Questioning the Scientific Worldview

Posted on 21 June 2001


Thomas J. McFarlane

Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2001

Most of us were raised with the idea that reality is the material
. We were all taught that there is a real external world “out
there” containing rocks, atoms, cells, animals, plants, etc., and that
this material world is all there is. As Carl Sagan tells us in his opening
lines of the popular Cosmos television series, “The cosmos is all
there is, all there was, and all there ever will be.” According to this
worldview, which is known as materialism, the matter in the cosmos
has evolved over billions of years to form galaxies, suns, and planets,
and—on our planet—an incredible variety of complex biological organisms.
You are one of these organisms. All your experiences, feelings, thoughts,
hopes, dreams, and your very consciousness itself, are nothing but the
activity of neurons in your brain. That includes any notions you might
entertain about a non-material reality such as God, Tao, Brahman, or Primordial
Awareness. All such notions—according to materialism—signify nothing real
and are no more than wishful superstitious fantasies of a brain that is
complex enough to recognize its own inevitable demise. Obviously, this
worldview seriously challenges the basis for our spiritual aspirations,
as well as the claims of the mystics. How, then, do we respond to this
challenge? How do we reconcile this materialistic worldview with the spiritual
path? Like any obstacle on the spiritual path, let’s inquire into it with
an open and curious mind and see what we find.

Our culture’s materialistic worldview is rooted in scientism,
which is not the same as science itself. Science in its purest sense is
not a worldview but a method for systematically investigating and
organizing aspects of reality that we access through our senses. Simply
put, science is a way of knowing reality. Scientism takes this one step
further and claims that science is the only way of knowing reality.
Whereas science is silent regarding the aspects of reality beyond its scope,
scientism asserts that there is no reality beyond its scope. According
to scientism, if something is not rational, or not verifiable through the
physical senses, then it is not real.

The first thing to notice about scientism is that it makes a fundamental
assertion about reality. Scientism says, “science is the only way
of obtaining true knowledge of reality.” This statement, however, cannot
itself be verified by the methods of science. It is like a blind man who
claims that only through hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling
can one know anything for certain about the world. Using only his four
senses, though, he obviously cannot prove that there is no fifth sense.
It is just the same with scientism. Its claim that the only way to arrive
at true knowledge is through the senses cannot itself be verified through
the senses. Thus, scientism is based on a “truth” that—according to its
very own standard of truth—cannot be true. If we acknowledge this contradiction,
then we must admit that scientism has no rational, scientific basis. It
is a completely unjustified assumption about reality. We are thus free
to let it go.

The second thing to notice about scientism is that it results in a limited
view of reality. This is a consequence of the fact that how we look at
the world determines what kind of world we find. As Heisenberg, the inventor
of quantum mechanics, cautions us,

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in
itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.1

So, if the questions we put to nature are limited to strictly scientific
questions, then we will only see the limited part of reality that is revealed
by that method of questioning. Like the blind man who learns about all
sorts of sounds and tastes and textures, but no colors, the method of science
reveals a world accessible through our physical senses, but nothing beyond
that limited scope. Now, because scientism clings to the scientific way
of knowing reality as the only valid way, the limited world that
science discovers is mistaken for all of reality. And this is historically
how scientism resulted in our worldview of materialism: after the limited
methods of classical physics discovered a material world, scientism took
this world to be all of reality, and materialism was born.

Our materialistic worldview thus rests upon two assumptions: (1) science
reveals a material world, and (2) scientism is true. The first assumption
has been seriously challenged by the discovery of quantum theory.2
As for the second assumption, we have already seen that scientism is no
more than an unjustified assumption about reality. And we must be careful
to remember that scientism can just as easily fool us into taking a quantum
worldview as reality. No matter
what worldview science might offer, if we mistake it for all of reality,
we have bought into scientism.

We see, then, that scientism blinds us to everything in reality that
is beyond the scope of the scientific method, no matter what that method
may reveal to us. So, how much of reality is left out? Almost all of it!
Einstein, for example, tells us

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive
and childlike.3

And Heisenberg echoes his words:

The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very
limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood
is infinite.4

Yet, even though the limited view of materialism isn’t ultimately true,
it is obviously still very useful to assume that things exist in
an external world. We don’t deny any of this. The question is not whether
materialism is a useful view; the question is whether it corresponds
to reality, as scientism might lead us to believe. Because the assumption
of a material reality is so useful, we forget that it is just an assumption,
and then habitually take it for granted as a reality. It is the same with
any scientific theory. It is very useful for a wide range of experience,
and this usefulness is evident in the technological success of science.
But is this any reason to believe that the scientific theory corresponds
to reality?

Most of us are sophisticated enough to know that science never provides
us with the final theory of reality, and that our ideas about the world
can be mistaken sometimes. But we normally attribute those errors to minor
problems with our theory, and believe that our theories are getting closer
and closer to the truth. In other words, even if our ideas of reality are
never perfect, because they work so well most of the time, we still think
they must be close to the truth about reality. And since they seem
to improve with time, we have the sense they are getting closer and closer
to reality. Scientists will often express similar faith in the progress
of science—that they are getting closer and closer to the true laws of
the universe. They believe that the old theories are wrong and the current
theories right, or at least somehow “closer” to reality. As the history
of science tells us, however, this isn’t actually true. To see why, let’s
consider an example.

Imagine you discover a remote island whose inhabitants believe that
the sun, moon, planets, and stars all move around the stationary earth.
(This is the geocentric view of the cosmos.) These clever people
show you how they can make accurate predictions of celestial events such
as eclipses. They then confidently tell you, “Because it works so well,
it must be true.” You see that it does, in fact, work very well. But you
don’t think it is true. You explain to them, “Actually, the sun is at rest
in the center of the solar system, and the earth moves around it with all
the other planets.” (This is the heliocentric view of the cosmos.)
When you tell them how the earth is going around the sun at 66,000 mph,
and spinning around on its axis at 1,000 mph at the equator, though, they
laugh at you. “How do you explain,” they say, “why we don’t feel these
giant spinning motions? It obviously is far simpler to assume that the
earth is at rest, they say, than to explain why we don’t feel these motions.
After all, why deny our direct experience that the earth is at rest?” Their
view, you begin to see, has its merits. It explains the positions of the
planets and doesn’t have all these other complications. And you can’t find
any way to convince them that your heliocentric view is the right one.

The moral to the story, of course, is that the usefulness of a theory
doesn’t prove that it is true. In addition, we see that two theories might
be just as useful, but correspond to totally different views of reality.
According to the geocentric view, the earth is really at rest, and
the sun is really moving. When we look in the sky and see the sun
move, that is a real motion through the sky. According to the heliocentric
view, on the other hand, the sun is really at rest, and the earth
is really moving. When we see the sun moving through the sky, that
is not a real motion at all, but an illusion due to the motion of
the earth. These are two very different realities, both compatible with
the same facts. Since the facts can be explained by both of these theories,
we are not justified in claiming that one particular theory is the true
description of reality.

Nevertheless, you might be thinking that the heliocentric view is still
the true one, and that the geocentric view is false. After
all, we do teach the heliocentric view in schools and talk about
the earth’s orbit around the sun. In fact, however, Einstein’s theory of
general relativity has demonstrated that neither the heliocentric nor the
geocentric theory is ultimately correct. There is only the relative motion
of the sun and earth, and we cannot scientifically justify the statement
that the sun is really at rest, or that the earth is really
at rest. We are free to assume either point of view; but neither point
of view is absolutely true, neither one is more real than the other. So
it makes no sense to say that one of these views is ultimately “closer”
to the truth than the other. They are simply different points of view,
and each may be more or less useful depending on the circumstances.

The whole idea that a scientific theory is a true or false description
of reality is itself an illusion. Even if a new theory is more comprehensive
and elegant than prior theories, that is still no guarantee that it is
closer to the truth in any absolute sense. We can only judge a theory’s
degree of truth by using some criteria for what makes a “good” theory;
but there are no absolute rules for selecting such criteria. One theory
may be more comprehensive or convenient or useful for our present purposes—but
what if those purposes change? One theory might strike us as more elegant
or beautiful—but what happens when our aesthetic sensibilities change?

We, as a culture, agree on a given worldview as a convention. It becomes
our conventional reality. But when we are not aware of its conventional
nature, we mistake this conventional reality for ultimate reality. This
mistake—confusing the relative with the absolute—is what the mystics call
ignorance or delusion. Materialism, like any other worldview, is ultimately
no more than a way of interpreting experience that fits our conventions.
Other radically different interpretations of experience can also account
for our experience and be very useful for their own purposes. But any view—whether
scientific or spiritual—is ultimately just a view, and not reality itself.
As the Buddha said,

These teachings are only a finger pointing toward Noble
Wisdom . . . they are not the Truth itself, which can only be self-realized
within one’s deepest consciousness.5

In the process of deepening our inquiry into the nature of reality, we
are limited only by assumptions we cling to, whether they be assumptions
about the object of our seeking or about the method we’re using. We can
only continue to deepen our knowledge by acknowledging that our worldviews,
theories, and methods of investigation are, at best, only provisional,
and eventually must be surrendered. As Heisenberg tells us,

Whenever we proceed from the known into the unknown we may
hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning
of the word “understanding.”6

So if we wish to become ever more intimate with reality, we must continually
go beyond our current way of understanding, our current mode of inquiry,
and our current notions of reality. In an unlimited inquiry, the very method
of science itself must finally be surrendered, leaving us simply with science,
which literally means knowledge. This suggests that science
in its most radical sense is not limited to any particular method of science,
any assumption about reality, or even any idea of what “knowledge” means.
Only when we surrender everything and open ourselves to the unknown without
any fixed method or framework or preconception, can Reality then perfectly
reveal itself as the Knowingness that is inherent to Consciousness,

Tom, Spring 2001


1. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution
in Modern Science
(New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 58.

2. Thomas J. McFarlane, “The Illusion of Materialism,” Center Voice
(Eugene, Oregon: The Center for Sacred Sciences, Summer-Fall 1999), 7-13.

3. Albert Einstein, The Expanded Quotable Einstein. ed. Alice
Calaprice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 261.

4. Heisenberg, ibid, 201.

5. Dwight Goddard, ed, A Buddhist Bible (Boston: Beacon Press,
1970), 292.

6. Heisenberg, ibid, 201.

Tom McFarlane is a patent agent and author. His book, Einstein
and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings
presents the provocative parallels between modern physics and the Eastern
spiritual traditions. Tom has a BS in physics from Stanford University,
an MS in mathematics from the University of Washington, and an MA
in philosophy and religion from the California Institute for Integral Studies
in San Francisco.

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