In a letter to Kepler, Galileo wrote: “Here at Padua is the principal professor of philosophy, whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and the planets through my glass, which he pertinaciously refuses to do.”1 When he looked through his telescope, Galileo affirmed that Copernicus was right — we are not at the center of a Cosmos that revolves around us, but instead we are revolving around the sun. Many in the Church and in Universities were reluctant to accept this, because it opposed established belief systems and power structures.
This has striking parallels today. For example, many scientists are unwilling to look at the evidence for consciousness beyond the brain because they have an unshakeable belief that consciousness is generated in the brain. It is often the authority of science and the fear for their reputation that prevents them from expanding their worldview. The Church was worried that the infallibility of Scripture was at stake. Today the infallibility of scientific materialism is at stake.
The world today is dominated by science and by its underlying assumptions, which are seldom articulated even though they generate not only a methodology but also a world-view or philosophy. While scientific methodology is a set of evolving rules, socially negotiated among scientists, this scientific world-view is a quasi-religious set of assumptions about the world, an ideology generally known as ‘scientism.’
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Metaphysics and Science
Work on the metaphysical foundations of modern science goes back nearly 100 years to the book originally published by Edwin Burtt of Cornell in 1924, a copy of which I found in a second-hand bookshop in Plymouth in May 1976. Robin Collingwood, the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford published his Essay on Metaphysics in 1940, partly as a response to the positivism of the 1930s asserting, fallaciously in his view, there was no such thing as metaphysics. Collingwood defines metaphysics as the science which deals with the presuppositions underlying ordinary science and as the ultimate logical ground to anything that is studied by any other science.
In the 1990s, Willis Harman of Stanford University and President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences followed up this earlier work on metaphysics and science with a major project on causality that included a re-examination of the metaphysical foundations of modern science2 and an edited volume New Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science.3 When speaking on this topic at our inaugural Beyond the Brain Conference at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1995, he used the apt quotation attributed to the physicist Richard Feynman that “the philosophy of science is to scientists what ornithology is to birds.” More recently, in 2014, a group of scientists formulated the Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science,4 which can be found on Open Sciences.
Perhaps Collingwood’s key insight is that what he calls absolute presuppositions are not propositions as they are never answers to questions, which themselves contain presuppositions. Think, for instance, of David Chalmers’ ‘hard problem of consciousness’ when he asks: how does the brain generate consciousness? This question in itself presupposes that the brain does indeed generate consciousness, so this is an absolute presupposition, as it is for most neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists. As Collingwood states, “the answer to any question presupposes whatever the question presupposes… And because all science begins with a question (for the question is logically prior to its own answer), all science begins with a presupposition.”5 Hence the inescapability of presuppositions, even if the majority of working scientists remain unaware of this fact.
Over a hundred years ago William James warned of the dangers of scientism, the conviction that only the material world is real and only physical causation is scientifically respectable: “Science taken in its essence should stand only for a method and not for any special beliefs, yet as habitually taken by its votaries, science has come to be identified with a certain fixed general belief, the belief that the deeper order of nature is mechanical exclusively, and that non-mechanical categories are irrational ways of conceiving and explaining even such a thing as human life.”6
Some great scientists have been acutely aware of the importance of underlying presuppositions, for instance Prince Louis de Broglie: “History shows that the advances of science have always been frustrated by the tyrannical influence of certain preconceived notions that were turned into unassailable dogmas. For that reason alone, every scientist should periodically make a profound re-examination of his basic principles.”7 The fact that no philosophy or sociology of science is taught to the majority of science students does not encourage the kind of re-examination recommended by de Broglie, but the emerging science of consciousness may demand it.
The co-originator of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russell Wallace, warned that “My first great lesson in the enquiry into these obscure fields of knowledge, never to accept the disbelief of great men, or their accusations of imposture or of imbecility, as of any weight when opposed to the repeated observation of facts by other men admittedly sane and honest. I assert that whenever the scientific men of any age have denied the facts of investigators on a priori grounds, they have always been wrong.” Wallace himself was interested in psychical research and spiritualism, much to the dismay of his scientific contemporaries, but he knew that their prejudice was based on ignorance of the field. He wrote: “to put the matter in a simple form, the asserted fact is either possible or not possible. If possible, such evidence as we have been considering would prove it; if not possible, such evidence could not exist.”8
This point has been taken up more recently by Lawrence LeShan, who quotes Gustav Fechner as saying: “the actual cannot be impossible.” He himself adds that “impossible events do not occur. Therefore, if a scientist is faced with the fact that an impossible event has occurred — our daily fare as psychical researchers — the paradox must be resolved.” The danger is that we accept our definition of reality as a fact when it is in fact a theory. Hence “if an event is a major violation of our theory about reality, a major revision of that theory is necessary.” Logically, “an event either occurred or did not occur, and labelling it is not going to change that fact.” Faced with a white crow, “you can hold onto your theory about reality and declare that the event did not occur since it could not occur. Here the facts violate your theory, and we can say that your theory of how reality works is invalid or limited in scope and must be revised in terms of the fact that the event occurred. This is thinking scientifically.” He concludes that “in science we need to be clear about which is the theory and which is the fact that violates it, and that in science theory must always bow to the fact.”9
Philosophical materialism with its associated concept of a purposeless universe and the inherent meaninglessness of life is correlated with economic materialism with its emphasis on consumerism and the exploitation of people and natural resources. This translates into the idea that consumption and economic growth are the route to happiness and well-being. Many leading thinkers are now questioning this association between consumption and well-being, with a renewed emphasis on quality of life rather than quantity of possessions, on being prioritized over having. Moreover, no coherent and altruistic ethic can be derived from a materialistic world view. Deeper study furthermore suggests that the ultimate human experience is one that unifies love, knowledge, and bliss – this is inherently meaningful and valuable as well as providing a basis for the Golden Rule in the oneness of life and consciousness.10
The Galileo Commission
It is for all these philosophical and cultural reasons that we set up the Galileo Commission as a project of the Scientific and Medical Network). The Network has been working at the interface between science, spirituality, and consciousness since the 1970s, and has an open membership dedicated to exploring and expanding our horizons in these fields. Our major annual conferences include Mystics and Scientists in April and Beyond the Brain in November.
The Commission brought together more than 90 distinguished advisers from over 30 universities worldwide in producing a report written by Prof. Dr. Harald Walach entitled Beyond a Materialist Worldview – Towards an Expanded Science, which has been very well received. There is a preface by Network President the neuropsychiatrist Dr. Peter Fenwick and an introduction by the psychiatrist and cultural historian Dr. Iain McGilchrist. Both the full and summary reports can be downloaded from the Galileo Commission website.
The purpose of the Galileo Commission Report is to open public discourse and to find ways to expand the presuppositions of science, so that it is no longer constrained by an outdated view of the nature of reality and consciousness, and so that it can accommodate and explore significant human experiences and questions that science, in its present form, is unable to accommodate for philosophical reasons. We anticipate that expanding science will involve some new basic assumptions (an expanded ontology), additional ways of knowing and new rules of evidence (an expanded epistemology), as well as new methodologies flowing from these.
Within an expanded science, existing ‘hard’ science would still be valid in the contexts where it was generated. Many areas of research could still be profitably undertaken within existing materialist assumptions. But if science could be based on such an expanded set of assumptions, and if they came to form the dominant philosophy of science, then that would open up new avenues and new possibilities. In other words, expanding science and its scope would transform our world view.
Then, perhaps, we will see a vindication of Nikola Tesla’s reported remark that “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
We invite you to support the emergence of an evidence-based post-materialist science by signing up as a professional affiliate or friend on the Galileo Commission website.
This article originally appeared in Paranormal Review No 93.
About the Author
David Lorimer is a writer, lecturer, poet and editor who is a Founder of Character Education Scotland, Programme Director of the Scientific and Medical and former President of Wrekin Trust and the Swedenborg Society. He has also been editor of Paradigm Explorer since 1986 and completed his 100th issue in 2019. He is the author and editor of over a dozen books, including Survival? Death as Transition, Resonant Mind (originally Whole in One), The Spirit of Science, Thinking Beyond the Brain, and Radical Prince about the ideas and work of the Prince of Wales. He is the originator of the Inspiring Purpose Values Poster Programmes, which has reached over 350,000 young people. He is also Chair of the Galileo Commission which seeks to widen science beyond a materialistic world view.
1 E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul), p. 66.
2 Willis W. Harman, A Re-examinations of the Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Sausalito: Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1992).
3 Willis W. Harman and Jane Clark, New Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Sausalito: Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1994).
4 Mario Beauregard et al, Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science, 2014.
5 R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 63.
6 Eugene Taylor, William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 121.
7 Quoted in Irv Dardik and Estee Dardik Lichter, The Nature of Nature (London: PenguinRandomHouse, 2017), p. 2.
8 Charles H. Smith, Alfred Russel Wallace, an Anthology of his Shorter Writings (New York, Oxford University Press), pp. 67,76 (emphasis in original).
9 Lawrence LeShan, Science and the Paranormal (Wheaton: Quest Books, 2009), pp. 63,70.
10 David Lorimer, David, Whole in One (new title Resonant Mind) (London: Penguin Arkana, 1990, Sussex, White Crow Books, 2017).