Unified Theories in Science and Religion

Posted on 1 January 1994

3


Introduction

Just as a unified theory of everything in physics would show how
complementary theories of physics are compatible, a more
comprehensive understanding of religious concepts would show
how many complementary religious concepts are compatible.
Even if we don’t yet see how apparently contradictory views
can be harmonized, we need to have faith that this harmony is
possible if we are to find a unified vision. And this faith
is the driving spiritual force behind both scientific and
religious breakthroughs.

To me, this unified theory of religion is to be created as an
offering to the world. There will always be people with
other world views, and perhaps none of them will accept this
offering. That’s fine. My motive is simply to respond as
best I possibly can to what I see as the most profound
problem of present humanity. Whether or not humanity profits
by my striving is entirely up to God, as it were. After all,
I may be totally wrong — in which case I am very thankful
that there are other views being presented!

This is exactly the problem of humanity today: When we
identify our own cultural or religious or ethnic traditions
as absolute, then conflict with others is inevitable. That
is the historical fact. That is exactly why a comprehensive
view of religion is needed — and a view that is also
compatible with modern science. It would speak to the
universal longing in the human soul for peace on Earth. It
is my hope that this vision will help more people in the
world to see our common humanity as more fundamental than our
cultural and ethnic and religious diversity. If our
differences come before our unity, then we are in for
conflict and suffering. So let us strive for unity.

Thinking about abstract theoretical unifications and acting
compassionately in the world are not necessarily distinct
activities. A loving heart and deeply compassionate mind do
manifest in words. And words that come from such a source
are words with power to transform, words that can actually
touch others. It’s not speaking per se or doing per se that
is important in this age of alienation, but speaking and
doing from a loving heart and compassionate mind. And that
does not exclude expression in abstract intellectual form.

The Nature of Theories

Any system of thought or world view is necessarily based on
some givens. And these given assumptions are not compatible
with their negations which may well be the basis for some
other world view. That’s the nature of systems of thought.
But the claim that any such particular system is an all-
encompassing, comprehensive theory of everything is not a
part of the system itself, but rather a statement about the
system. That is a meta-claim, if you will. And it is an
incorrect claim that comes from a misunderstanding of the
nature of systems of thought. So there’s nothing inherently
wrong about these systems in my mind. The problem only
arises when one makes the mistake of taking a particular
system as absolute.

Any system of thought is limited in some way by the very
nature of concepts — they distinguish, define, and thereby
implicitly limit and exclude. So no conceptual system is
absolute. That’s not to say, however, that there is no
Absolute at all. It just says that the Absolute cannot be
completely captured by any single conceptual system. Yet
specific systems can reflect part of the Absolute. And each
has its relative value. Now these specific systems, it seems
to me, have the structure of a tree. At the base are very
universal theories that are not very limited. From the base
emerge distinct branches that correspond to
“contradictory” theories. And these branches, in
turn, have smaller branches emerging from them that represent
more specific variations of these basic theories. So, to me,
the task of finding a “unified theory of religion”
really consists in two things. First, it is to find the most
basic theory at the trunk that it is possible to formulate at
this time. Although it will necessarily be of a very
universal nature, it will be (like all other theories)
limited somehow. Second, it is to find a meta-theory for
understanding the structure of the tree itself, how all these
theories fit together and can be seen to coexist and
harmonize.

Any theory, no matter how comprehensive, is just a theory.
But some theories are more comprehensive than others. They
can unify a whole class of other theories, even though they
do not unify them all. Today, for example, physicists have a
well-grounded theory of quantum electrodynamics that contains
as a special case all the theories of matter, light, electricity, and magnetism that existed
100 years ago, even ones that were contradictory when seen
out of today’s unifying context. But no physicist considers
this unifying context anything more than just another stage.
It is a more universal stage, but you are quite right: it is
still just another stage.

But it seems to me that there is a significant difference
between stages or theories at the same level and stages or
theories at a more universal level. We can endlessly swap
one set of clothes for another, change from one religion to
another. This kind of change is like the endless wheel of
samsara. When we change from one world view to another that
is more universal and comprehensive, on the other hand, we
are moving toward Liberation and Enlightenment. We are not
merely swapping one set of clothes for another, but stripping
down. And when we strip down all the way, we become entirely
naked. We have, to use the tree metaphor, reached the base
of the trunk.

Can we find a very basic unified theory near the trunk? It
won’t be the ultimate most basic theory because no theory is
ultimate, but it can be the most basic theory yet formulated.
The universal theories near the trunk can be thought of as
approaching the trunk closer and closer without ever reaching
it, like the way the fractions 1/2, 1/3, 1/4,… get closer
to zero without ever reaching it. We want to get as close as
we can, even though we can never actually get there.

A Proposed Theory of Theories

Here’s my proposal for the foundation of a theory of
theories. I’d like to preface it with a disclaimer, though.
First of all, no theory (including a theory of theories) is
ultimate or absolute. We can only hope to represent a part of
the Truth with concepts. But we can nevertheless strive to
represent it as completely as we can. So this proposal is not
intended as some absolute and final framework that negates
all others. But it is the best and most comprehensive that I
can conceive.

Second, since this is a theory of theories, it is necessarily
very abstract and general. Were it otherwise, it would be
too specific and concrete to serve as a general framework for
a wide class of theories. So if it seems to have no relation
to specific theories, that is the reason.

Finally, this is no fully developed and polished exposition.
It is only a sketch of the fundamental ideas and the general
approach that seems best to me. But is it a beginning.

To provide a general context for all theories requires that
we begin with what is common to them all, and that is that
they are all conceptual. Any theory is a conceptual
representation of some sort. So the basic “stuff”
of theories are concepts. So we should focus more closely on
the idea of the concept and see if we can’t see what the
essence of a concept is.

Concepts, words, thoughts — these all serve to direct and
define, and in order that a concept be free of ambiguity it
must distinguish that which it directs us to or defines from
everything else. At the basis of every concept is a
distinction. “Light” is based on the distinction
between light and dark, for example. Without this
distinction, “light” would have no definite
meaning. The point here is most likely familiar to many who
have read religious philosophy: thought and conception is
based on duality. Transcending thought is transcending
duality and the distinctions at the basis of thought. And
the first step to transcending anything is to fully recognize
its nature.

So let us take the act of distinction as fundamental to all
conception and hence to all theories. This
is very closely related to the Logos and the notion of symmetry.

Can we get more fundamental than distinction? Is seems not.
For whenever we have anything at all we at least have a
distinction, namely, the distinction between that thing and
nothing. And if we have no distinction at all, then we have
absolutely nothing, for there is nothing to distinguish from
anything else. At that point we are speechless and we can
say nothing. That, some have said, is the highest teaching.
But our task at hand is to attempt to say something. And in
doing so we must invoke the Word, we must distinguish. By it
everything was made.

So things are created from distinctions. And, in particular,
theories are created from distinctions. This perspective
explains, by the way, why our thoughts should be able to
represent the outside world so precisely as in the case of
the application of mathematics to physical theories, for
example. If both the world and our ideas are created from the
same act of distinction, then it is plausible at least that
there might be a correspondence between the two. Moreover,
the laws reflected in nature correspond to the laws of
mathematics reflected in our minds since both are based on
the more fundamental laws of distinctions. So the
“theory of theories” would take the form of a
theory of distinctions and their laws. The mathematician and
mystic G. Spencer-Brown has taken the first step in
describing the laws of distinctions in his book Laws of
Form
.

Epistemological Considerations

Basing a science of religion on secondary and indirect
sources of data such as scripture is to put it on an
uncertain foundation at best. If we look at other sciences,
we find that they are based on immediate and primary data,
and not secondary data. We don’t base physical science on
physics textbooks but on actual experiments that we ourselves
could verify given the prerequisite training and technical
apparatus. Similarly, a secure foundation for a science of
religion should be based not on scriptures but on immediate
religious insights that we ourselves could verify given the
prerequisite training and psychical apparatus.

If we approach religion with the understanding that the
scriptures of the world are themselves ultimately based on
the immediate religious insights of their authors, then by
basing a science of religion on that same foundation we will
then have a means of seeing how the scriptures arise from the
same source. There is then a sense in which the scriptures
are scientifically verifiable, and not merely “basic
data” to be taken at face value. We can verify the truth
in them ourselves.

The catch is that, just as in physical science, not just
anyone can go out and verify all the statements in a science.
Physicists must be trained for years in order to be able to
comprehend the significance of data obtained in particle
accelerators, for example. To anyone else such data would be
meaningless. A religious science should be no different.
And the mystics say as much. One must discipline the mind
and purify the heart before one is able to verify the
mystical truths. But it can be done.

Consider the science of mathematics. Recently Andrew Wiles
announced that he had proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. Now in
what sense is this proof accessible to the public? The fact
of the matter is that no layperson is able to verify his
proof — it’s just too esoteric. In fact, not even 90% of
mathematicians are able to verify it. Only a relatively
small group of mathematicians in his specialized subfield of
mathematics are able to follow his proof. And this is true
of most of the results at the cutting edge of mathematics
these days.

Now if public accessibility is a prerequisite for a science,
then our most certain science of all — mathematics — is not
even a science. The theorems are very private matters, in
fact. Not only are very few people able to verify them, but
when they do it is something that they see in their own
private consciousness. Does that deny mathematics the status
of a science?

What makes mathematics a science is that theorems can, in
principle, be verified by anyone who has been trained in the
discipline of mathematics. The mind of the person wishing to
verify the theorems must be trained to see mathematical
truths. Not just anyone can grab a math journal and expect
to be able to judge the truth of the latest theorem. And the
same goes for physical sciences. One must be trained in the
science in order to be able to verify its claims. And that
leaves out a very large majority of the public.

Now why should a science of spirit be any different? If
anything, it seems to require even more discipline and
training than the mathematical and physical sciences in order
to verify religious truths. But that does not prevent it
from being a science.

A science, whether mathematical or physical or spiritual, is
a living tradition that has its foundation in a community of
practitioners who have been trained to see the truths of that
science and who train the next generation to see the truths.
The scriptures and textbooks that result are not the basis of
scientific knowledge but the expression of it.

The foundation of religious traditions lies not in words or
theories but in the experience that they are created to
express, and without this experience we will only have
theories, and lack substance. Any theory is just that, and
is a collection of empty concepts if it is not grounded in
our own immediate experience. We can never be reminded too
often of this fact. The whole purpose of theories, after all,
is to direct us to a more profound experience of the
substance at the basis of the theory. That is the end, that
is the purpose of all this theory making. A theory should be
like a mandala, something to be contemplated. The word
theory, in fact, comes from the Greek word that means to
behold
. So let us not forget the true basis of all these
theories, for then they would have been created in vain.

This is a real danger. We could spend our lives spinning
theories of other people’s experiences, but we wouldn’t have
been transformed ourselves. The ultimate end is Realization,
and that doesn’t come by mere conception. There is a place,
however, for thought and theories. They can be very valuable
aids, even when we haven’t completely restored the primal
experience at the roots of our tree. Theories aren’t created
just for the edification of their creators, or just to merely
describe. They are created to help others see as well, to
evoke the same experience. If we see them this way, they can
be of great value.

There is great value in scriptures. We would be very lost
without them to guide us. Just as we would be very lost in
physics without the textbooks and journals that physicists
write. They are an important part in the training of
students. But physics is not ultimately grounded on these
books. It is grounded in experience. Its subject matter is
not the writings of physicists but the experiments of
physicists. Because there is this appeal to immediate
experience, it is more than just ungrounded speculation. It
is science.

We cannot object to basing a science on personal experience
without throwing out science altogether, including our most
certain sciences like physics and mathematics. And all
experience is ultimately personal.

The problem is not that our experiences are ultimately
personal, but that we are unable to distinguish between the
contingent elements that depend on the observer and the
universal elements that are independent of the observer. The
basis for a verifiable science rests in the universal element
of each observer’s personal experience.

Now if the minds of the observers are not trained to
distinguish and recognize the universal element in their
experiences, then there will be naturally no basis for
agreement and no science. Throwing out experience altogether
because many minds are not trained is to radically compromise
the basis of knowledge and to avoid the real challenge which
is to ourselves become so trained so as to recognize the
universal in our own personal experience.

Mystics from every tradition have spoken of some kind of
spiritual organ of knowledge that must be awakened and
trained. They all say that this organ is not reducible to
perception or conception and is radically different from
these in the sense that it provides knowledge based on
identity rather than knowledge based on a relation between
knower and known.

Mystics from every tradition have also spoken of techniques
and practices to develop, awaken, and train this spiritual
organ of knowledge. Through practices of meditation and
contemplation this organ is trained to see the “true
nature of things”. And those who have made the
necessary sacrifices and undergone the necessary discipline
to not only awaken this organ but to train it have access to
a canon of shared experience and “admissible
evidence.”

It is true that there are many contradictory theories to be
found in the writings of the mystics. But this is not a
property peculiar to mystical experience. In physics, for
example, there is not one unique theory that is consistent
with the data. It is possible to have different, even
contradictory, theories that explain the same data. They
must, of course, be consistent as far as agreeing with the
same data is concerned. But they may be inconsistent in
other ways, the reason being that we always add something
extra when we formulate a theory from data. And that
something extra is constrained, but not completely
determined, by the data alone.

There was a time in physics when two theories (and both had
experimentalist physicists who were convinced of their
theories) say

  1. Light is a wave. It is not localized in space.
  2. Light is a particle. It is localized in space.

In the early years of this century, this was a real conflict
in physics. There were experiments to justify both
positions, and the positions were clearly contradictory.
What to do? 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. But quantum mechanics never would have
been found if physicists had merely taken sides and argued.

The moral to the story is that the problem with contradictory
theories is not with the theories but with us. If we take
the attitude that theories are the final word, then one must
be right and the other wrong, and we end up with religious
wars. But theories are approximations to truth, symbols of
truth, and no one theory captures the whole.

Just as the physicists meditated on waves and particles and
came up with quantum theory, perhaps we can meditate on the
transcendent and immanent views of God and come up with a
reconciliation.

And only afterwards do the distinctions arise between the
contingent and universal aspects of any experience,
religious, scientific, or otherwise. For all experience is
less than suchness only because of the distinctions of an
interpretation that are superimposed upon it. Scientific
notions of verifiability presuppose an interpretive framework
that distinguishes between contingent aspects of experience
and universal (inter-subjective) aspects. So already we are
involved in a presupposed interpretation. And it is good to
keep this in mind, lest we be fooled by our concepts and
mistake them for the reality, which is beyond the limits of
subject-object dualism.

Critics of science sometimes say that the scientific view of
the world is very restrictive. This problem is nothing
peculiar to science, though. Any way of looking at the world
can be a prison. It need not be scientific. Indeed, many
examples come from religion, which has been both a power of
liberation and a power of bondage. The problem is not with
science or religion. It is with the minds that cling to
certain modes of thought. We cling to them and we are
prisoners. But we let go and they transform into our
liberators. There are minds bound by religion and science
alike, just as there are minds liberated by them.

A science that arbitrarily denies ways of knowing other than
perceptual and conceptual is not a true science. It is a
limited science that purports to be all-encompassing. This
denial of the mystical way of knowing is itself unscientific.
Such a denial is not a claim that is verifiable. It is just
an unjustified prejudice, a materialistic
“superstition.” But science is often confused with
this materialistic attitude, just as religion is often
confused with a fundamentalist attitude, neither attitude
reflecting the pure essence of religion or science.

A science that is a tyrant, dictating “truth”, is
no more a true science than such a religion would be a true
religion. Yet we know all too well such “false”
religion and science. I feel perfect harmony of true science
and true religion, and see them both as sacred ways of being
and knowing. I hope that the limited views of both science
and religion become less common among both scientists and
religious persons as both are redeemed.

There is a codependence of objective and subjective. Viewed
objectively, physical laws are ontological properties of the
world. Viewed subjectively, they are epistemological
preconditions of experience. Neither is absolutely fixed.

Changing subjective preconditions of experience can change
objective experience, but I’d say it depends on how deeply
one changes. I agree that superficial changes in personal
and cultural presuppositions do not affect the rate of fall
of objects (neglecting extraneous forces). But there are
levels of the psyche that go far deeper than the merely
personal or cultural levels of conditioning. They are the
subjective correlate to the objective physical laws. And if
they change, so will the world that is experienced. But this
would correspond to very radical change, and it may not be
accurate to even call such an experience human anymore. One
would be in another world entirely.

What I think Galileo did was to provide a more accurate
understanding of our own preconditions of experience or
objective world. But this understanding was taken by many to
be absolute until it was finally shattered by Einstein. And
if we think we’ve found the true and fixed laws today, we are
fooling ourselves. Ours may be a more comprehensive and
accurate understanding, but even if it were complete it would
still only be as fixed and absolute as the deep structures of
the psyche which arise in dependence with the world and its
laws.

As humans, we are by definition living in this particular
world that has arisen in dependence with our particularly
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 world without
any 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 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.

Advertisements
Posted in: Uncategorized