Science And Mysticism:
Siblings Under the Skin

authored by Richard W. Ely


   We live in a time of planet wide antagonism and strife.  The media are filled with tales of gender conflict, racism, greed, religious persecution, ethnic clashes, and, arguably the most dangerous of all, the ecocidal war of culture on Nature.  These conflicts are as old as humanity, but they now appear threatening in a manner previously unknown because of the awesome destructive power of the tools that science has given us.  Healing the schism between culture and Nature is a matter of dire urgency because, if not resolved, it will ultimately result in an utterly impoverished global environment inimical to human civilization.  Embedded in the war of culture upon Nature are two intertwined streams of consciousness: the disparagement of the material world by the great religions, be they East or West, and the divorce of science, which rules the objective, exterior realm of human experience in the physical world, from religion, which rules the subjective, interior realm of values, ethics and spirituality.

    The most profound perceptions of the interior realm of religious values occur in mystical mental states that involve the direct apprehension of Being Itself or of some essential aspect of Nature or divinity.  Frequently, disincarnate beings (spirits) are the bearers of these insights.  Such experiences are part of a continuum of non-ordinary states of consciousness that include telepathy and the various other forms of ESP.  The hallmark of a mystical experience is its numinosity, the understanding that the information received is a Truth that is gained from some realm beyond our mundane awareness.

    Mystical experiences are at the root of all religious traditions and have, so far, resisted the advance of the scientific method because of their inherently irrational, subjective and idiosyncratic nature.  However, there is no essential conflict between science and mysticism because they are two sides of the same coin – both address the ultimate nature of reality.  Problems arise when either one trespasses on the other’s territory, as when certain Christians make statements about the age of the Earth that contradict geologic findings, or when certain scientists claim that science proves there is no God.

    Galileo (1564-1642) is considered the originator of the scientific method, which involves four essential elements: observation, hypothesis, experiment, and verification by independent observers.  In other words, first examine a phenomenon; next formulate an hypothesis to explain it; then test the hypothesis by performing an experiment or gathering additional evidence; and finally, inform others of what you observed so that they can confirm your results.  In a classic experiment, Galileo tested the prevailing belief that heavy objects fall faster than light ones by simultaneously dropping differing weights from a high place and observing their fall.  The results were obvious to independent observers.  I will never forget the deep impression my first experiment in high school chemistry made on me when I used electricity to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen, and then burned the hydrogen to make water again.  It was a very convincing demonstration of the atomic theory.  Eventually I came to believe in neutrinos.

    An important corollary to the scientific method is Occam’s razor, the philosophical principle named for its progenitor William of Occam (1285-?1349), which states that the simplest explanation is to be preferred.  Do not make a theory unnecessarily complex.  (I would caution all you channelers and psychics to keep Occam’s razor in mind when you evaluate the information you receive.) For a scientific theory to be useful it must be falsifiable, i.e.  disprovable.  If one were to advance the speculation based on channeled information that sentient gas-bag beings float in the Jovian atmosphere, it would not be a valid scientific theory because there is no observational evidence and it is not falsifiable with current technology.  In the final analysis, all scientific theories are tentative, in the sense that nothing can be indisputably proven for all time.  New understandings may cause our present theories to be seen as special cases of much broader theories, as when the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics extended classical physics into the cosmic and subatomic realms.

    The publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687 marked the next major turning point in the development of science (after Galileo) by placing physics on a firm mathematical foundation.  Henceforth, mathematics would be the basic language of science because it replaced the vague ideas of earlier times with quantitative and precise relations based on empirical observations of the material world.  The web of mathematical relationships that has been created over the past three centuries to describe physical behavior has culminated in quantum mechanics, the mathematical description of the subatomic realm.

    Ironically, although quantum mechanics is firmly based in mathematically quantifiable observations, the implications for causality are sometimes so bizarre as to violate common sense.  The famous Shrödinger’s cat paradox, where the cat is neither dead nor alive until the box is opened, is an example.  Numerous experiments have demonstrated that the observer has to be considered an integral part of the experimental apparatus when an observed quantum mechanical system is being observed.  The further one descends into the subatomic realm, the less possible becomes a precise description of “reality.” Chance and uncertainty rule the game.  The rules of the subatomic realm.  follows appear to be vastly different from the rules those of our own macroscopic realm only because the of the minuteness of quantum effects.

    By its own rules, science is restricted to the investigation of empirical phenomena that are observable by more than one individual.  Mystically-derived information, by contrast, is inherently non-reproducible, subjective, and unique to the observer.  At present there are no methods of objective verification of such information.  However, there are numerous well-tested techniques for bringing on mystical experiences such as meditation, tantra, magic, ritual, dreaming, entheogenic compounds, fasting, physical ordeal, martial arts, isolation tanks and praying.  High fever, torture and near-death experiences, which fall in the physical ordeal category, can also induce mystical states of mind.  The common theme is weakening of the ego’s censorship of the unconscious mind so that Truth can be glimpsed.

    I suspect that the great majority of readers of this magazine have had some sort of mystical experience of spirit in matter, otherwise you would not be reading a Pagan publication.  Perhaps you reacted strongly to a crystal or fossil, experienced the numinosity of a special place, felt the power within a consecrated magical tool, or sensed the uncannyness of an ancient artifact, to name a few possibilities.  For every individual, the specific visions and sensations in each mystical experience will be unique and profoundly conditioned by the physical and mental state and belief systems of the participant.  Mysticism is not inherently anti-materialistic (although many mystics are).  Indeed, once you have conversed with an animal, tree or a rock, it’s difficult to deny the spiritual aspects of Nature.  Fundamentalist Christians would probably judge that I had been talking to demons, but that certainly was not my experience.

    Nothing I can say will convince a skeptic of the existence of the spiritual dimensions.  The only compelling proof is to have an experience of one’s own.  My initial visionary experiences took place in the 1970s and were absolutely mind-blowing for me, but when I told my rationalist friends about them they took them as evidence of a delusional frame of mind.  It was like trying to describe television to someone from a pre-technological culture:

    “Invisible vibrations fill the air with information that can be displayed as moving pictures and sound if you use an electrically-powered receiver to amplify them.”

    “Electricity, what’s that? Just calm down, big fella.  We have a special place for you.”

    What seemed to confuse my friends the most was that I was doing cutting-edge research in seismic geology at the same time that I was having mystical experiences.  They took science and mysticism to be mutually contradictory, whereas I found them to be mutually enhancing.

    Because mysticism is rooted in direct experience of the divine, no faith is involved.  Religious faith is based on accepting the validity of the mystical experiences of dead people.  The basic contradiction here is that the most profound aspects mystical experiences cannot be communicated in words.  This inherent ambiguity has lead to some serious confusion, argument and bloodshed.  Think of how many Christians have died over the exact nature of Christ’s embodiment, the definition of the Trinity, or the correct date of Easter.  Most Christian denominations are deeply hostile and suspicious of mysticism largely because mystical experiences have the power to upset the status quo.  The last thing they want to see is large numbers of people channeling Jesus.  It would spin their tightly-structured theological systems into chaos.

    In classical civilization, the idea of science as a separate intellectual tradition barely existed, and creative thinkers such as Pythagoras and Aristotle were considered philosophers rather than scientists.  What we now think of as scientific disciplines, such as astronomy, chemistry, engineering, natural history, mathematics and physics, all arose within religious contexts.  Chemistry grew out of alchemy, astronomy from astrology, physics from natural philosophy.  The earliest irrigation systems of Mesopotamia and Egypt were engineered and administered from the temples.  For centuries, the precise calculation of astronomical phenomena all over the Mediterranean and Celtic worlds was the province of priests and priestesses.

    Historically, the divorce of science and religion is a fairly recent phenomenon that gradually took place in the centuries following the Renaissance and took hold with a vengeance during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  In Europe before the middle of the nineteenth century, it was common for scientific studies to include reference to the Bible for support.  The spiritual pursuits of some major scientists, such as Newton’s interest in alchemy, have commonly been ignored by academics or downplayed as embarrassing aberrations.  Indeed, the extreme reductionist views of some twentieth century scientists are reminiscent of rebellious teenagers who totally reject the beliefs of their parents, in this case the religious cultural matrix in which science originated.

    The anti-material bias in Western spiritual thought has deep mythological and historical roots: the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis; Platonic idealism; the Zoroastrian belief in the complete corruption of the world by the demon of the lie.  Zoroaster (aka Zarathustra), who probably lived sometime before 1000 BCE in what is now Iran, appears to be the originator of a dualistic spiritual tradition that irrevocably divided creation into warring opposites.  For Zoroastrians, the good side was identified with light and spirit, the evil with darkness and matter.  The preference for spirit over matter and light over dark carried over into Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Neoplatonism, Christianity, and Western occultism.  In the present day it is an ingrained and unquestioned cultural and ethical paradigm.

    For example, consider the immense popularity of the Star Wars films of George Lucas.  The war between the light and dark sides of “the Force” is a modern retelling of the ancient Zoroastrian myth.  Modern totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and Marxism typically identify light with good and dark as a metaphor for evil, although Marxism is unusual in preferring matter over spirit.

    This ethical polarization persisted in varying degrees through the Judeo-Greco-Christian-Islamic cultural tradition to the present day, culminating in the current war of culture on Nature by Marxism, capitalism and modernism.

    One of the most perplexing questions in human history is why science flowered in Christian Europe.  Many inventions were made in China and Pagan Europe, but nowhere else than Europe did a systematic program of investigation of Nature appear.  One of the principal reasons science flowered in the Christian world is that the rational intellect was highly valued and cultivated.  Aristotle’s logical methods have been part of the epistemological foundation of western Christianity since the time of Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274).  Part of the explanation may also be the suppression of Christian mysticism.  Because the impulse to experience the essence of Nature was thwarted in the mystical dimension, it took the avenue of scientific experimentation as an outlet, much like thwarted sexual energy can be used to create religious ecstasy.  Science blossomed during the European Enlightenment which was in part a reaction to the religious paranoia of the Burning Times and the Inquisition.  Much of the hostility of science toward mysticism is due to conflation of mysticism with organized religion.  In addition, science shares in the general hostility towards mysticism as part of the ambient Christian cultural values that it grew out of.

    Part of the hostility of science towards mysticism is justified.  Consider those goofy, ungrounded spiritual types who draw absurd conclusions about physical reality based entirely on channeled information.  My geologist side considers most of the New Age stuff about California falling into the sea, Earth changes, photon belts and similar whatnot to be ludicrous, while however at the same time I strive to retain an open mind toward the possibility of new physics.  Any religious teaching that contradicts what science knows of the physical realm is suspect until proven otherwise by observations.  One of the measures I apply when judging any spiritual practice or religion is how well its average adherents treat the Earth and its creatures.  I cannot name one world religion that has passed this test.

    One of the deeply embedded patterns of history is the replacement of old religions by new ones that are more in tune with the times.  Thus the animistic beliefs and animal powers of the hunting and gathering peoples were replaced by the elaborate pantheons of the agricultural communities.  Widespread literacy in Classical times facilitated the rise of religions of the Book and the subsequent fossilization of evolving mystical traditions into static sacred texts.  In an ironic turn of the Tao, the rational non-mystical thinking fostered by Christian clerics gave rise to science and high technology, which effectively destroyed the stranglehold Christianity had on the human imagination.  Now we see atavistic religious practices, such as fundamentalism and Paganism, resurging worldwide in reaction to soulless technological civilization.  I suspect that the moral certainty and religious fervor that currently energizes the Christian right will peak shortly after the year 2000, and will be followed by a crisis of faith when their millennial expectations are dashed.  Fundamentalism will fail in the end because it is too divisive and mean-spirited to long endure before people react against it and turn elsewhere for inspiration.  Eventually the pendulum of politics will swing away from severity and back to compassion.  What I foresee, and pray, is that a scientifically grounded mystical pantheism will eventually emerge from the current Pagan revival and provide the spiritual foundation for an ecologically sane global civilization.

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