A Changing Worldview

Willis W. Harman
Institute of Noetic Sciences, Sausalito, California

One of the most important aspects of these forces for change is the apparent emergence of a new worldview… On the other, there are many indications of the possible emergence of a trans-modern picture of reality differing both from the scientific worldview and the traditional religious worldview.

This emerging trans-modern worldview, involves a shift in the locus of authority from external to “inner knowing.” It has basically turned away from the older scientific view that ultimate reality is “fundamental particles,” and trusts perceptions of the wholeness and spiritual aspect of organisms, ecosystems, Gaia and Cosmos. This implies a spiritual reality, and ultimate trust in the authority of the whole. It amounts to a reconciliation of scientific inquiry with the perennial wisdom at the core of the world’s spiritual traditions. It continues to involve a confidence in scientific inquiry, but an inquiry whose metaphysical base has shifted from the reductionist, objectivist, positivist base of 19th- and 20th-century science to a more holistic and transcendental metaphysical foundation.

The modern worldview is based on Western science which, in terms of its goals of prediction, control, and generation of manipulative technologies, is amazingly successful. Nevertheless, it is an artifact of Western culture and it does have its limitations. The core of the current challenge to the scientific worldview can be taken to be “consciousness,” which has come to be a code word for a wide range of human experience, including conscious awareness or subjectivity, intentionality, selective attention, intuition, creativity, relationship of mind to healing, spiritual sensibility, and a range of anomalous experience and phenomena. Efforts toward incorporating within the scientific purview any or all of this territory has proven to be an extremely difficult task.

The fundamental reason for this difficulty appears to be that Western science has been caught in a basic dualistic trap that of considering the subject doing the mapping as separate from the map.Getting a more accurate map (more based on modern physics, more “holistic”, more “systems”) will not solve this problem. Rather, we must realize that thoughts are not merely a reflection on reality, but are also a movement of that reality itself. The mapmaker, the self, the thinking and knowing subject, is actually a product and a performance of that which it seeks to know and represent.

Modern Western science fundamentally entails three important metaphysical assumptions: a. Realism (ontological-leads to epistemological conclusion). There is a real world which is, in essence, physically measurable (positivism). We are embedded in that world, follow its laws, and have evolved from an ancient origin. Mind or consciousness evolved within that world; the world pre-existed before its appearance, and continues to exist and persist independent of consciousness. b. Objectivism (epistemological and ontological) That real world exists independently of mind, and can be studied as object. That is, it is accessible to sense perception and can be intersubjectively observed and validated. c. Reductionism (epistemological). That real world is described by the laws of physics, which apply everywhere. The essence of the scientific endeavor is to provide explanations for complex phenomena in terms of the characteristics of, and interactions among, their component parts.

These underlying assumptions are directly challenged by a wide range of data regarding “anomalous” phenomena, and by a wide range of human experience. The critical epistemological issue is whether we humans have basically one way of contacting Reality (namely, through the physical senses) or two (the second being the deep intuition). The importance of the issue shows up in a central ontological question namely whether consciousness is caused (by physiological processes in the brain, which in turn are consequences of the long evolutionary process) or causal (in the sense that consciousness is not only a causal factor in present phenomena, but also a causal factor throughout the entire evolutionary process). Western scientific method urges toward the former choice in both cases, whereas the phenomena of consciousness suggest the latter choice in both cases.

A step toward resolving this long-standing impasse may be the recognition that it is, in a sense, a historical accident that physics was taken to be the root science. That led naturally enough to such ideas as seeking objectivity through separating observer and observed; taking reality to be essentially that which can be physically measured; and seeking explanations of the whole in terms of understanding the parts.

But what if the study of living systems had been taken to be the root science, rather than physics? Had this been the case, science would undoubtedly have taken a more holistic turn. It would have recognized that wholes are self-evidently more than the sum of their parts, and would have adopted an epistemology more congenial to living organisms. It might well have adopted a different ontological stance in viewing reality.

Such an alternative ontological stance is proposed by American philosopher Ken Wilber (1996; based on earlier work by Arthur Koestler), that of considering reality as composed of “holons,” each of which is a whole and simultaneously a part of some other whole-“holons within holons.” (For example, atom-molecule-organelle-cell-tissue-organ-organism-society-biosphere.) Holons at the same time display agency, the capacity to maintain their own wholeness, even as they are also parts of other wholes. A holon can break up into other holons. But every holon also has the tendency to come together with others in the emergence of creative and novel holons. Evolution is a profoundly self-transcending process: It has an utterly amazing capacity to go beyond what went before. The drive to self-transcendence is built into the very fabric of the universe. The self-transcending drive produces life out of matter, and consciousness out of life.

Holons relate “holarchically.” (This term seems advisable because “hierarchy” has a bad name, mainly because people confuse natural hierarchy [inescapable] with dominator hierarchy [pathological].) Thus cell-holons are parts of organ-holons, which in turn are parts of organism-holons, which are parts of community-holons. For any particular holon, functions and purposes come from the next level up in the holarchy; capabilities depend upon the next level down. Within such a representation of the global system, let us now explore how goals are achieved and problems get resolved.

In the holarchic picture of reality, the scientist-holon seeking to understand consciousness is in an intermediate position. Looking downward in the holarchy (or to the same level, in the social sciences), and exploring in a scientific spirit of inquiry, it is immediately obvious that the appropriate epistemology is a participative one. That is, it recognizes that understanding comes, not alone from being detached, objective, analytical, coldly clinical, but also from cooperating with or identifying with the observed, and experiencing it subjectively.This implies a real partnership between the researcher and the phenomenon, individual or culture being researched; an attitude of “exploring together” and sharing understandings.

Looking upward in the holarchy, it is apparent that the appropriate epistemology involves a holistic view in which the parts are understood through the whole. This epistemology will recognize the importance of subjective and cultural meanings in all human experience, including experiences-such as some religious or interpersonal experiences-that seem particularly rich in meaning even though they may be ineffable. In a holistic view, such meaningful experiences will not be explained away by reducing them to combinations of simpler experiences or to physiological or biochemical events. Rather, in a holistic approach, the meanings of experiences may be understood by discovering their interconnections with other meaningful experiences.

If this ontological stance is accepted, a good many seemingly opposing views in Western thought become reconciled. From the level of the human-holon, the scientist looks mainly downward in the holarchy; the mystic looks mainly upward. Science and religion are potentially two complementary but entirely congenial views; each needs the other for more completeness. In Western philosophy there have been three main ontological positions: the materialist-realist, the dualist, and the idealist. Again, the materialist looks downward, the idealist upward, and the dualist tries to reconcile fragments of the two-but all represent but partial glimpses of the holarchic whole.

This new ontological stance takes some living with to fully appreciate how successfully it resolves many of the time-honored puzzles of Western philosophythe mind-body problem, for example, and free will versus determinism. Since everything is part of the one holarchy, if consciousness or purpose is found anywhere (such as at the level of the scientist-holon), it is by that fact characteristic of the whole. It can neither be ruled out at the level of the microorganism, nor the level of the Earth, or Gaia. Nor need we be nonplussed by evidence of anomalous phenomena and experiences that don’t fit with a materialist, reductionist ontology.

As within the presently dominant concept of science, the epistemology implied by this ontological stance will insist on open inquiry and public (intersubjective) validation of knowledge; at the same time, it will recognize that these goals may, at any given time, be met only incompletely. Taking into account how both individual and collective perceptions are affected by unconsciously held beliefs and expectations, the limitations of intersubjective agreement are apparent.

This epistemology will be “radically empirical” (in the sense urged by William James, 1912) in that it will be phenomenological or experiential in a broad sense (that is, it will include subjective experience as primary data, rather than being essentially limited to physical-sense data) and it will address the totality of human experience (in other words, no reported phenomena will be written off because they “violate known scientific laws”). Thus, consciousness is not a “thing” to be studied by an observer who is somehow apart from it; research on consciousness involves the interaction of the observer and the observed, or more accurately, the experience of observing.

This adequate epistemology will be, above all else, humble. It will recognize that science deals with models and metaphors representing certain aspects of experienced reality, and that any model or metaphor may be permissible if it is useful in helping to order knowledge, even though it may seem to conflict with another model which is also useful. (The classic example is the history of wave and particle models in physics.) This includes, specifically, the metaphor of consciousness. That may sound strange.

It is a peculiarity of modern science that it allows some kinds of metaphors and disallows others. It is perfectly acceptable to use metaphors which derive directly from our experience of the physical world (such as “fundamental particles,” acoustic waves), as well as metaphors representing what can be measured only in terms of its effects (such as gravitational, electromagnetic, or quantum fields). It has further become acceptable to use more holistic and non-quantifiable metaphors such as organism, personality, ecological community, Gaia, universe. It is, however, taboo to use non-sensory “metaphors of mind”-metaphors that tap into images and experiences familiar from our own inner awareness. I am not allowed to say (scientifically) that some aspects of my experience of reality are reminiscent of my experience of my own mind-to observe, for example, that some aspects of animal behavior appear as though they were tapping into some supra-individual nonphysical mind, or as though there were in instinctual behavior and in evolution something like my experience in my own mind of purpose.

The epistemology we seek will recognize the partial nature of all scientific concepts of causality. (For example, the “upward causation” of physiomotor action resulting from a brain state does not necessarily invalidate the “downward causation” implied in the subjective feeling of volition.) In other words, it will implicitly question the assumption that a nomothetic science-one characterized by inviolable “scientific laws”-can in the end adequately deal with causality. In some ultimate sense, there really is no causality – only a Whole evolving.

It will also recognize that prediction and control are not the only criteria by which to judge knowledge scientific. As the French poet Antoine Saint Exupéry put it, “Truth is not that which is demonstrable. Truth is that which is ineluctable.” In other words, the unquestioned authority of the double-blind controlled experiment is thrown deeply into question.

This epistemology will involve recognition of the inescapable role of the personal characteristics of the observer, including the processes and contents of the unconscious mind. The corollary follows, that to be a competent investigator, the researcher must be willing to risk being profoundly changed through the process of exploration. Because of this potential transformation of observers, an epistemology which is acceptable now to the scientific community, may in time have to be replaced by another, more satisfactory by new criteria, for which it has laid the intellectual and experiential foundations.

We need to comment briefly on the dialogue between society and science. Science and society exist in a dialectical relationship. The findings of science have a profound effect on society; none of us have any doubts about that. But science is also a product of society, very much shaped by the cultural milieu within which it developed. Western science has the form it does because it developed within a culture placing unusual value on the ability to predict and control.

Research on perception, hypnosis, repression, selective attention, mental imagery, sleep and dreams, memory and memory retrieval, acculturation, etc. all suggests that the influence of the unconscious on how we experience ourselves and our environment may be far greater than is typically taken into account. Science itself has never been thoroughly re-assessed in the light of this recently discovered pervasive influence of the unconscious mind of the scientist. The contents and processes of the unconscious influence (individually and collectively) perceptions, “rational thinking,” openness to challenging evidence, ability to contemplate alternative conceptual frameworks and metaphors, scientific interests and disinterests, scientific judgment – all to an indeterminate extent. What is implied is that we must accept the presence of unconscious processes and contents, not as a minor perturbation, but as a potentially major factor in the construction of any society’s particular form of science.

The implications of research on consciousness go even further. They suggest interconnection at a level that has yet to be fully recognized by Western science, and throw into doubt the pervasive conception of a world dominated by competition. The ontological stance of the universe as holarchy appears to have great promise as the basis for an extended science in which consciousness-related phenomena are no longer anomalies, but keys to a deeper understanding; a science that transcends and includes the science we have. But the most important thing is not to accept a particular answer, but to open the dialogue about the metaphysical foundations of Western science.

In his Introduction to Metaphysics the eminent French philosopher Henri Bergson said of the “much-desired union of science and metaphysics” that it would “lead the positive sciences, properly so-called, to become conscious of their true scope, often far greater than they imagine.” The time may have arrived for realization of that dream.