Does the worldview presented by modern science devalue the world? A few hundred years ago, the Romantic Movement arose as a reaction to science and what the Romantics perceived as its soulless, valueless world view. New understandings of the world, particularly relativity and quantum mechanics, have made the scientific view more nuanced than the one the early Romantics reacted against. Yet, many still feel that the scientific view devalues. Is this view justified? Let’s explore.
Most people, I think, will agree that facts and values are quite different things. Although facts only exist as ideas in the mind, we assume that these ideas provide accurate information about something outside the mind. And although values seem to refer to things outside of our mind, at least an aspect of them are rooted in the individual mind with its individual preferences.
While there may be a felt connection between facts about the world and one’s values, there is no logical or necessary connection. Any set of facts can be evaluated in a variety of ways, and there is no universal way to judge whether someone has better or worse values. Science uncovers facts, not values. So there is no necessary reason why the findings of science should change how we value the world. Yet some people feel that they do and are able to articulate why they think this feeling is justified.
Though there is no logical or necessary connection between a fact and a value, there is an interesting connection between the fact of the world and our ability to value this world. One of the facts about the universe is that out of it has emerged beings that can value, which is to say, us. The theist believes that the ability to value is ultimately given by God. In the naturalistic view, all of the phenomenon of the world can be explained, at least theoretically, as a result of natural processes. Thus the ability to value and the values that arise from that ability should be seen as a part of Nature, no less than rocks and water. I think it safe to say, though, that this is not how we typically think of the relationship between a value and other objects in the world.
The West is a dualistic culture. In the dualistic view there is a gulf between mind and matter. This dualism underlies our emphasis on the clear separation of subject and object. We who are children of the West cannot help but be deeply influenced by its dualistic heritage. The idea that our inner states, our “subjectivity,” are also a part of the natural world can seem foreign to us. It conflicts with the dualistic view of things. Even those of us who adhere to a naturalistic view, may have trouble seeing the world this way.
Science also is very much the offspring of Western dualism. The context of scientific observation calls for a dualism of the scientist and the part of the world under observation. This separation of observer and observed is part of the ideal of objectivity; an ideal that also calls for the scientist to suppress his or her individual values and preferences.
The ideal of objectivity is essential to the success of science (and all serious scholarship). But there may be an unforeseen consequence of this ideal. Is it at all surprising that when science intentionally removes the valuing subject from its investigation of the world, it ultimately projects a soulless, valueless world? If value has been intentionally removed at one point, does it not make sense that we might need to put it back at another? Not, of course, while we are engaged in scientific study, but certainly before we attempt to judge the world’s value.
Science is focused on the world outside of the mind. (The science of psychology, of course, is an exception. But this science has always been skeptical of the contemplative observation of one’s own mind, preferring experiments where the observer is separate from the observed.) There is no good reason to believe that a discipline focused on the world outside the mind, will find its way back into the inner world of the experiencing subject. Thus, if you want to explore the inner world of the mind directly, you will be better off looking to those contemplative disciplines that have made self knowledge through direct internal observation their focus — disciplines such as Zen or mindfulness meditation. These disciplines bring us to the very core of our being, the place where experiences are experienced, and values are valued.
To explore this point further, compare the difference between the “laws of nature,” as they have come to be understood through modern science, and the idea of Tao. Both concepts refer to that which is responsible for the the way this world has actually emerged. Both see this as immanent in the world and impersonal. Physics, of course, provides an incredible level of detail about the workings of the Nature, while Taoism provides virtually none, and in this they are very different. They are also very different in that the word “Tao” refers both to a cosmological principle and a second principle that can only be experienced inwardly (perhaps more correctly, the principle that allows experience to take place at all). The scientific notion of the laws of nature does not includes, and to an extend intentionally excludes, this inner principle.
While scientific method attempts to rid the subjective aspects from its study, Taoism begins its contemplation of the world from the inner. For Taoism, that which can know, the mind, and that which is know, the world, are ultimately two aspects of the same thing – the Tao. For Taoism, like mystic traditions everywhere, that state of being in which the object and the subject, the cosmological and the psychological, are one and the same, is the ultimate state of being. In this, Taoism is thoroughly non-dualistic. The understanding of the workings of this world revealed by science is also non-dualistic. The scientific method so useful in revealing the workings of the world, however, retains a powerful residue of dualism.
This residue of dualism, perhaps, is why the scientific view seems to have left something of value out of the world. It has left out the inner, which has traditionally been called the soul. The soul, one’s very being, is the undeniable fact for each individual. It is the wellspring of experience, understanding and valuing. That’s a rather significant thing to leave out. This is why naturalism is not enough; why we need a spiritual naturalism — the spiritual brings us back to our inner center, this mysterious wellspring of our being. Like Taoism, spiritual naturalism re-weds the inner and outer, the valuer and that which is valued.
Nature, through the operation of its “laws,” is the ultimate source of the soul, and the soul is that which can understand the laws of nature. As soulful beings we are not wayfaring strangers, not aliens in this world, we are “part and parcel” of the world (to borrow Emerson’s phrase). Scientific method requires the intentional removal of the valuing soul from the study of the world. If we are to contemplate and value the world correctly, we need to intentionally put it back in. Actually, we cannot help but do so, for it is only the individual soul that can contemplate. In deepest contemplation, soul is both that which contemplates and that which is contemplated. From the perspective of deep contemplation, the world is pure value.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.