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The Inside View

(cc) Mackenzie Greer.

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.

There is no logical or necessary connection between facts about the world and one’s values. Thus, there is no necessary reason why the findings of science should change how we value the world. Yet our ideas often have a strong influence on our feelings. And mythological ideas, I think history shows, have a stronger influence on our feelings than factual ones. Few people would bother suffering martyrdom over a fact, but countless people have thrown their lives away for religion and ideology, both of which depend largely on mythologies.

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. So in this rather round about way, values are a fact of Nature.

Dualism and Values
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 (we might say, dualistic mythology). 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.  

Non-dualism and Values
If modern science, in its very method, turns away from the inner world of direct experience, then, to find our way back to that world, we need those methods and disciplines that have made that inner world their focus. Mindfulness meditation is one such discipline.  The aim of these disciplines is to help us move deeper into our experience, to help us recover 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 emerge of our world out of an original state of chaos.  Both see it as immanent in the world and impersonal. Physics, of course, provides an incredible level of detail about the laws of 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 include, 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 Nature provided by science is also non-dualistic. The laws of nature are all inclusive, they are responsible for the human body, the human mind, and everything created by the human mind. Yet, this non-dualistic idea of Nature has never really penetrated Western culture. We still speak of the natural and artificial as if they were two separate realms. The residue of dualism remains.

The scientific method also retains this residue of dualism.  And this, perhaps, is why it seems to have left something of value out of the world. The separation of the objective and the subjective is critical to the method of science. And in this separation, the objective is more highly valued than the subjective. But of course, this valuation, like all valuation, is ultimately subjective.  Indeed, truth and accuracy, which motive the whole scientific enterprise, are also values and thus also subjective. 

The distinction between objective and subjective is essential for the scientific method, and in that method, it is proper to valorize the objective over the subjective. But in our ordinary lives, its generally the subjective to which we give value. This too is proper. To love someone, for instance, is always to love the person as subject. The modern notion of a “soulmate” refers to a person who seems to understand and be able to touch our very soul, which is to say, the depth of our subjectivity.

Science gives us good information about the external world. That information is in the form of signs and symbols and mappings about the world. But these are not the reality they describe. A map of Paris is not the city of Paris. Such a map can be helpful, but it is no substitute for actually walking the sidewalks of the city. But even if we are in Paris, our mind can be so full of ideas about Paris that we fail to experience what is all around us.

When we get so caught up with ideas about reality that we fail to experience reality, the quality and value of reality is greatly diminished. If we clearly understand the difference between the ideas about the world provided by science, and the world that is there for us to experience directly and soulfully, we should never fall into the trap of letting scientific ideas interfere with our sense of the world’s value.  The soul is the realm of values, and each and every soul has its own distinctive, subjective ability to experience and evaluate the World’s value.


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One Comment

  1. great site

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