate dogmatism.

In the end, both paths meet in the truth of existence, and opinions fade before that smiling guardian, Death, whose gateway cannot be crossed with prejudice. As Eugene Canseliet writes in his 1929 preface to The Dwellings of the Philosophers:

And so, after having strayed from the correct path, modern science seeks to rejoin it, progressively adopting ancient concepts. Much like successive civilizations, human progress obeys the inescapable law of perpetual renewal. Though it be against all, Truth always triumphs, in spite of its slow, painful, and tortuous advance. Sooner or later common sense and simplicity gets the better of sophistry and prejudices. “For there is nothing”, the Gospel teaches, “which cannot be discovered and nothing so secret that it cannot be known”. (Matt.10:26).

Or as Lord Martin Rees stated in his address at TED :

If my research group had a logo, it would be . . . an ouroboros.

 

About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern Mythology.net, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on October 9, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. This is a thought-provoking article, but I wish you’d distinguished between science and scientism. Scientism is modern science’s main impact on culture, which is that scientific progress can compelled many secularists to worship science and those most empowered by scientific knowledge. Scientism is pragmatic Philistinism and a religious faith in the power of technoscience to solve all our problems and lift up our species to glory.

    So when you say that the trouble with Dawkins is his personality, I doubt that interpretation even though I too am not satisfied with Dawkins’ New Atheism. I suspect, instead, that Dawkins simply got corrupted by his power. Why has Dawkins’ become so popular and thus so influential? Because he’s an articulate spokesperson for a political movement that’s become a media sensation; he sells a lot of books and has many followers, and his celebrity has surely gotten to his head. This is the phenomenon of scientism, which in turn is just an example of tribalism. As Durkheim put it, we gather around whatever we hold to be sacred and we become equally irrational in defense of that totem and in opposition to whatever complementary profanity disgusts us. Devotees of scientism, like Dawkins and many New Atheists, sneer at superstition and irrationality because they consider these mental defects profane drags on sacred scientific progress. Thus, scientism is a self-undermining religious faith in the ideal of hyper-rationality.

    Now, as to your thesis that science and spirituality come together in their devotion to the truth, I have my doubts. I’m struck by the anti-cosmicism of Matt.10:26, which you quote with approval. Those who are optimistic about science’s ability to discover all truth have a totalistic, faith-based view of science. The cosmicist or mysterian is much more humble, betting on our eventual humiliation as a species rather than indulging in a grandiose vision of our cosmic position. This is the trouble with devotees of the paranormal and of New Age religions, which I’ll be writing about soon in my blog: their idols are unfit to be worshipped in the postmodern age. Scientific discoveries tend to crush delusions and undermine religious faith, because as far as we can tell, the Truth of where we stand as living creatures in nature is horrifying and grotesque.

    For example, the Buddhist has it just about right with regard to the nonexistence of the ego. The self is an illusion, a model that simplifies the brain’s access to itself, just as the brain models the outer world with its sense experience. (See The Self Illusion, by Bruce Wood and The Ego Tunnel, by Metzinger.) Like in the Matrix movies, our bodies put blinders on us so that we fulfill our biological function of participating in the absurd sexual mechanism that propagates the undead genes. In the movies, humans trapped in the matrix are batteries lying dormant so that their energy can empower the artificially intelligent machines. Modern biology, which so easily anthropomorphizes the genes–even as Dawkins does–vindicates the ancient Gnostic sense of our alienation. The genes are the artificially intelligent, which is to say the undead, machines that entrap us in the matrix of our illusory egos!

    Having slain the monotheist’s God, using technoscience to empower the masses, thus dethroning the religious symbol of monarchy, the secular humanist turns to the next best thing to worship: the Ego of Everyman. This cryptoreligious, scientistic aspect of secular culture is made ludicrous by the scientific discoveries of the alien inhumanity of physical processes and of the scope of the cosmos, and of the humiliating reality of human nature. Those discoveries are just as devastating, though, to optimistic postmodern religions that tend to endorse an escape into pseudoscientific conceits. In my view, the most viable religion needs to begin with cosmicism.

    • Excellent Ben, thank you for your astute comments!

      As you can tell by the piece, I was sweeping with a broad brush, so going into the details of scientism as a belief system, and the intricacies of that wasn’t something I was aiming for. You bring up a number of excellent points, so I’d like to go point by point here, as you’ve added some wonderful depth to my expressionist piece. Also, I’m very glad you mentioned the Cosmist and Mysterian positions, which have yet to really break ground in the American milieu.

      – “I suspect, instead, that Dawkins simply got corrupted by his power. Why has Dawkins’ become so popular and thus so influential? Because he’s an articulate spokesperson for a political movement that’s become a media sensation; he sells a lot of books and has many followers, and his celebrity has surely gotten to his head.”

      This is what I was briefly addressing with – “Science, if it is approached with the proper humility, can be so much more than gross refutation or a basis for proselytizing and propagandizing in favor of a personal belief.”

      – “I’m struck by the anti-cosmicism of Matt.10:26, which you quote with approval.”

      An interesting point, however I would agree with your further statement, which I think teases out additional interpretive potential for the quote from Matthew – “For example, the Buddhist has it just about right with regard to the nonexistence of the ego. The self is an illusion, a model that simplifies the brain’s access to itself, just as the brain models the outer world with its sense experience.”

      For Matt. 10:26 to be anti-cosmist we would have to assume a positive interpretation (which based on the current understanding of Christianity from an Evangelical/Fundamentalist/Catholic perspective makes sense) of the discovery that it mentions, and in that assume that we are coming from a standpoint of an individuated ‘self’ within the world. However in the context it was mentioned the interpretation is alchemical, and moves away from the personalized.

      – “Modern biology, which so easily anthropomorphizes the genes–even as Dawkins does–vindicates the ancient Gnostic sense of our alienation. The genes are the artificially intelligent, which is to say the undead, machines that entrap us in the matrix of our illusory egos!”

      I agree that our discoveries might alienate prior assumptions, however Gnosticism as refuted/interpreted by the Orthodox church is what holds this radical alienation, Gnosticism as evinced through the tradition of Theologia Negativa, Dzogchen, certain lineages of Kabbalah, Martinism, Shaivism, certain interpretations of Masonry, Chod meditation, Taoism and Western Alchemy, etc. doesn’t posit any negative implication to the loss of self.

      “the genes are artificially intelligent” – is there anything that is artificial? I can see how science may uproot superstitious beliefs of selfhood, but it is only through clinging to a prior belief or longing for that superstition, it seems to me, that we would have to say that what it reveals is mechanistic or empty.

      Which goes into your further point, “This cryptoreligious, scientistic aspect of secular culture is made ludicrous by the scientific discoveries of the alien inhumanity of physical processes and of the scope of the cosmos, and of the humiliating reality of human nature. Those discoveries are just as devastating, though, to optimistic postmodern religions that tend to endorse an escape into pseudoscientific conceits. In my view, the most viable religion needs to begin with cosmicism.”

      Again, I would have to say that there is nothing “alien” about the scientific revelations. Nor “inhuman” in the sense that we are what we are, which would mean that our illusory understanding of ourselves is the truly “inhuman” position. So it would seem that the reality of human nature is nothing humiliating to anything but our beloved illusions. Which is how the “cryptoreligious, scientistic aspect of secular culture” is destroyed by revelation, as much as that can seep in to our awareness.

      One of my favorite passages from Bruno (which also highlights the way in which Canseliet was quoting Matthew) –

      This truth is sought as a thing inaccessible, as an object not to be objectized, incomprehensible. But yet, to no one does it seem possible to see the sun, the universal Apollo, the absolute light through supreme and most excellent species; but only its shadow, its Diana, the world, the universe, nature, which is in things, light which is in the opacity of matter, that is to say, so far as it shines in darkness.

      Many then wander amongst the aforesaid paths of this deserted wood, very few are those who find the fountain of Diana. Many are content to hunt for wild beasts and things less elevated, and the greater number do not understand why, having spread their nets to the wind, they find their hands full of flies. Rare, I say, are the Actaeons to whom fate has granted the power of contemplating the nude Diana.

      — From Giordano Bruno, Gli Eroici Furori (The Heroic Furies), Trans. L. Williams

      So ultimately, we must rejoice as we are literally devoured by the truth (which brings us back to the Chod practice in which the devotee offers their body and soul to be devoured by hungry ghosts/demons/righteous dead/etc.)

      That’s one of the reasons I kept away from naming any movements, as ultimately those too fall away before the radical expression of what we are.

      In last week’s column I mentioned the final philosophical degree of the Ancient Scottish Rite, the XXVIII° Degree, of the Knight of the Sun, or Prince Adept, as espoused in the Francken Manuscript, which dates to the 18th century:

      (In working the Degree) the Initiated was asked about the meaning of the three “S”, which were set on top of three Candlesticks, without flames; the answer was this:

      “The three S (Sanctitas, Scientia et Sapientia) show that Wisdom united to Science, creates a Saint.”

      Q = “What do the words ‘Lux ex Tenebris’ mean?”
      A = “That we must escape from the depth of the darkness to reach true Light.”

      Q = “What do the three Candlesticks represent?”
      A = “The three degrees of the Fire that the artist arouses in order to obtain the matter from which they come from.”

      An important point to notice is that the candles are “without flames.”

  2. My apologies, but I must confess that I neglected to look at the name of this article’s author, and I presumed it was Matt Cardin. (That’s why I referred to my blog, since I’ve been sending him links by email.)

    Anyway, the big question here is about the identity of the self that’s separate from the illusory ego. For example, when I took up the Matrix metaphor and I said we’re confined by the brain’s model of the mind, that is, by a simplified picture of our mental processes which is the folk psychological conception of the self, what is this other self that’s so confined or misled? And when you say that “we are what we are, which would mean that our illusory understanding of ourselves is the truly ‘inhuman’ position,” what are you suggesting we actually are? The traditional spiritual answer is that we’re spiritual, immaterial beings, imprisoned by the body, but this is where I see spiritualism and science (as opposed to scientism) diverging.

    And this seems to be our disagreement, since I assume you’d point to scientific evidence which you think supports a dualistic or at least a metaphysically idealistic view of the self. By contrast, I interpret science as showing that we’re naturally selected animals, byproducts of cosmic processes that are forever alien and indifferent to our necessarily parochial concerns. I take your point that the most alienated person is the most ego-centric, since then you get the dichotomy between the self and the world, whereas a mystic who says all is one has no basis for distinguishing the self from the other. However, science doesn’t show that all is one. Even were there a grand unified theory of everything, explaining how everything follows from just one simple set of equations, this wouldn’t eliminate more fine-grained levels of explanation, such as the biological, psychological, or social levels, and these levels make all sorts of distinctions in their explanations of patterns within patterns. Those secondary and tertiary patterns, including the illusion of the ego, are just as real as the underlying physics; it’s just that when we understand them in context, our conception of them can change.

    So biologically, we’re compelled to think of ourselves in the simplified, illusory way, and what we are beyond that illusion isn’t a supernatural power, but rather another byproduct of evolution: we have the intelligence to know that we’re tricked by our genes and even to reason our way to the end of our rational comprehension. We can create our own higher self, then, in the existentialist sense of an authentic self, by coming to terms with reality and dealing creatively with that reality. The forces of nature are alien both to the ego and to that authentic self, though, because those forces, as explained by science, are impersonal and indifferent both to our vain delusions of grandeur and to our nobler, more aesthetically appealing aspirations.

    Moreover, the genes are artificially intelligent in that our anthropomorphic way of speaking about them is understandable but unjustified. Of course, the genes are impersonal, since they lack an equivalent of the cerebral cortex which gives us our self-control. But Dawkins’ point was that natural selection can be interpreted as operating mainly at the level of genes, in which case we become their vehicles, and this biological theory makes sense of much animal behaviour. There seems, then, a third category implicit in Darwinism, which corresponds to the unintelligent design of life: the natural forces responsible, including the genes and the environment, are neither alive nor dead; they’re undead and thus as horrifying to contemplate as a zombie. On the scientific view, though, all of nature is undead in that respect, including us. There are no immaterial spiritual essences animating matter, but neither is matter inert and uncreative; somehow, nature evolves more and more complex forms, and that’s the basis for a sort of ironic, postmodern pantheism. It’s why I call my blog “Rants Within the Undead God.”

    Anyway, I enjoy your writing–“worship is a whisper of the devoted lover towards an illuminated infinity” is especially nice–and I think we have some interesting agreements and disagreements.

    • I have to admit having stared too long into the Hericlitean flame & flux. : )

      “Even were there a grand unified theory of everything, explaining how everything follows from just one simple set of equations, this wouldn’t eliminate more fine-grained levels of explanation, such as the biological, psychological, or social levels, and these levels make all sorts of distinctions in their explanations of patterns within patterns. Those secondary and tertiary patterns, including the illusion of the ego, are just as real as the underlying physics; it’s just that when we understand them in context, our conception of them can change.”

      I think these individuated levels are in some ways analogous to the “devouring spirits” which the body is sacrificed to in the Chod ritual.

      As my friend David Chaim Smith puts it in his upcoming book, The Blazing Dew of Stars:

      “Invite god to his own dim funeral, and stand as priest to recite the final benediction. Gone,
      gone, gone is the reified absolute. In the space of absence is the true divine. And you, gone naked to the wildwood of phenomena, without a stitch to hide its radiant glory. Be gone to the ‘always beginning’, brave in the face of the inevitable.”

      I would agree with this, in some ways:

      “On the scientific view, though, all of nature is undead in that respect, including us. There are no immaterial spiritual essences animating matter, but neither is matter inert and uncreative; somehow, nature evolves more and more complex forms, and that’s the basis for a sort of ironic, postmodern pantheism.”

      However, I find no terror in that, the submission and sacrifice of oneself to that reality is the height of mysticism, that is what gets people like San Juan de la Cruz put in jail by the orthodoxy, or Suhrawardi and Mansur al-Hallaj executed for heresy.

      It also seems to me a mistake to consider antiquity, or even proper mysticism, as positing “spiritual essences” in the sense that we consider it today. I think it’s a problem of language, translation, and mis-use by sentimental would-be occultists and religionists that have caused that to get muddled.

      “I think we have some interesting agreements and disagreements.” – Me too! Thanks for the kind words on the article, very glad to engage in a deeper analysis of the points.

  3. Just chiming in for a moment to say I’m glad to see the two of you exchanging ideas and observations. I would have expected you to find much to talk about, and indeed, you have.

  4. Richard Dawkins belongs to the category that Rupert Sheldrake has aptly named “scientific priesthood.” One should not be surprised at his being so celebrated, as he belongs to the canon and is celebrated by it. The scientific priesthood favors dogmas in lieu of genuine scientific inquiry. From an aesthetic standpoint, its exponents present a very drab world, which is nothing but a figment of their impoverished imagination. I’ll try to elucidate by way of a parallel. Try to go to a sizable modernist building from the Fifties of Sixties. You look at it from different angles, then you walk inside it and all around it. In the end, you ask yourself: “What were they thinking?” Its arbitrariness, its ugliness are so flamboyant, they go beyond ugly and border on the demented. I find the same applies to the paltry ideas of the scientific priesthood. But they have the whole establishment to support and lionize them, much as architects did back in the modernist heyday. Give it a few decades and Richard Dawkins will be put in perspective, assuming anyone will still care to do so then.

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