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The Vision of William James
Abstract: Although William James was not a prolific writer, the books and essays that he did produce have proved to be key works in their respective fields. He formalized the subject of psychology as a separate scientific discipline; he investigated the nature of truth in his co-creation of pragmatism, and the nature of consciousness in his psychology writings; he was an early rationalist investigator of spiritual experiences; and his book on religious experiences was a forerunner on the subject. His personal life was not a happy one, given as it was to continual bouts of depression, but still he married and raised a family. This essay explores some of these many facets of the life of William James.
There are several biographies of William James available but one of the most modern and thorough I have encountered is that by Robert D. Richardson (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2006) and I shall draw from his research in writing this account.
William was the eldest of five children. Two of his siblings – Henry James Jr. and Alice James – became notable writers. William James was a prolific author himself and his fame rests to a considerable extent on some of these writings, though early on his talent as an artist made him consider this as a profession. The tenor of his writing was influenced by the interest of his father, Henry James Sr., in the work of the Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. In the 1740s, after the age of about fifty-five, Swedenborg began having mystical experiences. He was a polymath focusing on science and engineering, but in the 1740s he turned his attention to philosophy and religion and one of his best-known books is Heaven and Hell (1758), about the afterlife. Swedenborg’s view of the “second coming” was not a physical re-appearance of Christ on Earth but rather a time when humankind would embrace the reality of the spiritual foundation of the universe – a view similar to those of Richard Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness and the Omega Point of Teilhard de Chardin. Henry James Sr. was a theologian who spent two years at Princeton Theological Seminary. Despite his own college education, Henry Sr. was against any of his children going to college as he considered them “hot beds of corruption”.
William James was to become the “founding father” of the science of psychology in America. Born in 1842 and living until 1910, William James was a near contemporary of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). However, in his youth James disagreed with a fundamental concept in Freud’s psychology – the concept of the unconscious that Freud introduced in his second classification of the operations of mind. In his 1892 book Principles of Psychology James took ten justifications for the unconscious presented by Freud and refuted all of them. Nevertheless James’ later work frequently refers to the unconscious or subconscious, and Freud’s initial definition of the unconscious as the realm of repressed memories itself had to be modified later. In James’ later writing there is some doubt as to whether the two great men were writing about precisely the same thing and perhaps the gulf between their ideas might not have been as stark as has been suggested.
William James started his studies at Harvard in 1861. While he was a student there, he heard the anti-Darwinian lectures of the famous Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz. This is not surprising since Agassiz, who was considered America’s leading scientist, was a follower of the noted French biologist Baron Georges Cuvier with whom he had studied. Now Cuvier was a catastrophist believing that evolution had developed in accord with some original divine master plan that involved, specifically, periodic catastrophic floods that created new species, rather than evolution occurring by any Earth-bound physical processes. Agassiz, like Cuvier and many others, followed this line in their thinking. William the scientist wanted to study with Agassiz and was clearly emotionally attracted to the possibility of divine participation in the evolutionary process. So, in March of 1865, William set off to accompany Agassiz on an expedition to Brazil to return the following year. The most significant outcome of the trip for James was that he decided he did not want to be a naturalist.
For eighteen months between April 1867 and November 1868 James was first in Paris and then Germany, studying at Dresden and Berlin, “exploring the border ground of physiology and psychology”. Meanwhile he was improving his German and sparring with his father over the latter’s Substance and Shadow which dealt with, in Henry’s words, “the physics of creation”. William at the time was entering a materialist-atheist phase in which he told his father that he rejected the “spiritual” and the “divine”. He vacillated between thinking that he could contribute to a “science of religion” on the one hand and on the other hand that spiritual experience was forever inaccessible to science but rather was a purely subjective phenomenon. Here lay the beginnings of James’ thoughts on the importance of will. Though he and other members of his family had frequent bouts of depression he was determined that by force of will he could overcome this disposition: “we ourselves must be our own providence”. His greatest insights seemed to come when he was in the most troubled emotional states.
William completed his medical degree at Harvard in June of 1869. Although the final examination comprised only a ninety-minute oral, William was thereby licensed to practice medicine. Although Harvard University was established by the Puritans in 1636, the Medical School had barely a century of history behind it and, even in the mid-19th century, it did not enjoy the reputation for excellence that it has today. It was in 1869 that William read and reviewed a book on spiritualism by Epes Sargent called Planchette or The Despair of Science, which pointed out the limitations of the materialist world-view of science if it excluded psychic phenomena – a forerunner perhaps of Charles T. Tart’s The End of Materialism and more recently Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion.
One of William’s many cousins, Minnie Temple, with whom he had a particularly close emotional and spiritual relationship died in 1870 at the early ago of twenty-four. But for their family relationship it is possible that he and Minnie might have married, so close and strong was their affection for one another. Minnie’s death plunged William into a deep state of despair and depression producing something like a severe and extended panic attack. As a result of this experience James turned to biblical texts to try to find consolation – not only to the Bible but also to Eastern spiritual texts like the Upanishads. It was to be several years before William could lay aside his feelings for Minnie Temple enough to court and marry Alice Gibbens in 1878 with whom he would eventually have five children.
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William James, the practicing scientist and philosopher, was also a sensitive aesthete and painter and, in his youth, like Sir Alister Hardy he was talented enough to consider becoming an artist as a career. After graduation, William began teaching at Harvard in 1873 with lectures in physiology and anatomy and three years later he was offering courses in psychology and philosophy. In the late 19th century philosophy, psychology and religion were interwoven in their study of mind and soul. Thus, the materialist scientist in James could equally advocate the free will to believe.
Exact dates given for the foundation of psychology laboratories vary, but the consensus is that both William James in Cambridge, Mass., and Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig both established such laboratories around 1875. Wundt had studied under Hermann Helmholz, best known to us today as the physicist who showed that all forms of energy were equivalent. However, in his day, Helmholtz was thought of equally as a psychologist who first suggested that the unconscious mind interferes with conscious thought processes.
James was as interested in modern physical sciences as he was in his specialisms. In May 1875 James had reviewed a book called The Unseen Universe by Scottish physicists Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait in which they maintained that “the presumed incompatibility of Science and Religion does not exist”. Furthermore, they suggested that “the visible system is not the whole universe” [Richardson, p.164] – heady stuff for the 19th century! They stated that “there must be an invisible order of things which will remain and possess energy when the present system has passed away”. How close is this to modern scientific thinking about dark energy and dark matter! It was in this review that James first suggested his ideas on the “will to believe”. According to Lawrence Le Shan, James said : “we have moved from the belief that we live in a ‘universe’ to the knowledge that we live in a ‘pluriverse’” – or ‘multiverse’ as Wheeler and Everett describe it. It was James who coined this term.
While still supervising work in the psychology laboratory William James was appointed assistant professor in philosophy at Harvard in 1880. It was in this atmosphere that James wrote a psychological paper for the January 1884 issue of Mind, the Quarterly Journal of Psychology and Philosophy. The paper had the cumbersome title “On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology” but it contained the conceptual nugget “that consciousness is not a state or a sum of impressions, not a pool or a reservoir, but a stream.” This recalls the ideas of Heraclitus about our being unable to step into the same river twice. The concept of a “stream of consciousness” is one of the seminal visions of William James: “No state of consciousness, once gone, can recur and be identical with what it was before” [italics his] or, as Henri Bergson put it, “History does not repeat itself”. Søren Kirkegaard tried and failed to find an example of exact repetition in life.
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In Cambridge (Mass.) in the 1880s there was great enthusiasm for the writings of G.W.F. Hegel who died fifty years earlier. Hegel believed that society was shaped by a communal ethos he called Geist. The history of civilization mirrored swings in the prevailing tenor of society reflected by Geist. James believed none of this and that changes in society were wrought by inspired individuals – closer to the Nietzschean Ubermensch. Despite his opposition to Hegelian ideas, James writes: “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of his old order standing. Time and space, cause and effect, nature and history, and one’s own biography remain untouched. New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions. It marries old opinion to new fact so as ever to show a minimum of jolt, a maximum of continuity.” ["What Pragmatism Means," from the second of the eight lectures that make up Pragmatism, 1907.]This is the idea of Hegelian “synthesis” that shapes the path of human history. James regarded pragmatism as the “the most inspiriting attitude we can have . . . the common denominator to which all the forms of human life can be reduced”.
In June of 1884 William and Alice’s son Hermann (whom they affectionately called Humster) developed a serious case of whooping cough, from which he did not recover, and he died the following month. The following year, in an effort to find some consolation for William for the loss of a dear son, his mother-in-law suggested he visit with an acquaintance of hers, Leonora Piper. William at this stage had no belief in personal immortality, but visited Mrs Piper more as part of his psychology research. He did not believe that Mrs Piper was in contact with discarnate spirits; nor did he endorse the outpourings of some other claimed visionaries, such as Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, and Andrew Jackson Davis, “the Poughkeepsie Seer”.
Mrs Piper was not the only medium whose powers convinced William James. In 1907 he described how a medium called Mrs Titus was able to locate the drowned body of a Bertha Huse when all previous attempts by divers to find the corpse in water where visibility was zero had failed. The case attracted much publicity so it is well documented.
In his Principles of Psychology, published in 1892 by Henry Holt, James uses the life of a bird as a metaphor for the human stream of consciousness, comprising “flights” and “perchings”. Only the “perchings” or substantive states of mind as James calls them contribute to knowledge and memory. Many images are observed during the “flights” but these are fleeting and make no impression on the conscious mind. James calls the two mental processes of reductionism and holism – regarding things in terms of their functioning parts or as integrated wholes – “discrimination” and “association” and he considered that both are necessary for us to make our way in the world. An abridged version of this key psychology text was published by Holt a few years later.
William James devotes the whole of the last chapter of his basic psychology text to the role of Will or Volition as he calls it as the initial step in our interaction with the world. Volition is the expression of those neuronal activities that constitute wishes or desires. Sometimes thoughts are provoked by others that precede them: the stimuli can arise externally through the five senses or internally from the constant activities of cerebral neurons. There are those we call mediums who receive stimuli removed in space and time from their immediate surroundings. James suggested that there might be a “cosmic psychic reservoir”, rather like the akashic field of eastern mysticism or, in modern terminology, Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic field. Mediums might thus draw information from the past, though it is difficult to see how information from the future could be gleaned if one believes in the concept of free will, unless in Spirit past, present and future form a timeless continuum.
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The controversy over free will or determinism has raged in philosophy since the time of the ancient Greeks. Arthur Schopenhauer regarded it as the basis of our interaction with the world (The World as Will and Representation, 1818). Edmund Husserl regarded “intentionality” as the foundation of each human experience of the world (Logical Investigations, 1900-1901). In recent years, several authors (Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Lynne McTaggart) have stressed the importance of “intention” in our attitude to life and in our interaction with others. In The Principles of Psychology James said: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind . . . Through this attitude of mind, we can induce a state of well-being or inflict ill-health on ourselves. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact . . . The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” This is another of the key visions of William James.
In The Biology of Belief (2005) Bruce Lipton showed how our positive or negative thoughts could have corresponding impact upon our health and personality. Columnist Sharon Begley wrote an account of the 2004 Dharamsala Conference at the Indian home of the fourteenth Dalai Lama which presented evidence to show our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves. We have to wonder how physicians could ever have believed that the mind had no interaction with the physical body. For an experience to become imprinted on memory, “intention” must be accompanied by “attention” – directed concentration on the object of consciousness. Any objects or events that impinge meaningfully on the human body must begin with intention and concentrated attention. The mental processes associated with volition form one of the main subjects of The Principles of Psychology.
James points out that our recognition of our ‘self’ depends upon the success of our social relationships with others, particularly the esteem with which we are held in the minds of loved ones. In his theory of the nature of the individual mind, James envisioned a two-part division – the “I”, and a “Me” that was further divided into three aspects. The “I” was the thinking self and corresponded to Freud’s “ego”. Within the “Me” was a material self that expressed its identity through our possessions; a social self was the image we had of ourselves though our relationships with others; and the spiritual self or soul which represented who we are at the core.
From reading the work of the French philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier he alighted on Renouvier’s concept of free will as an illusion, an attitude with which he strongly disagreed: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will” (Letters of William James, 1920, Vol.1, p.147). In 1897 James produced The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, the other essays comprising “Is Life Worth Living?” and “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life”. In his comment on the individual in society James said: “The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual; the impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”
In The Principles there are some interesting reflections on the mental continuity of the self, despite physical changes to the body: “the Me of yesterday [is] judged to be in some peculiarly subtle sense the same with the I who now make the judgment”. Our bodies change to some extent from day to day – even during every day. Yet even with such traumas as loss of a limb or organ transplantation we still recognize our selves as the same.
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In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) James described the qualities he believed characterized a mystical experience. The five defining qualities of mysticism James believed were: ineffability (“more like states of feeling than like states of intellect”); noetic quality (“insight into depths of truth”); transiency (“mystical states cannot be maintained for long”); passivity (“the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped by a superior power”); and metamorphosis (“they modify the inner life of the subject”). The experiences described by ordinary people as OBEs and NDEs share many of the features described by William James in his definition of mystical experiences in their ineffability, their transience, their noetic quality, and their subsequent effect on personality of the percipient. Recent books by Raymond Moody (Life After Life, 1975) and Pim van Lommel (Consciousness Beyond Life, 2010) provide many instances of these phenomena which report such personal experiences.
This succinct description of mystical states is a vision that others have called upon. Evelyn Underhill claimed to be expanding on these five basic qualities of mystical experiences (though Underhill describes only four) in her treatise on Mysticism (Methuen, 1912). Contemporary physicists Jeffrey Schwartz, Henry Stapp and Mario Beauregard combine James’ view of these and other cerebral events with the ideas of quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg and mathematician John von Neumann in a comprehensive theory of the processes of consciousness (Phil. Trans Roy. Soc. B, 2005). The mechanism of the mind involves the act of volition that constitutes free will to focus on just one of the ripples in the stream of consciousness.
I have tried to give an impression of some of the most influential ideas that emerged from the writings of William James and, at the same time, without going over the same ground as his more erudite biographers, to say something about James’ personality and character. In both his philosophy and psychology, and in the interpretation of religious experiences, James was undoubtedly one of the key thinkers in America over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He provided ideas that many others have worked on and developed.
First published in The Journal of Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, vol. 38(2), November 2015.
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The Vision of Alfred Russel Wallace by Howard Jones
Abstract: The work of the explorer-naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace has become obscured over the last century by that of his contemporary and sometime collaborator, Charles Darwin. Wallace was also one of several scientists of the time who took an active interest in spiritualism, as this brief biography will show. I will also suggest why posterity favoured Darwin.
Alfred Russel Wallace is once again receiving the recognition he deserves as one of the originators of the theory of evolution. At the time of his death he was not only one of the best known scientists in Britain but in the rest of the world too. As a naturalist, Wallace travelled widely, and his work in the Amazon basin and then in the Malay Archipelago established his reputation amongst scientists and the lay public. His work as an explorer and biologist was well-known in his lifetime but his contributions to biology have been rather overlooked for the past century by the fame of Charles Darwin.
Although Darwin trained to be an Anglican priest in his early years, his description of evolution envisages a thoroughgoing materialism in the process. Wallace on the other hand adopted a more teleological approach. Darwin had the advantages of a full schooling and study at two eminent universities, Edinburgh and Cambridge, while Wallace had only eight years of formal schooling and was largely self-taught. Darwin’s family were financially secure while Wallace had to be withdrawn from school because of the family’s financial hardship.
Wallace lectured world-wide on biology but also on spiritualism in which he later developed an interest. His spiritual interpretation of evolution probably contributed to his neglect in favour of the materialist approach of Charles Darwin, which was more in line with scientific thinking and the ethos of Victorian society. Wallace saw human evolution as moving from physical to mental to spiritual – a process he described as ‘the progression of the fittest’. In this, he endorsed the views of Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902)  and paleogeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1885-1955) .
In commenting on the relation between spiritualism and evolution, Wallace wrote in one of his articles : ‘On the spiritual theory, man consists essentially of a spiritual nature or mind intimately associated with a spiritual body or soul, both of which are developed in and by means of a material organism. Thus, the whole raison d'etre of the material universe--with all its marvellous changes and adaptations, the infinite complexity of matter and of the ethereal forces which pervade and vivify it, the vast wealth of nature in the vegetable and animal kingdoms--is to serve the grand purpose of developing human spirits in human bodies.
This world-life not only lends itself to the production, by gradual evolution, of the physical body needed for the growth and nourishment of the human soul, but by its very imperfections tends to the continuous development of the higher spiritual nature of man. In a perfect and harmonious world, perfect beings might possibly have been created, but could hardly have been evolved; and it may be well that evolution is the great fundamental law of the universe of mind as well as that of matter.’
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Like another of his scientist contemporaries, physicist Sir Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), Wallace saw no incompatibility between his study of psychic phenomena and the science of evolution. In the Victorian age of technological development Wallace deplored the massive destruction of natural habitats even then. He saw how deforestation for timber and agricultural development would lead to soil erosion, a decrease in biodiversity and adversely affect regional climates.
Alfred Wallace was born on 8 January 1823 in Kensington Cottage located just outside the village of Llanbadoc, some half-a-mile from the town of Usk, Monmouthshire in south-east Wales. So Wallace was, by birth, a Welshman, but as an adult he regarded himself as English as he had spent so little time in Wales – his first five years and a few years in his 20s in Neath – and neither of his parents was Welsh. Most of his adult life that was spent in Britain (rather than on his explorations abroad) was spent living in various parts of England.
Families were larger in those days because infant death rates were higher and Alfred was the seventh of nine children born to Thomas Vere Wallace and Mary Anne Greenell. When Alfred was five years old, Mary Anne came into a small inheritance and the family moved to his mother’s family home town of Hertford, 20 miles north of London. Alfred attended Hertford Grammar School for eight years (1828-1836) until financial difficulties forced his parents to withdraw him.
From 1837, Alfred, now in his teenage years, moved to London and Bedfordshire to live with his older brothers John and then William. It was William who taught Alfred the skills of surveying, drawing and mapmaking – skills that were to serve him well in his later professional life as a naturalist. In his 20s (1840s), Alfred worked with William as a surveyor in Radnorshire and in the Vale of Neath in South Wales.
During his impressionable teenage years Alfred encountered the revolutionary ideas of the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen and those of the English philosopher Thomas Paine, who contributed so much to the American and French revolutions through his writings. These works were no doubt instrumental in shaping Wallace’s life-long socialist ideals. It was also in his 20s that Alfred’s interest in biology began, largely through his friendship with an enthusiastic entomologist called Henry Walter Bates. It was he who accompanied Wallace on his trip to the Amazon. It was also in the 1840s that Wallace developed an interest in mesmerism, particularly as a means of performing surgery without anaesthetic. In the 1840s, ether and nitrous oxide were the most frequently used anaesthetics available. In 1844 Alfred secured a teaching post in Leicester but he returned to Wales two years later to continue William’s work when his brother died quite suddenly.
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A joint paper by Darwin and Wallace was presented to the Linnaean Society of London on 1 July 1858 by Darwin’s friends Joseph D. Hooker and Charles Lyell. Darwin and Wallace had both published works previously that suggested the idea of evolution through natural selection. Darwin had published his Journal of Researches, now usually known as The Voyage of the Beagle, in 1839 and Wallace his essay On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species in 1855. Even before these publications, Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin had published his Zoonomia (1794-6) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck his Zoological Philosophy in 1809, exactly 50 years before Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Both of these earlier works had suggested evolution of complicated plants and animals from more primitive life-forms, though the mechanism was thought to be predominantly the inheritance of characteristics acquired by the adult organisms during their lifetime.
Just as Darwin’s key work emerged from his six-year long expedition (1831-36) to the South Atlantic aboard the Beagle, so Wallace’s reputation emerged from his four-year long trip (April 1848 to October 1852) to the Amazon jungle aboard the Mischief. Alfred’s younger brother Edward joined him on the expedition but had to leave soon after because he found the going too strenuous. Unfortunately he was in the tropics long enough to contract yellow fever and he died in 1851.
Alfred made contact with many native peoples during the trip and formed a much more positive view of them than Darwin had done. Wallace bemoaned the results that European influences were going to have on these native peoples. Instead of being uplifted he thought they would lose all the good qualities of their lives and instead gain only the vices.
The Amazon trip almost cost Alfred his life too as the ship he was on – the brig Helen – caught fire after only 26 days at sea on the way home: most of his specimens were lost and Alfred was lucky to escape with his life. Fortunately, after 10 days at sea, the survivors were picked up by the brig Jordeson and he arrived home on 1 October 1852. In 1853, two slim volumes did appear with data and conclusions from the expedition: Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Palm Trees of the Amazon and their Uses. The quest to find data enough to shape a theory of evolution still eluded him.
And so it was that after only two years to rest and recuperate in Britain, Wallace set out once again on 4th March 1854 on an expedition, this time aboard the steamer Bengal to explore the East Indies. This excursion too was to last another eight years but brought much greater rewards for the explorer. Indeed, as the man himself put it – it became ‘the central and controlling incident of my life’.
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While Darwin’s father had financed his trip on the Beagle, Wallace had to finance his travels out of his own pocket by selling specimens he had gathered. Alfred’s father, Thomas Vere Wallace, squandered what little money the family had – just like T.H. Huxley’s father – by injudicious investments and extravagant living. However, Wallace had great respect and affection for the native peoples with whom he interacted – even for the Dyak headhunters of Borneo who lamented the prohibition of their old ways! Author Michael Flannery comments in his book : ‘This fact alone would be an important feature distinguishing Wallace from all his fellow naturalists (Darwin, Huxley and Hooker).’
Of great significance from Wallace’s time in the Malay Archipelago was the article ‘On the Law Which Has Regulated the Introduction of New Species’, which appeared in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in September 1855 and generally known as Wallace’s Sarawak Law, though once again its significance apparently escaped both Lyell and Darwin himself. When he was ill with malaria in 1858, he re-read Malthus’ essay and realized that a species monitors itself in that only the fittest would survive – a phrase suggested by his (and Darwin’s) friend Herbert Spencer. He produced a paper entitled, ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’.
Also in March 1858 Wallace wrote to his childhood friend George Silk what is now called the Ternate Letter. He also wrote of his discoveries to Darwin who finally realized that Wallace had indeed discovered one of the keys to evolution of species. Darwin was reluctant to accept that anyone could have usurped what he regarded as his theory, though Lamarck had already covered some of this territory 50 years earlier and Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus had done so a few decades earlier still. To associate the theory of evolution solely with (Charles) Darwin is to deny the events of scientific history. A thorough study of barnacles (Cirripedia) for eight years (1846-54) showed Darwin what field studies in the Malay Archipelago had demonstrated to Wallace – that species variations occurred naturally and spontaneously, as Slotten has pointed out . Darwin had reached many of these conclusions about the path of evolution earlier but his training in Edinburgh as an Anglican priest made him very aware of the implications of his ideas for theists and those who believed in the Creation myths of the Bible, and this must have inhibited his publishing his thesis. In short, by 1859, Darwin had become a thoroughgoing materialist.
From his study of fauna in Asia, in 1859 Wallace proposed what has become known as the Wallace Line, a hypothetical boundary running from south-west to north-east between Indonesia and Australia. The line runs through the Indonesian Archipelago, but islands to the west of the line have fauna closely related to those of Asia or the Sunda region, while islands to the east of the Wallace Line are more closely allied to those in Australia, designated the Sahul region. This idea formed the core of his 1869 treatise on The Malay Archipelago, dedicated to his friend and colleague Charles Darwin. Wallace’s suggestions were therefore made several decades before Alfred Wegener’s idea of ‘continental drift’, which was advanced in 1912, and the subsequent ideas of plate tectonics. The Wallace Line follows closely the border between the Australian and the Eurasian plates, the existence of which, unknown in Wallace’s time, provides a rational explanation for Wallace’s surprising discovery. The edges of these plates form shallower shelves bordering these regions.
On 31 March 1862 Wallace finally arrived back in England with a huge bounty of specimens – mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and shells. He moved into the London home of his sister Fanny and her husband and set about writing papers (twenty-eight in the next three years) and giving numerous lectures to consolidate his reputation as a naturalist. The 1860s were significant for Wallace also because in 1865 he developed an interest in spiritualism and in 1866 he married 18-year-old Annie Mitten – 23 years younger than himself. The two formed a close bond for the rest of their time together. Wallace’s father-in-law, William Mitten, was also a naturalist and an expert in mosses.
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On 22 July 1865 Wallace’s sister Fanny persuaded him to accompany her to a séance, and his interest in psychic phenomena began. In the second half of the 19th century there were many rationalists who investigated spiritual phenomena. These rationalists included a number of physicists, like William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, William Barrett, J.J. Thompson, and Lord Rayleigh, French physiologist Charles Richet, American logician James Hervey Hyslop, British mathematician Augustus de Morgan and philosopher William James. All were ultimately persuaded of the essential validity of the evidence. Importantly, Wallace’s view of the validity of such spiritual experiences persuaded him of a more teleological interpretation of evolution than even Darwin had envisaged, despite his training for the clergy. Wallace was not a passionate advocate of spiritualism: he thought only that mechanistic forces alone could not account for all human qualities and urged scientists to consider spiritual phenomena seriously by investigation. Wallace maintained that ‘an Overruling Intelligence’ governed the processes of nature and, in particular, endowed Man with his aesthetic sensibility. This view was a source of discord between Wallace and Darwin. The would-be priest had already agonized much over his Origin of Species in that it seemed to dispense with a need or even a role for a divine creator. Now he was disturbed by the suggestion that any kind of external agency participated in the process of evolution. The two naturalists differed in many details of their interpretation of the biological influence of individuals or populations, Darwin focussing on the former, Wallace the latter.
Although Darwin used the term ‘creation’ he made it clear that this was not intended in any theological context but merely equivalent to ‘appearance’ – by some unknown mechanism. Darwin in his writing showed great admiration for the views of atheists David Hume and Auguste Comte. As Fichman has observed : ‘Wallace constructed a theistic evolutionary model that made natural selection subservient to much higher teleological directive powers’. Flannery comments that Wallace had ‘gone beyond man to include the origin of life and sentience in animals as clear entry points for design and purpose’ [Flannery, , p.83]. Although Wallace continued to refer to his evolution theory as Darwinism, from this point on Wallace was really describing ‘intelligent evolution’ or as it might be called today, ‘evolution through intelligent design’. In 1889, he published a book entitled Darwinism: An exposition of the theory of natural selection with some of its applications, that confirmed that even he was not fully aware of just how fundamentally different was his view of evolution. The most complete statement of Wallace’s position is expressed in his book The World of Life, published in 1910 by Chapman and Hall when Wallace was 87.
Also in his biology Wallace favoured the idea of ‘transformation’ or ‘transmutation’ of species, as did Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin but in opposition to the ‘natural selection’ suggested by Darwin that is now explained through the mechanism of genes. The earlier biologists believed that adaptation to environmental factors and some ill-defined life-force produced changes in life forms rather than changes determined primarily by parentage. It might be thought of as prescience on the part of Wallace to align himself with the idea that environmental and energetic factors influenced biological development.
The ‘life-force’ idea has gained support in recent decades within the scientific Establishment from the suggestion of the existence of an all-enveloping cosmic field of energy at the subatomic level of the quantum world. This concept has been applied in biology by Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake with his suggestion of ‘formative causation’ resulting from the influence of ‘morphic fields’. Such fields are suggested to influence both chemical reactions and biological (including mental) processes. It is not suggested that such forces replace genetic factors but rather supplement and influence them.
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Wallace developed an interest in spiritualism during the 1860s and investigated various mediums with physicist William Crookes. They both witnessed the production of apports (physical objects) by mediums in trance. It is this aspect of Wallace’s work and his support for evidence of an afterlife for the human soul that is most likely to be the reason for his relative obscurity within academia and thence the general public. Wallace’s interest in spiritualism from witnessing evidence first-hand from mediums began in 1865, probably a year or two before Sir William Crookes began his studies following the death of his brother at age 21 in 1867. Now Wallace was a scientist to the core and therefore not likely to be easily duped or to join up with some fashionable craze. His investigation of spiritualism and mediumship was therefore undertaken in the true scientific philosophy of studying ‘new’ phenomena (psychic phenomena had almost certainly been known to pagan peoples for millennia) and attempting to provide explanations. Wallace maintained that psychic phenomena ‘are proved quite as well as any facts are proved in other sciences’ and that they are a part of the natural world and therefore fall squarely within the remit of science as a subject for study. They represent a channel of communication between the material and the spiritual worlds. Wallace was at the home of William Crookes in 1871 when the medium David Dunglas Home communicated with the spirits of the English mathematician Augustus de Morgan and the Scottish writer, publisher and geologist Robert Chambers, author of ‘Vestiges’ fame .
In 1872 Wallace built a house called the Dell near Grays in Essex to house his family of wife and three children – two boys and one girl, though young Herbert died aged seven. Wallace’s, perhaps subconscious, vision in aligning himself with Lamarckism as well as Darwinian evolution and in asserting the validity of psychic phenomena gives him a place among the great scientists of the 19th century. The last decade of Wallace’s life (1902-1913) was spent living a house called Old Orchard that he designed and had built in the district of Broadstone, near Poole, in the county of Dorset, where there is now a memorial to the great man.
Exactly a century after Wallace’s death, on 7 November 1913, a bronze statue of Wallace by Anthony Smith was unveiled by Sir David Attenborough at the Natural History Museum, London. There was a large crowd at the Darwin Centre, and among the guests was Richard Wallace, Alfred Wallace’s grandson. During the speeches, however, there was no mention of Wallace’s role as a psychic pioneer. Across the road from the Museum is the College of Psychic Studies, whose Memorandum of Association (under its old name, the London Spiritualists’ Alliance) included Wallace among its signatories.
References and Bibliography
 Bucke, Richard Maurice, Cosmic Consciousness, Innes and Sons, Philadelphia, 1905.
 Teihard de Chardin, Pierre, The Phenomenon of Man, 1955 (in French); trans. Bernard Wall,
William Collins, London, 1959.
 Wallace, A.R., from a reprint of the 1885 article ‘Are the Phenomena of Spiritualism in Harmony with Science?’ in The Christian Register, p.132, 4 March 1886.
 Flannery, Michael A. Alfred Russel Wallace: a rediscovered life, Discovery Institute Press, Seattle, Washington, 2011.
 Slotten, Ross A. The Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The life of Alfred Russel Wallace, Columbia University Press, 2004.
 Fichman, Martin, An Elusive Victorian: The evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.204. 2004.
 Chambers, Robert, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, 1844; University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, John Murray, 1859; Penguin, 1985.
Mercier, Charles Arthur, Spiritualism and Sir Oliver Lodge, Forgotten Books, 2012.
Wallace, A.R. The Malay Archipelago, Penguin, 2014.
Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, Forgotten Books, 2014.
Darwinism: An exposition of the theory of natural selection with some of its applications,
Macmillan, 1889; Elibron Classics, 2005.
First published in The Journal of Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, vol. 38(1), May 2015.
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The Varieties of Aesthetic Experience
Abstract: We can find beauty in several facets of the world around us. There are many scenes within Nature that provoke an inspired sense of awe or feeling of the immanence of the divine and lead to the creation of poetry, painting or music. This cross-fertilization between the humanities encourages one art-work to lead to creation of another. I have tried to explore this as a holistic expression of spiritual consciousness.
Aesthetics, the creation and appreciation of beauty that allows us to express our most positive emotions, is a component of the human psyche that is essential for most of us. To paraphrase Jung, we cannot understand the world only through the intellect. The need to give expression to the emotional side of our natures is paramount for our mental wellbeing and, as pointed out by Solomon (1993), this is where we find our meaning in life. Indeed, many would regard the very existence of aesthetics as the distinctive quality that makes us human and, as such, for many it forms part of the evidence for a natural theology. Contemplation of the aesthetic gives us our escape from the pressures to which we are continually exposed in the material reality of everyday life and a chance to explore our true selves. As pointed out by Gergen (1991), we have become saturated with the materialistic, the rational and the purposefully productive.
In the philosophy of ancient Greece, Socrates, through Plato, argued that an appreciation of beauty encourages the young to prefer noble deeds over evil ones. In some of his Dialogues, Plato seems to equate the Form of Beauty with that of the Good. In 19th century Oxford, Cardinal John Henry Newman was the main protagonist of the view that the existence of human morality provided the best evidence for the existence of a Supreme Spirit, and that poetry had the potential for the highest expression of religious truth.
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Taking up this same idea from Plato, Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement suggested that ‘an immediate interest in natural beauty . . . [provides] an indication of moral worth’, and this idea found expression too through Arthur Schopenhauer in the last part of his The World as Will and Idea. This same theme has been developed more recently by Malcolm Budd (2002) in his book, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature. According to Budd, echoing Kant, the potentiality of a good moral disposition is the only way to explain anyone’s taking an immediate interest in natural beauty [Budd, 2002, pp.55, 56, paraphrased].
Beauty has been a source of inspiration to many poets, painters and composers. John Keats rather enigmatically said that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ while Goethe appreciated the mystical quality of beauty within Nature:
‘Beauty is a manifestation of secret natural laws, which otherwise would have been hidden from us forever’.
The writings of the Jesuit mystical poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, as one might expect, reflect this mystical quality of beauty in Nature. Hopkins was a great admirer of Duns Scotus with his theological philosophy of haecceitas – the distinctive inner quality of a thing. Hopkins described this as ‘inscape’ and the cosmic spiritual energy that produces and maintains this implicate quality he called ‘instress’. Hopkins wrote using stylistic and metrical devices of multiple alliteration, rhyme and assonance both within and between the lines of his poems such as are found in Welsh language poetry where they are known as cynghanedd. His poetic style mirrors the Impressionistic painting of Monet and Turner and the music of Debussy and Ravel in capturing the instantaneous aesthetic atmosphere of his subjects.
Our senses detect numerous objects and events in the world around us, but it is only those in which we have some interest that we take note of. Interaction with the natural world is only one of the many facets of our existence on Earth that provide us with feelings of beauty: equally aesthetically stimulating are the human form, music, art, poetry and other literature, or even academic pursuits such as mathematics.
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We make our way in the everyday world through the use of the rational mind, but for recreation and inspiration we must tune in to the spiritual mind or soul. Out of the innumerable events that impinge on our senses, we must experience some degree of resonance or empathy with those subjects with which we want to interact, and that resonance is strongest when we perceive beauty within the objects that stimulate our senses. We tend to shy away from that which is ugly or offensive, or which we simply find boring. Through our appreciation of the arts, self-consciousness becomes a part of the cosmic consciousness – what the marine biologist and founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, Alister Hardy, calls the ‘unseen spiritual world of eternal values behind the material world of the senses’ [Hardy, p.114].
It is not just the observers of art-work who see elements of the numinous within them. The artisans themselves have often accredited a spiritual source beyond their material brains and technical skill for the inspiration that has allowed them to create. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler certainly saw composition as part of this mystical interaction. Speaking of his Second Symphony, popularly known as The Resurrection, he said: ‘Creative activity and the genesis of a work are mystical from start to finish, since one acts unconsciously, as if prompted from outside, and then one can hardly conceive how the result has come into being’ and ‘For me, the conception of the work never involved the laying down of a process, but at the most of a feeling ...The parallelism between life and music may be deeper and wider than we are yet in a position to understand’ [Blaukopf, pp. 196, 204]. How many artisans have felt that their creativity resulted from a breathing-in of the spirit of cosmic consciousness?
Time and again composers have taken texts from literature – plays, poems or even prose – and set them to music to produce other works that are equally great in a different way and which may perhaps arouse the aesthetic sense more easily in more people than the original literature. The Bible has probably been the source used most often; but there have been many other spiritual literary sources that have inspired great musical compositions, and of course the natural world itself has been a constant source of subjects for inspired composition and creation of literature and painting. William Wordsworth captured the spiritual essence of poetry with his comment:
‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’
Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, 1802, Preface
The ancient Greeks recognized beauty as associated essentially with knowledge and form, and the Pythagoreans particularly found beauty in mathematics. Symmetry, pattern, regularity and ordered relationships have much to do with recognition of visual beauty in an object. Following the lead of the German Romantics who coined the term ‘aesthetics’, most people today would probably recognize the need for feeling, emotion or passion to be associated with an assessment of beauty. Beauty in a work of art, poetry or music lies in its capacity to arouse human emotions by resonance between the artisan and the viewer, reader or listener through the art-work’s innate spirituality and form. Like Plato and his followers, many modern social philosophers maintain that immersion in the arts and humanities leads to the development of the spiritual side of our natures. This should be encouraged, especially in schoolchildren, in order to develop that which is fundamental in human nature and to produce greater respect for the wellbeing of our fellow Man. Some contemporary writers, like Palmer (2006) and Louv (2008, 2013), maintain that greater exposure to the natural world and artistic creativity are essential if children are to develop into healthy adults.
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German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer followed Confucius in believing that only through contemplation of the arts could we lay aside the demands of what Schopenhauer called the Will that most immediately focuses on the material world with which we are surrounded. Schopenhauer distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime through the degrees of ecstasy of the human subject. He was much influenced by Kant and by the philosophies of the East to which he was introduced by the oriental scholar Friedrich Majer, a friend of his mother’s. Johanna Schopenhauer held intellectual soirées at their home in Weimar after the death of her husband and it was here that Schopenhauer met Goethe and other German luminaries of the time who no doubt influenced the direction of his philosophy. It is interesting that the art of the Renaissance in the west features religious subjects very prominently whereas painting in the east is much more concerned with natural scenes and subjects.
Science has made the contribution to knowledge that it has by claiming to be completely objective in its findings and their interpretation. But is this even possible? All experimenters will have their individual beliefs and passions and these must inevitably colour to some extent what they observe and how they interpret it. The reluctance of many scientists to even consider the validity of psychic experiences is proof enough of subjective prejudice. In his survey of religious experiences, William James commented: ‘the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe’ [James, p.427]. James described four qualities of the mystical aspect of aesthetic experience: (1) ineffability – they are ‘more like states of feeling than like states of intellect’; (2) their noetic quality – they provide ‘insights into depths of truth’; (3) transiency – the joy or euphoria of reading a poem or, more often, hearing a piece of music is gone once the experience is over, though the sense of well-being may continue, as with other spiritual experiences; which leads on to (4) passivity – aesthetic experiences ‘modify the inner life of the subject’ [James, p.380]. Alister Hardy endorsed these sentiments in his Fifth Gifford Lecture at the University of Aberdeen in 1965, devoted to ‘the numinous’, when he described the numinous as ‘a reality perceived by extra-sensory means’ [Hardy, p.108]. Aesthetic experiences can take us to quite another world.
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The German philosopher-psychologist Gustav Fechner claimed that there was a non-linear mathematical relationship between a psychological sensation and the physical intensity of the stimulus – the more intense the stimulus, the greater the effect on our senses. This logarithmic formula became known as the Weber-Fechner Law. Fechner’s law has been criticized by William James and others because the stimuli of the senses may be various but the resulting sensation is singular, or at least a collection of singularities. When we see a bed of flowers, we may be struck by the colour and scent of the blooms, their variety and form, but each characteristic stimulates only one of our senses, and the response involves the subconscious as much as the conscious mind.
Understanding may well deepen aesthetic experience, but this component of subjective emotional response surely is paramount. Knowing that water is H2O does nothing to deepen our appreciation of a brook or a waterfall or a snowflake. Aesthetic appreciation of a painting of a scene is only partly appreciation of the scene itself and mostly of the skill of the artist in representing it in their use of colour, and their creation of a harmonious relationship between the components of the painting. Our analysis of a Beethoven symphony or exploration of Hopkins’s use of imagery will heighten our appreciation and admiration of both the artist and his work, but there remains an aesthetic dimension that rationalist reductionism can never interpret.
It was the German sculptor, Adolph von Hildebrand who, in The Problem of Form (1893), first distinguished between the sensations we experience from an art-work as a whole (what he called Fernbilder – the ‘picture from a distance’) and those we appreciate by a detailed examination and analysis of its components (Bewegungsvorstellungen – the individual components that contribute to our sensations). Aesthetic judgement involves both an active intellectual understanding of the material properties of an object, its representation in painting, words or music, and its numinous qualities that demand a passive sensibility to qualities that move the soul.
Hildebrand believed that only creations that moved the emotions when viewed as a whole should be considered as works of art. In fact, we only fully appreciate beauty when we see an object as a whole. We might enjoy feeling the texture of leaves on a tree, but we only see the tree as beautiful when we can see it as a whole. We may parse a poem or a novel into its grammatical and syntactical components, or a symphony into its themes and harmonies, but it is only as a whole that we are able to fully enjoy the aesthetic qualities with which the art-work has been imbued by the poet, painter or composer. Then, the consummation of pleasure comes from some ‘sudden insight’ as the psychologists call it – a realization of a depth of beauty that more detailed analysis may enhance but can never on its own reveal.
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The human mind has the ability to change focus in its perceptions. With the rational mind we can perceive the detailed structure of things or we can see them as a whole. With yet another faculty – the spiritual mind or soul – we can interact with the ethos beyond the material and get a feeling for the tranquillity or angst that provoked a painting, poem or musical composition. This is what the 15th century German mystical philosopher Nicholas of Cusa meant by rising above ‘learned ignorance’ – in his case, to see the mind of the Divine behind the material of creation; or more generally, to see ‘the message’ behind ‘the medium’, to paraphrase Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Twenty-first century books by Malcolm Budd, Ursula Goodenough and Fr. Thomas Berry express eloquently this feeling of the numinous quality of Nature. Berry (1999) comments: ‘We think of the Earth more as the background for economic purposes or as the object of scientific research rather than as a world of wonder, magnificence and mystery for the unending delight of the human mind and imagination.’ A primary concern for humankind ‘must be to recover an integral relation with the universe’. Nature is a part of us and we of it; or as Byron wrote
Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them.
Byron, Childe Harold
This sense of respect for Nature is a quality that ancient and indigenous peoples have integrated into their culture. The old Scandinavian word ‘vid’ means wood or forest but it has given us a number of words associated with knowledge or wisdom: witan (Old English: to know), wissen (German: to know), ‘wits’, ‘wise’ and ‘wisdom’, and there are other examples of the association of trees and knowledge. The banyan tree, one of the Ficus (fig) genera, is linked with Brahma, creator of the universe in the sacred Hindu scriptures, the Vedas and Upanishads. The banyan is therefore the Tree of Knowledge. Before effigies of the Buddha started to appear in the 2nd century CE, the Buddha was represented by a pipal tree or by a wheel, indicating the unity and cyclical nature of all that is. The cyclical nature of processes in the natural world was a principal idea in the philosophy of Heraclitus; and this circularity itself contributes to the beauty of Nature.
The pagan world, and that of many indigenous tribal people today, was based on a deep sense of animism or pantheism within the natural world: trees, rocks and rivers were sensate and divine. Because trees and rocks had a very much greater life-span than that of humans, indigenous people believed – as many spiritual people do today – that they held the knowledge and wisdom of previous ages. They used natural rock formations as objects of reverence where they could, like Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia or the Red Rocks of Sedona in Arizona; but where there were no appropriate natural formations, they erected menhirs as symbols of the divine.
The beauty of the natural world is seen as the handiwork of the divine by many. Alister Hardy writes: ‘I am sure that the sense of a divine element in the universe becomes more real to countless lovers of the countryside in nature herself than in the formal religious practices based upon any dogmatic theology’ [Hardy, p.120].
Like many other contemporary futurists Berry (1999) lays great emphasis on the importance of the role of education in schools and universities in inculcating aesthetic appreciation. The whole emphasis of education has become the acquisition of facts rather than to ‘hear the voice of the rivers, the mountains, or the sea . . . We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment that is inherent in our nature’ and which finds natural expression in the indigenous peoples of the world. The study of art and music rarely find a place in the curriculum of science students.
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It is a lamentable commentary on the world today that ‘The other-than-human world is not recognised as having any inherent rights or values . . . we have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence’ [Berry, 1999]. Aesthetics cannot be investigated scientifically and are of no direct economic importance, so the prevailing educational philosophy is that they can be ignored! This will ultimately lead to the extinguishing of humankind. Indeed, naturalist David Attenborough sees this as the best hope for the survival of planet Earth – that there are no humans left on the planet to desecrate it! This attitude of generating love and respect for the beauty of Nature, beginning in childhood, has been echoed in the books by Richard Louv. He believes that greater involvement of the natural world in the school curriculum is essential for the wellbeing of the children themselves and for the Earth.
The dissonance and disharmony behind much 20th and 21st century art-work is a reflection of the disarray in our everyday lives – our alienation from one another (broken homes, social unrest, continual wars) and from the Earth (in our unthinking exploitation of the natural home that sustains us). After two World Wars, we still have not learnt to develop sufficient control to live in peace and harmony with one another. Developing a sense of aesthetic appreciation and a sense of spirituality alongside satisfying our material needs would go a long way towards generating this harmony.
If we ask an adult, or even a reasonably intelligent child, to draw a square, they will probably draw one with the edges horizontal and vertical. But such a square can be rotated through anything up to 360 degrees and it still remain the same square. It is often quite a challenge for schoolchildren studying mathematics to identify such fundamental geometrical shapes as triangles and squares when they are shown in unfamiliar orientations and to judge whether they are similar (that is, identical shapes of different sizes) or congruent (of the same shape and size). Some children have great difficulty in drawing or conceiving three-dimensional structures such as cubes or amadhidral when they are represented in two dimensions on a sheet of paper. Learning to see three dimensions in a two-dimensional representation can only help to increase aesthetic appreciation in art and in mathematics through stimulation of our creative imagination.
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As well as learning the mathematics they need to pass examinations and take their place in the world, schoolchildren would benefit from being encouraged to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a sequence of numbers like the Fibonacci sequence –so simple yet so profound. After the first two units, each number is the sum of the previous two in the sequence. The ratio of two successive numbers is itself an oscillating sequence that tends to a limiting value of about 1.618. It cannot be given exactly in the form of decimal digits because it is an irrational number, so the digits continue indefinitely. The only way it can be expressed exactly is in terms of a surd: as ½(1 + √5). What is remarkable is that this same ratio is found by dividing the diagonal of a regular pentagon by the length of its side, thus linking the algebra of numbers with geometry.
How many children know that this same ratio is found in Nature in the phyllotaxis of many plants (the arrangement of leaves on the stem) and in parastichy (the distribution of the scales of a pine-cone or florets in the head of a sunflower). For the ancient Greeks and Egyptians such subtleties of number and geometry were used in the construction of their temples and pyramids as they represented the hidden noumenal world of the Divine that lay behind the physical world of matter. The sacred geometry of the mandala has been used as an inspiration to meditation in eastern mystical philosophies for millennia.
It was to bring a three-dimensional perspective to subjects represented on canvas that artists of the Renaissance introduced the technique of chiaroscuro – the use of a standard set of rules to apply light and dark within a painting in order to create the illusion of depth. There is a similar expression of emotional ‘depth’ in music with soft and loud tones and major or minor keys to denote joy or sadness; and in the use of different note values, fast running passages tending to depict joy or be interpreted as ‘happier’ than slow music with longer note values, regarded as sadder or more sorrowful (as in a funeral march).
This added emotional dimensionality is, to a large extent, the basic operating principle of much painting, poetry and music. Such art-works represent different ways of conceiving the same fundamental subject in such a way as to express the individual aesthetic sense of the artist. In art, the subject sits before the artist and it is up to him or her to set down in two dimensions what is almost certainly a three-dimensional object before them. Some artists, like the great portrait painters of the 16th to 18th centuries, such as Holbein and Rembrandt, or landscape painters of later centuries like John Constable and Ivan Shishkin tried to make their representations as close to the original subject as possible – rather like a coloured painted photograph. That is not to suggest of course that such painters did not also inject something of their own personality into their painting. For example, it is difficult to view the landscape paintings of Casper David Friedrich without feeling something of the sense of longing for the unknown and unattainable limits of spiritual feeing with which his paintings are imbued. His subjects are often looking out into an indefinable distance. The French Impressionists, inspired by the example of English painter J.W. Turner, wanted to capture by various techniques, the instant mood or atmosphere of their subjects – again, usually outdoor landscapes of various kinds. Their paintings transmit something of the atmosphere of the moment when they were painted. See how many of Hopkins’s poems capture the same kind of instantaneous imagery!
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In music, various formal structures, such as the sonata, concerto, symphony or string quartet, have given rise to numerous examples where composers working with this basic architecture have created a wonderful array of pieces to delight our heart and soul. A little more prescriptive, but no less imaginative, are the musical forms of the ‘Rhapsody’, the ‘Variations on a theme’ and ‘Improvisations’ where a composer or performer’s imagination is given free rein often starting from only the simplest of melodies. The consummate achievements in this field are regarded as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody. Keyboard virtuosi of previous centuries, like Telemann, Handel and Liszt, were famous for their ability to extemporize on themes of their own or others. This is the concept behind the jazz music of the 20th century; and in more popular rather than classical vein, Venezuela-born Gabriella Montero and Canadian pianist Marc-André Hamelin are noted improvisationists of today. We enjoy listening to repeated performances of any piece of music just because the interpreters cannot fail to add something of their own personalities to the performance. Each time we re-read a poem, we find hidden depths.
However spiritually uplifting the works of poets, painters and composers may be, probably the greatest and most widespread source of aesthetic joy is to be found in the natural world. The arts teem with examples of poets, composers and painters who have found inspiration from within Nature. The human mind has produced wonderful examples of discovery and invention through science and technology, many of which have a beauty of their own; but it is the varieties of aesthetic experience that provide the inspiration for the human mind to soar to its greatest heights.
The natural world fulfils many roles in our lives. It presents us with forces that, while they are magnificent in their power, also need to be overcome or controlled for our safety and wellbeing. Nature gives us our source of food and raw materials and it provides an environment for sport that entertains us and helps keep us physically fit. The natural world, itself constantly changing and despite being immeasurably reshaped and defaced by humankind throughout the globe, is also a source of aesthetic delight. In his book The Science of God, the Oxford-based evangelical Christian theologian, Alister McGrath (2004), regards these qualities as ‘inconsistent with each other’, though why the natural world should not sustain all of these functions is a mystery to me. Perhaps supremely, Nature allows us ready access to a means by which the individual can feel at one with the divine – a medium through which we can achieve freedom from our material attachments. It is unfortunate that Christianity did so much to crush pagan reverence for the natural world that they thought of as imbued with the divine. It was believed that heathens worshipped the elements of Nature as idols of their gods. To see beauty in the natural world, and in the soul of another living being, to regard all living things with reverence, are steps on the road to creating a sustainable morality: ‘to the degree that we come to understand other organisms, we will place a greater value on them, and on ourselves’ [Wilson, 1984, Prologue].
Ursula Goodenough, in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, points out that a sense of the numinous and the spiritual exhilaration of the aesthetic originate from the wonder of the cosmos – the improbability of its very existence, its grandeur and infinite diversity, culminating in the emergence of human consciousness and our ideas of value and meaning [Goodenough, 1998]. Some form of spiritual or aesthetic awareness is an essential component of personal fulfilment and of social cohesion. One thing that is becoming ever more evident to us is that we cannot continue to plunder, desecrate and exploit Nature as we have done over several millennia and increasingly so in the past two centuries if we want even to survive let alone have a natural world to reflect on. Instead of using Nature for our own material ends, if we are to continue to derive pleasure from the natural wonders that surround us we must learn to live in harmony with the living organism described by some as Gaia.
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This reflects what I said from Wilson’s Biophilia above: the need to promote aesthetic love for all living and natural things – what the eastern mystical philosophers call ahimşa. With that loving care for, and aesthetic delight in, Nature will come a sense of belonging that would give us massive hope for the future. This is the message we are getting from sociologists, educators and environmentalists: we need to develop greater appreciation of the aesthetic through the humanities to produce a more spiritual consciousness in humankind, and especially in children, if we are to have a future as a species on the Earth plane. The more we immerse ourselves in the varieties of aesthetic experience, the closer we move towards the ultimate communion with cosmic consciousness that the eastern mystics describe as amadhi or nirvana.
References and Bibliography
Berry, Thomas, The Great Work: Our way into the future, Bell Tower, New York, 1999.
Blaukopf, Kurt, Mahler, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976.
Bucke, Richard Maurice, Cosmic Consciousness, Innes and Sons, Philadelphia, 1905.
Budd, Malcolm, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2002.
Cooke, Deryck, The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, 1959.
Critchlow, Keith, Time Stands Still: New light on megalithic science, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2007.
Devereux, Paul, Earthmind, Harper & Row, New York, 1989.
Fechner, Gustav Theodor, The Little Book of Life after Death, Grimmer, 1836;
2nd edn. trans. Mary C. Wadsworth, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, MA, 1904.
Gergen, Kenneth J. The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life, Basic Books (Perseus), New York, 1991.
Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art, 12th edn., Phaidon, Oxford, 1972.
Goodenough, Ursula, The Sacred Depths of Nature, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
Hageneder, Fred, The Living Wisdom of Trees, Duncan Baird, London, 2005.
Hardy, Alister, The Divine Flame, Gifford Lectures, University of Aberdeen, 1965; Collins, London, 1966.
Hartmann, Thom, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2001.
Harvey, Graham, Animism: Respecting the living world, Hurst, London, 2005.
James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Longmans, Green, New York, 1902; Penguin Books, London, 1982.
Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, 1793; Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008.
Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-deficit disorder, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 2008; The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with life in a virtual age, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 2013.
Lovelock, J.E. Gaia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1982.
McGrath, Alister, The Science of God, Continuum (T&T Clark), 2004.
Palmer, Sue, Toxic Childhood, Orion Books, London, 2006.
Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, 1819; Dent, London, 1995.
Skinner, Stephen, Sacred Geometry, Gaia Books (Octopus), 2006.
Solomon, Robert C. The Passions: Emotions and the meaning of life, Hackett, Indianapolis,
Wilson, E.O., Biophilia, Harvard College, Cambridge, MA, USA, 1984.
First published in The Journal for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, vol.37(4), October 2014.
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Varieties of Spiritual Inexperience
Abstract: Those who have never had a psychic experience often refuse to believe that such things exist, because they do not want to or because it does not accord with their mind-set. Yet if we explore such events in the context of either a scientific or a religious world-view, we see that the arguments for disbelief are far from convincing.
To those of us who believe in the existence of an afterlife for the discarnate, and in the reality of psychic phenomena, like telepathy, clairvoyance and spiritual healing, it’s frustrating to find so many people who do not. But why don’t they believe? Is it because scientific and philosophical rationalism tells us that dead bodies rot in the ground, or become just a pile of ashes after death, so how can anything live on? Is it because religious indoctrination has taught that only certain prophets and saints have been blessed with continuing spiritual existence after death? – otherwise anybody can do it, and there is no privileged position for saintly souls. Or is it from a feeling that the souls of the departed should be left to rest in peace?
Or is it out of fear? Few of us lead such exemplary lives as those of the spiritual leaders we follow, and perhaps at death there will come a final reckoning for the supposed sins of our lives. Will this punishment that we fear will be imposed on us produce a torment greater than we could possibly bear – even if we no longer have physical bodies?
For those who adopt the rational approach, the amount of verifiable evidence of the afterlife and psychic phenomena is now legion! There may well be charlatans whose evidence of spiritual communication can easily be discounted or explained, but there are many mediums who provide evidence from the lives of deceased loved-ones that could not be obtained in any way other than directly from the claimed source in Spirit and assented to by observers. Those who have experienced severe trauma and have often come close to death, but who have survived through an out-of-body or near-death experiences similarly, without any professed mediumistic talents, relate facts about friends and family that could not have been gained other than from the spiritual souls involved. The recorded existence of shared death experiences of those in attendance at the bedside of terminally ill patients – experiencing events in the life of the departing of which they had no previous knowledge whatsoever – is perhaps even more impressive.
The attitude of those whose religious beliefs will not accept contact with any kind of extra-corporeal consciousness from anyone other than saints or members of their own clergy is not only discriminatory – it is also illogical. For if anyone can show that discarnate souls really do exist, then surely this does nothing but reinforce the claims of belief systems, whose dogma often strains the bounds of credibility, but is one of the most convincing pieces of evidence for an afterlife for discarnate souls.
This takes us into the highly controversial concept of faith. We are all familiar with the idea of faith in a secular context. We all demonstrate varying degrees of faith in various political parties, in the competence of our doctors, or in the accuracy of weather forecasts. Such secular faith is usually based on practical evidence. If a particular political party has got a country into a financial mess, or taken it to war unnecessarily, or has stifled freedoms of its people, the electorate will lose faith in its claims. Similarly, doctors or surgeons who have a high mortality rate amongst their patients are not likely to inspire faith.
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Surely rather similar criteria should apply to religious faith. It was the Dalai Lama who said that if the precepts of Buddhism did not conform with rational evidence, then the precepts of the faith must be modified. In such a materialistic world, where aesthetic qualities are all too often dismissed as irrelevant, then rational coherence must inevitably be a quality of religious faith too, if it is to survive.
Despite the materialism of our daily lives, we are more aware of the plight of peoples far removed from family or friends or others within national boundaries than we have ever been before. To follow the edicts of scriptural sages who wrote 2000 years ago or more, for followers living at that time in those cultural conditions, is patently unacceptable in human existence today. We cannot be surprised if the consequences of intransigence and lust for power are an increasing fundamentalism with resulting violence, or a total disenchantment and rejection of any of the constructive principles of the faith.
The bedrock of a cohesive faith must be a common spirituality that respects all humankind and the Earth that is likely to be our only planetary home. There have now been many more books on our desecration of the environment in the name of materialist profit. The rocks, soil, air and water of the planet before the Industrial Revolution have been assaulted and plundered for our comfort. The advance of technology spurred on by scientific discovery and invention may have made our lives more comfortable and interesting, but at what cost to our survival beyond this century? Whatever limited view of Spirit our religious background may have instilled in us, if humankind is to survive beyond this century we must with the utmost urgency adopt and embrace a new spirituality that can be shared with all people and all life on this planet.
First published in The Searchlight, vol.23(4), December 2014.
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Exploring the Nonlocality of Consciousness
The concept of consciousness
When we talk of ‘consciousness’, we tend to think first of human consciousness. Even dictionary definitions of the word imply a human connection, with no suggestions of other interpretations. But very soon we realize we must also consider the consciousness of other animate beings. The ancient philosophers had a hierarchy of degrees of consciousness that they called the Great Chain of Being which, in its simplest form, had four material divisions with the deity at the top. At the lowest level there were the insentient rocks and minerals: their unique character was their durability through eons of time. Above them in this hierarchy was the plant kingdom. We have always known that plants respond to climatic conditions and to their environment but, more recently, scientific experiments by Cleve Backster and others have shown that they also respond to human intent.
The next highest level of Being was that of the animal kingdom. While humankind has kept domesticated animals since the early civilizations, again it is only recently that we have acknowledged their level of consciousness and shown concern for the stress and pain they might feel. It is obvious to any pet owner that animals can feel and show emotions of pleasure and fear, but Rupert Sheldrake has shown the much greater extent to which animals can empathize with humans, even through telepathic communication. The relationships that Dian Fossey developed with the mountain gorillas of Ruanda, that Jane Goodall established with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, that George and Joy Adamson formed with a baby lioness they called Elsa, and that the Unionist soldier, Lieutenant John Dunbar, forged not only with the native Sioux Indians of Dakota but also with a wolf have become the legends of books and films. These stories suggest that even animals in the wild have a consciousness beyond that of basic biological instincts of survival.
Definition of the concept of human consciousness is attributed to the English philosopher John Locke in the 17th century. There have been various elaborations on this idea since then. According to the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, in addition to the consciousness of mind, which describes everything that registers on one of our five senses, our minds have an unconscious function that suppresses unwanted thoughts and fears, and a preconscious that holds memories for recall when needed. C.G. Jung went further in suggesting that the unconscious mind had two components – an individual or personal unconscious and a communal or collective unconscious that existed outside the body of the individual. This spiritual collective unconscious gave rise to certain patterns of behaviour that he called archetypes, which were repeated through time and space by different cultures.
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The English-born Canadian psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, distinguished three realms of consciousness – simple consciousness (that of the animal kingdom), self consciousness (of humans) and cosmic consciousness (an awareness of the order of the universe). At the time he was writing at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of any semblance of consciousness in plants had not been investigated. He maintained that ‘our descendants will sooner or later reach, as a race, the condition of cosmic consciousness, just as, long ago, our ancestors passed from simple to self consciousness’. This is similar to the vision of the French philosopher-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that humankind is evolving towards a state of noogenesis that is characterized by a spirituality that will fill every moment of our lives and such that each soul will ‘feel and know itself to be immortal’, and at one with the universe. According to Bucke, the Saviour of Man is not so much a human figure as Cosmic Consciousness. But cosmic consciousness ‘must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supranormal [or] as anything more or less than a natural growth’ of the human condition. Bucke and de Chardin regard it as part of the natural process of (biological and sociological) evolution that we should all come to realize the part we play in cosmic consciousness, both in our earthly life and in the afterlife.
The concept of the cosmic or collective unconscious closely resembles Plato’s suggestion that the concepts we use in our everyday lives are reflections of similar Ideas or Forms that exist eternally in the numinous realm. The archetypes or Ideas may give rise to stories woven around them conveying moral messages to each tribe or people. These collections of stories, which may be orally transmitted or written down, comprise the myths or folklore of the community. The term ‘folklore’ was coined by W.J. Thoms in 1846 to describe remnants of ancient mythologies with world-wide distributions, or perpetuations of stories and rituals of local tribes and communities. As described by Gillian Bennett, the sources of these stories lie outside the consciousness of the individuals to whom they apply and represent personifications of universal human emotions, fears and feelings – archetypes in fact.
Apart from the moral messages they contain, the purpose of myths is to remind us of our past in order to make it more meaningful to the present generation. Part of religious scripture serves this purpose – to keep alive the traditions of the past. The other function of scripture is to suggest the way forward, as envisaged by the prophets. Myths have a timeless quality and suggest belief in a realm beyond our material existence.
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You always are and you always will be
There is no time when you were not
And there will be no time when you are not.
According to Paul Devereux, to our ancestors, Earth was ‘reborn every moment in some new incarnation of the life force.’ Indigenous cultures, like those of the Amerindians or Inuit in North America, all have their equivalents of the Alcheringa or Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines in which the present generation communes through Spirit with the past through ceremonies at sacred sites. There are geographical sites throughout the world that are believed to hold something of this cosmic spirit through time. Sometimes there are natural rock formations that mark the site – like the Red Rocks of Sedona in Arizona or Uluru in Australia. In other cases, menhirs or dolmens are erected to mark the site, which is then often used for burials or religious rituals. Some of the best examples are to be found at Stonehenge and Avebury in Southern England, at Carnac in north-west France and at Callanish on the Isle of Lewes in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
Humankind has shown an awareness of an over-arching transcendent power beyond the material world since Man first walked the Earth, as far as we know. In this respect, the reductionist and materialist view of science has led to increasing fragmentation in our world view. We cannot hope to describe this underlying fundamental unity in any detail. This cosmic spirit is ineffable – but holistic.
The Tao that can be told
is not the universal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the universal name.
In the infancy of the universe,
There were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
Into ten thousand things and their manifestations.
Tao Te Ching. 1
Belief in the continuity of the individual soul between the living and the discarnate was demonstrated by many early peoples. To aid in the comfort of the discarnate, bodies were often buried with tools, weapons, utensils or jewellery that they used in earthly life. The ancient Egyptians buried their dead with little figurines called shabti made out of faience to act as their servants in the afterlife, and they wrote letters to the discarnate. As symbols of continual rebirth, Palaeolithic figurines of pregnant women have been discovered in Dolni Vestonici in the Czech Republic and at Willendorf in Austria, dating back to 29,000 BCE. Some of the oldest rock paintings in Australia, dated at up to 40,000 years ago, are to be found at Watarrka (Kings Canyon), Kakadu (Arnhem Land) and Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory of Australia. Some of this art-work seems to have been done for creative pleasure, like the hand impressions or geometrical designs. Other paintings and carvings seem to have a ritualistic significance.
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Day-to-day, we live our lives on two levels: first, and most immediately, we have to attend to those things that will enable us and those we care for to survive, like food and shelter. These needs will usually demand that we find meaningful work for which we will be rewarded financially. Then, if we are fortunate enough to have these things accessible to us, we can begin to think about those activities that will give pleasure, joy and meaning to our lives. Thus, what we describe as mind really has two functions. There is the rational mind, located during our lives in the brain, which records and interprets the impressions of our senses. These senses enable us to find our way around in the world. Then there is also the spiritual mind that many describe as soul which, as humankind has envisaged since the beginning of recorded history, is not confined to the physical body but which has an existence outside of the body before and after our incarnation in human form. It is the subconscious mind that interacts with the cosmic spirit.
The creativity of artisans and the spiritual insight of sages and prophets derive from this cosmic consciousness. Painting, sculpture, poetry and other literature, and music are creations of the soul as much as of the mind. We need the technical skill to produce creative artwork, but it becomes meaningful to others only if it is imbued with a numinous quality that transcends physical descriptions or images. Art stimulates our emotions by giving us a new way of seeing a tiny corner of the world and, through this, to allow our soul to commune with that of the creative artist and beyond.
Deryck Cooke described music as ‘the most articulate language of the unconscious ... the expression of man’s deepest self’. Cooke believed that music had this depth of emotional power because it reflected some of the qualities of other arts – of architecture in its formal pseudo-mathematical structure, of literature in its expression of emotion and, in what is described as ‘program music’, could evoke the imagery of painting in the representation of physical objects.
There are many composers who regard their craft as inspired by a consciousness beyond that of the material brain. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler saw the process of composition as part of this mystical interaction. When speaking of his Second Symphony, popularly known as The Resurrection, he said:
‘Creative activity and the genesis of a work are mystical from start to finish, since one acts unconsciously, as if prompted from outside, and then one can hardly conceive how the result has come into being’ and ‘For me, the conception of the work never involved the laying down of a process, but at the most of a feeling ...The parallelism between life and music may be deeper and wider than we are yet in a position to understand’. [Blaukopf]
The Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky said this of his composition process:
‘Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly . . . It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any way than by this simile.’ [Lane]
Johannes Brahms said of his compositions:
‘I have to be in a semitrance condition to get such results – a condition when the conscious mind is in temporary abeyance, and the subconscious mind is in control’. [Abell]
Thus we have ample evidence that belief in an extracorporeal spiritual agency communing with the human mind and the reality of continuing discarnate existence has been geographically widespread through time since the beginnings of human civilization. Despite the advances in science, these beliefs are just as prevalent today. This can be attributed partly to the human desire to find explanations for natural phenomena that seem to be beyond our control, but also to our wish that our existence does not terminate with mortal death. If human beings are able to communicate effectively in any way with this cosmic spirit, this implies that some degree of consciousness is associated with this non-material spiritual realm. But however many people may wish to believe that such a cosmic spirit exists, and however many believe they can commune with this spirit through the sixth sense or intuition, this does not make it so: only evidence that we can accumulate with the five senses and rational argument can be regarded as valid support for the concept of a nonlocal cosmic consciousness.
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The evidence for an extracorporeal consciousness
With increasingly sophisticated medical technology, many people who would have died from accident, disease or surgery a century ago can now be resuscitated and survive to recount their experiences. In the past few decades there have been many accounts published of out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and even shared death experiences. While some of the characteristics of these events may be explainable as physiological responses to extreme stress, many physicians, psychologists and neurophysiologists accept that, at the very least, they demonstrate the common accessibility of an altered state of consciousness. That these states should include impressions of religious figures or deceased family members is suggestive of access to a realm of communal souls, but it is not conclusive.
What is however much more persuasive are the accounts from patients of events occurring around them while they are in a state of clinical dormancy. For patients to be able to recall in detail events that took place around them while they were unconscious is remarkable enough; but in many cases they can relate events that that did not even occur in their immediate environment but some distance away that they could not possibly see or hear – events they could know nothing of even in a fully conscious state. In SDEs, those attending the dying patient are even able to access events from the life of the patient, which sometimes include events of which they had no previous knowledge or other events that they know to have occurred but which they had forgotten. Those experiencing SDEs are fully conscious and alert, so their experiences cannot be dismissed as illusory or ‘merely’ physiological.
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No orthodox scientific explanation has even been able to account for the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, pre- or post-cognition or psychokinesis, as psychologist Charles T. Tart has recounted. There have been enough instances of these events now, many investigated under as rigorous scientific conditions as is possible with human subjects, that the reports of such events cannot be dismissed as fraud or fantasy. Many such events reported by those with psychic powers have been confirmed by subsequent documentary research. The books by Michael Tymn and Stafford Betty give many examples of instances of this kind. Clearly there are mediums of communication that lie beyond those of the five senses but involving nonlocal consciousness. Similarly, messages that mediums receive that it is claimed originated with discarnate souls convey information that the medium could not possibly have access to through physical means.
Another strand of convincing evidence for the existence of nonlocal consciousness is that of spiritual healing. Eastern medicine and spiritual philosophy have long contended that there is a type of spiritual energy that courses through the human body that is not detectable by standard scientific instrumentation. This type of energy is called chi or qi. It is said to run through the human body along paths called meridians or nadis and be concentrated in energy vortices, principally along the midline, in centres called chakras. Those who have verifiable spiritual healing powers make use of this energy field. Clinicians use the meridians to produce effective treatments through acupuncture.
It is quite possible to heal relatively minor conditions in the body by training the patient’s mind: this is a technique called the ‘placebo effect’. It has been used quite successfully in a number of cases described by Herbert Benson. He says that ‘beliefs have physical repercussions [and] that the human spirit [is] influential in the treatment and prevention of illnesses.’ Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz has had similar success in treating patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and physician Larry Dossey has described the success that he and others have had with many patients with various conditions through the techniques of positive visualization and prayer. Modern complementary therapists usually call this attitude of mind ‘intention’. But these are treatments that involve retraining the mind and a purely physiological interpretation for the clinician’s success is often possible here.
But there are other cases on record of healer mediums with no medical training whatsoever calling on those who they claim are discarnate souls trained in medicine to treat or even cure such debilitating or potentially terminal illnesses like blindness, diabetes or cancer. Bernard Hutton describes two such healers in his books. Here, no orthodox medical explanation can explain how these cures are achieved – but interaction with the curative nonlocal consciousness of discarnate souls would. While DNA sets up the structure of our bodies, studies in epigenetics have shown that the environment continually modifies the actions of DNA through the RNAs. This is where our thoughts, our consciousness, our attitude of mind get involved. With a positive attitude engendered by self-discipline or though the prayers of others, or through the channelling of cosmic energy by a spiritual healer we influence the RNA and thence the DNA and our day-to-day health. Bruce Lipton has been prominent in exploring this idea.
So we have massive empirical evidence of the existence of a nonlocal consciousness associated with the spiritual realm. Although such a notion is not compatible with Newtonian-Cartesian science, the new quantum science of the 20th century does furnish a possible theoretical interpretation of these phenomena. Underlying interactions of all subatomic particles is an energy field called the quantum field or zero-point field. This is an energy field with which the masses of particles constantly interchange and transform according to the mass-energy relation derived by Einstein and the wave-particle theory of de Broglie. The zero-point field is responsible for the nonlocality properties of the quantum world, that is, they are independent of space and time.
This quantum energy is an appropriate candidate as representative of the cosmic spiritual energy. It provides a possible medium for telepathic communication. The lack of restrictions on time or space provides a mechanism for communication in retro- or pre-cognition and clairvoyance, respectively, and mediumistic communication with the community of discarnate souls that comprise the ‘afterlife’. This cosmic energy field is indistinguishable from the spiritual deity of religion. Human consciousness represents an integral part of this cosmic field of living and discarnate souls.
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The non-local consciousness of this non-material spiritual energy field is held by an increasing number of scientists and philosophers to be primary to the material world of our senses. In his Gifford Lectures of 1927 physicist Sir Arthur Eddington said: ‘The stuff of the world is mind stuff’. Sri Aurobindo maintains that ‘This universe is a gradation of planes of consciousness’. Physicist Amit Goswami sees consciousness as the ground of all being. Consciousness has come to be regarded as primary, without ‘cause’, and simply as an intrinsic property of the nerve cells of the body working coherently together and therefore powered, at a fundamental level, by the quantum field that embraces all subatomic particles.
An important book on this theme in the early 21st century, edited by psychologists Trish Pfeiffer and John Mack, gathers together the viewpoints of many different scientists, psychologists and clerics. The idea of an eternal cosmic energy suggests a possible resolution of the issue of the source of the material for the creation of the universe. It also provides a medium for our expanding universe to expand into! This spiritual realm is the domain of Plato’s Forms, of Jung’s collective unconscious, of Sheldrake’s morphic or morphogenetic field, and of the fifth field or akashic field described by Ervin Laszlo. It is where the souls of both the living and the discarnate reside, for this energy field penetrates everything, animate and inanimate – every rock, tree and stream, and the very air we breathe, as well as ourselves.
To feel we are a part of this unity of consciousness, within and outside the human frame, is spiritually uplifting. Whenever we gaze in awe at the beauty of the countryside or the grandeur of the heavens we are reassured that we, as individuals, comprise a meaningful part of that universe in every thought and action. The realization that each of us is a part of this realm of nonlocal cosmic consciousness described by Bucke – de Chardin’s noosphere – is the true meaning of enlightenment.
References and Bibliography
Abell, A. Talks with the Great Composers, Schröder Verlag, 1964.
Armstrong, K. A Short History of Myth, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005.
Backster, C. Evidence of a primary perception in plant life, Intern. J. of Parapsychology, Vol. 10 (4), pp. 329-348, 1968; Primary Perception – Biocommunication with Plants, Living Foods, and Human Cells, White Rose Millenium Press, Anza, CA, 2003.
Bennett, G. Traditions of Belief, Penguin, 1987.
Benson, H. Timeless Healing: The power and biology of belief, Fireside, New York, 1997.
Betty, S. The Afterlife Unveiled, O Books, Winchester, UK, 2011.
Blaukopf, K. Mahler, Thames and Hudson, 1976.
de Broglie, L. Recherches sur la théorie des quanta, Thesis (Paris), 1924; Ann. Phys. (Paris) 1925; 3, 22.
Bucke, R.M. (ed.) Cosmic Consciousness: A study in the evolution of the human mind, Innes and Sons, Philadelphia, 1905; 1st edn. 1901.
Cooke, D. The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, 1959.
Critchlow, K. Time Stands Still: New light on megalithic science, Floris, 1979.
Devereux, P. with Steele, J. and Kubrin, D. Earthmind: Communicating with the living world of Gaia, Harper and Row, New York, 1992.
Dossey, L. Healing Words: The power of prayer and the practice of medicine, HarperCollins, New
York, 1993; Healing Beyond the Body: Medicine and the infinite reach of the mind, Time Warner 2001; Piatkus, London, 2009.
Einstein, A. Elementary derivation of the equivalence of mass and energy,” Am. Math. Soc. Bull.
1935, 41, 223–230.
Gardiner, A.H. and Sethe, K. Egyptian Letters to the Dead, London, 1928.
Goswami, A. The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates the material world, Jeremy Tarcher, New York, 1993; Physics of the Soul, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA, 2001.
Hutton, J.B. Healing Hands by W.H. Allen, 1966; Virgin Publishing, 1995; The Healing Power, Leslie Frewin, London, 1975.
Lancaster, B.L. Approaches to Consciousness: The marriage of science and mysticism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Lane, J. Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, 1906.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans.Ralph Alan Dale, Watkins, London, 2002.
Laszlo, E. The Creative Cosmos, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1993; Science and the Akashic Field, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2004.
Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief, Elite Books, Santa Rosa, CA; Cygnus Books, Llandeilo, Wales, 2005.
Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689; Collins, 1984.
Moody, R. Life After Life, Rider, 1975.
Moody, R. with Perry, P. Glimpses of Eternity: An investigation into shared death
experiences, Rider, 2010.
Pfeiffer, T. and Mack, J.E. (eds.), Mind Before Matter, O Books, 2007.
Playfair, G.L. Twin Telepathy, Vega, London, 2002.
Schwartz, J.M. and Begley, S. The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force, Harper Perennial, 2002.
Sheldrake, R. Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, Arrow, 2000.
Stemman, R. Spirit Communication, Piatkus, London, 2005.
Tart, C.T. The End of Materialism, New Harbinger Publications, CA, 2009.
Tymn, M. The Articulate Dead, Galde Press, Lakeville, Minnesota, 2008.
van Lommel, P. Consciousness Beyond Life: The science of the near-death experience, HarperCollins, New York, 2010.
First published in The Journal for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, vol. 37(1), January 2014.
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By chance or by design – does ‘Intelligent Design’ have any meaning today?
It seems to be in the nature of the human mind to quest after the unknown – whether it be investigating how things work or exploring newly discovered lands. Questions like: What is the fundamental stuff of which material objects are made? Why are we here on Earth? How have we managed to survive and evolve in spite of many hazardous environments on the planet? have challenged humankind since at least the time of the Greek philosophers. Has human life arisen by a succession of fortuitous events? Or is there some master plan conceived and controlled by a Grand Designer? Does an element of that Divine Creator remain as the human soul . . . and in all other living things . . . and in all created matter? Philosophically as the origin of things we have a choice between randomness and teleology, or between chance and determinism. A post-Reformation suggestion of an Intelligent Designer was made by William Paley in the eighteenth century but, long before that, the idea was suggested by Roman orator and philosopher Cicero.
Vitalism – the doctrine that the essence of life arises from some extracorporeal principle – has been around since at least 1822 according to the Oxford English Dictionary but the idea has waxed and waned in popularity in the two centuries since then. To put the concept of vitalism another way, the idea that any organisms other than human beings have minds capable of original thought, or that there is any spiritual entity such as soul in living creatures, has rarely found favour with scientists. They do not like the idea because it invokes the participation of some supra-material agency with divine organizing and controlling powers limiting the scope of human free-will and which would be difficult to investigate by rational means. However, the concept of animism or vitalism – that there is divine spirit in all living things – has been a core belief of indigenous people for millennia. The Bible has ample illustrations of what is believed to be a divine agency influencing events in the material world.
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Some form of vitalism was a popular belief in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. As long ago as 1708 the German physician and chemist Georg Stahl suggested that living bodies (human and animal) contained a physical element, anima, which vitalized them. Anthropologist James Frazer recorded that indigenous peoples believed that trees and plants, and in some cultures stones too, have souls: he believed that this concept formed the basis of later more formal religions. Closer to our own time, the French philosopher Henri Bergson talked of an élan vital in his writings: this was a life-force in animate beings that countered the tendency of material things to increase entropy.
The idea of some spiritual extracorporeal agency was bolstered when evidence that suggested survival of mortal death began to appear and was investigated by scientists and philosophers. Eminent scientists such as Oliver Lodge and William Crookes and philosophers such as James Hyslop and William James were persuaded of the validity of such evidence. Then scientific belief in vitalism declined, as physicists believed in the 19th century that they had solved all the outstanding problems of science.
A specific application of vitalism re-emerged in the 1920s with the concept of non-material morphogenetic fields put forward by biologists Hans Spemann, Alexander Gurwitsch and Paul Weiss. Such fields were suggested as influencing the development of embryos. This idea was expanded more precisely in the 1980s by Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake, who described the process as ‘formative causation’. What was previously described as ‘vitalism’ has now surfaced again as Intelligent Design (ID) to become a subject of controversy between scientists and religious fundamentalists.
One of the main advocates of ID in its recent re-emergence in the 1990s was, Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The idea was rapidly seized on by creationists as providing ‘scientific proof’ of God’s handiwork in Creation. However, Behe’s suggestion of the ‘irreducible complexity’ of certain living structures, like the eye and the cilia used for locomotion – structures claimed to be only of use in their created state of perfection – was soon shown to be flawed inasmuch as rudimentary but quite effective structures of these kinds have been found throughout the course of evolution. Not to be easily deterred, American statistician and philosopher William Dembski followed up on Behe’s work and suggested that the coming together of all the factors that are needed to cohere in order to create such refined structures of what he called ‘specified complexity’ was statistically improbable. There are so many factors involved in the creation of even complex biological molecules that the probability of their occurring in the correct order at the right time to build such molecules does seem very low, without the input of some external agency. But then statistics are notoriously malleable in interpretation; so the scientific validation of vitalism seemed to be in jeopardy.
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Theologians also didn’t like ID because it suggested a Divinity that needed to keep tinkering in earthly affairs to put things right. According to philosopher G.W. Leibniz, God surely would have created ‘the best of all possible worlds’. Against the theological objections to ID it could be said that people continually offer prayers asking for God’s help for loved ones in difficulty. If such a being has the power to directly interfere with the day-to-day lives of individuals, then surely a little fine tuning in the natural world is not out of the question? Others claim that a God exerting any control over individual lives would undermine the concept of free will. But free will is there for humans to chart the most advantageous path they can through whatever (random?) challenges life on Earth might present them with. It is a moot point too whether the actions of deity can be rationalized by examining this or that feature of the natural world when the essence of deity is that it should be ineffable.
So is there any place for such an idea as ID in a rational world where most people nevertheless still cling to the concept of some form of interventional deity? The two philosophies – rational and spiritual – may not be as incompatible as they first seem. Their complementarity was well represented by one of the pioneers of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.
In 1974, Brandon Carter proposed an Anthropic Principle that suggested that certain properties of the universe were necessary prerequisites for the evolution and existence of humankind as observers. This is known as the Weak Anthropic Principle. There is also a Strong Anthropic Principle proposed by Barrow and Tipler in their 1986 book on the subject. This states that the universe must have those properties that will allow the evolution of observers at some stage in its history. These ideas have been elaborated (without any mathematics that some might find intimidating) in books by Paul Davies.
I would suggest that we already have also a Strong and a Weak Intelligent Design theory. Strong ID is the belief of many fundamentalist theists that there is a Divinity that has controlled the whole process of human development, with or without any of the principles of evolution suggested by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. Although Darwin’s book is called The Origin of Species, it suggests a pathway of evolution from simple organisms to more complex forms but makes no suggestion as to the origin of living beings. Strong ID supporters also maintain that the Creation of the universe involved a mechanism described popularly as the Big Bang, which was under the control of a deity. So any scientific explanation for Creation or evolution is rendered unnecessary.
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But there is also a Weak ID theory that finds a comfortable home in the ideologies of many religious scientists like Amit Goswami in his Creative Evolution, Denyse O’Leary in her book By Design or by Chance, and by quantum physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne in his book Science and Creation, among others. The Weak version of ID theory allows for the existence of an influential cosmic agency but maintains that the suggestions of the theory of evolution are essentially correct and that the universe has been generated by physical mechanisms – whether as a singular cosmological event, as suggested by Georges Lemaître, or as a gradual and continuing process by some variation of the steady-state theory: this was suggested first by Aleksandr Friedmann (who also suggested the alternative single-event hypothesis) and by James Jeans and was then developed by Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. If Creation was indeed a singular event, then we can never know what happened, either by scientific argument (which relies on observing several instances of the same event – and the data from 14 billion years ago are capable of various interpretations: see Weinberg) or because we are within the system that we would need to be able to observe from outside.
One modern suggestion (Goswami, Pfeiffer and Mack) for incorporating an interactive (divine?) agency in rational scientific processes of creation and evolution is that underlying these physical processes is a comprehensive and interpenetrating cosmic spiritual energy, represented by physicists as the quantum zero-point field, which governs every process in the universe, including the process of Creation itself. Such a controlling agency is indistinguishable from the spiritual deity to be found at the heart of most major religions.
In recent decades, some eminent theologians and several equally distinguished philosophers of science have added their support to what is effectively Weak ID, though not described as such by them. The books by Bishops John Robinson and John Shelby Spong, and by former Anglican cleric Anthony Freeman, have generated a wide readership presenting the religious approach. The American physicist Walter M. Elsasser pointed out that the laws of physics relate to systems where properties represent an average value taken over huge numbers of particles. Biological systems deal with individuals, so new ‘biotonic laws’ would be needed to describe these systems. Eugene Wigner claimed that the existence of consciousness alone was sufficient to make it impossible to describe life systems completely by the laws of physics and that concepts extending the present scope of the ‘laws of physics’ would be necessary. Philosopher Anthony O’Hear has pointed out the limitations of pure ‘survival of the fittest’ explanations to account for the huge range of human experience for which so far no survivalist explanation has been found – the appreciation of beauty, artistic creativity, and spiritual experiences.
Recent studies of psychic events, such as OBEs and NDEs (see Moody; van Lommel), and the wealth of verifiable material purporting to come from the afterlife by communications through mediums would seem to bear out the idea that an omnipresent cosmic energy field has indeed influenced and continues to guide events on the Earth plane, quite possibly operating through the mechanisms discovered by application of the laws of physics. Continuing discarnate existence of individuality of the human soul within the Communal Soul of the afterlife has been supported by verified contacts through mediums (see Betty; Tymn) and by studies of individuals claiming reincarnation (see Stevenson).
Thus the notion of at least a Weak Intelligent Design lives on and provides a rational grounding for the belief that the spirit of the Divine is immanent in our everyday lives, expressed through our consciousness. The concept ameliorates fear of mortal death and provides great comfort and reassurance to those who have lost much-loved friends and family from the mortal plane. This interpretation of Intelligent Design is one that any non-sceptical scientist or non-fundamentalist theologian should be comfortable with.
John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, 1907.
Stafford Betty, The Afterlife Unveiled, O Books (John Hunt Publishing), Winchester, UK, 2011.
Brandon Carter, in Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data, Malcolm S. Longair (ed.), Reidel, Dordrecht, 1974, p.291.
Marcus Tullius Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Penguin Books, 1972.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859.
Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, Orion (Simon and Schuster), 1988; The Goldilocks Enigma, Allen Lane, 2006.
Walter M. Elsasser, The Physical Foundation of Biology, Pergamon Press, 1958; Atom and Organism, 1966, Princeton University Press.
Michael A. Flannery, Alfred Russel Wallace: a rediscovered life, Discovery Institute Press, Seattle, Washington, 2011.
James Frazer, The Golden Bough, 1890-1915 (in ever expanded editions).
Anthony Freeman, God In Us, SCM Press, 1993.
Amit Goswami, Creative Evolution: A physicist’s resolution between Darwinism and Intelligent Design, Quest Books, Wheaton, Illinois & Chennai, India, 2008; The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates the material world, Jeremy P. Tarcher, New York, 1995.
Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life, HarperCollins, 2010.
Raymond A. Moody, Life after Life, Rider, 1975.
Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution: Human nature and the limits of evolutionary explanation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.
Trish Pfeiffer and John E. Mack (eds), Mind Before Matter, O Books (John Hunt Publishing), Winchester, 2007.
John A.T. Robinson, Honest to God, SCM Press, London, 1963.
Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, Blond and Briggs, 1981; The Presence of the Past, William Collins, 1988.
John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: a new vision, HarperCollins 2009.
Ian Stevenson, Children who remember Previous Lives, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1987.
Michael E. Tymn, The Articulate Dead, Galde Press, Lakesville, MN, 2008.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes, Basic Books. 1977.
First published in De Numine (Journal of the Alister Hardy Society), no.58, Spring 2015.
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Intelligent Design lives on
Intelligent Design (ID) has had a bad press! Scientists don’t like the idea because it invokes the participation of some supra-material agency with divine organizing and controlling powers. One of the main protagonists of ID in its reincarnation in the 1990s was the Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University, Michael Behe. His suggestion of the ‘irreducible complexity’ of certain living structures, like the eye and the cilia used for locomotion was shown to be flawed inasmuch as rudimentary but effective structures of these kinds had been found throughout the course of evolution. Following Behe’s work, statistician and philosopher William Dembski suggested that the coming together of all the factors that are needed to cohere in order to create such refined structures of what he called ‘specified complexity’ was statistically improbable.
Theologians don’t like ID because it suggests a Divinity that needs to keep tinkering in earthly affairs to put things right. The idea of an Intelligent Designer has a history that goes back to the work of William Paley in the eighteenth century. It is a moot point too whether the actions of deity can be rationalized by examining this or that feature of the natural world or whether the essence of deity is that it should be ineffable. Of course, there are many scientists who keep a strand of thought tied to both philosophies: they apply logic and reason in their day-to-day materialist science but have no trouble inhabiting the spiritual world of the divine in their prayer and ritual.
So is there any place for such an idea as ID in a rational world where most people still cling to the concept of some form of interventional deity? The two philosophies – rational and spiritual – may not be as incompatible as they first seem. Their complementarity was well represented by one of the pioneers of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace..
Now, we have a Strong and a Weak Anthropic Principle that suggests that the universe – or at least the small portion of it that humankind inhabits – was specifically designed and evolved in such a way that it was suitable for the evolution of Man, as elaborated by Paul Davies in his books The Cosmic Blueprint and The Goldilocks Enigma and more comprehensively in Barrow and Tipler’s book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.
I would suggest that we also have a Strong and a Weak Intelligent Design theory. Strong ID is the belief of many fundamentalist theists that there is a Divinity that has controlled the whole process of human development, with or without any of the principles of evolution suggested by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace. The creation of the universe, they say, by a mechanism described popularly as the Big Bang, was under the control of a deity.
But there is also a Weak ID theory that finds a comfortable home in the ideologies of many scientists like Amit Goswami in his Creative Evolution, Denyse O’Leary in her book By Design or by Chance, and by quantum physicist turned Anglican priest John Polkinghorne in his book Science and Creation, among others. This is the idea that the suggestions of the theory of evolution are essentially correct and that the universe has been generated by physical mechanisms – whether as a singular cosmological event or as a gradual and continuing process by some variation of the steady-state theory suggested first by James Jeans and then by Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi. One modern suggestion is that underlying these physical processes is a comprehensive and interpenetrating cosmic spiritual energy (see Pfeiffer and Mack’s Mind Before Matter), represented by physicists as the quantum zero-point field, which governs every process in the universe, including the process of Creation itself. Such a controlling agency is indistinguishable from the spiritual deity to be found at the heart of most major religions.
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In recent decades several eminent philosophers of science have added their support to what is effectively Weak ID, though not described as such by them. The American physicist Walter M. Elsasser pointed out that the laws of physics relate to systems where properties represent an average value taken over huge numbers of particles. Biological systems deal with individuals, so new ‘biotonic laws’ would be needed to describe these systems. Eugene Wigner claimed that the existence of consciousness alone was sufficient to make it impossible to describe life systems completely by the laws of physics and that concepts extending the present scope of the ‘laws of physics’ would be necessary.
Recent studies of psychic events, such as OBEs and NDEs, and the wealth of verifiable material purporting to come from the afterlife by communications through mediums would seem to bear out the idea that an omnipresent cosmic energy field has indeed influenced and continues to guide events on the Earth plane, quite possibly operating through the mechanisms discovered by application of the laws of physics. Thus the notion of Intelligent Design lives on and there is a sense in which the spirit of the Divine is immanent in our everyday lives, expressed through our consciousness.
First published in The Searchlight, February 2015.
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Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hopkins was born in July 1844, the eldest of eight children, to Anglican parents at Stratford to the East of London. He was educated at Highgate School, London and, from 1863 to 1867, at Balliol College, Oxford, deciding in his final year to become a Roman Catholic. Gerard wrote much poetry and sketched during his school-days but all of this early work he later destroyed, leaving just fourteen years of work (from the end of 1875 to early 1889) as a mature poet. Hopkins’ teaching work and duties as a parish priest in various diocese took their toll on his health and he died in Ireland in June of 1889, a month short of his 45th birthday.
Particularly influential were Hopkins’ studies at St Beuno’s College in North Wales for three years from 1874. The natural beauty of the surrounding countryside in North Wales inspired Hopkins to learn Welsh and return to poetry again after seven fallow years. Hopkins’s poetry was strikingly innovative in both language and rhythm, moving away from the conventional models, that reflected the Norman influence on English language and literature, and back towards the style found in pre-Conquest vernacular verse. His work conjures up images of the ‘dapple-eared lily’ and of ‘Goldengrove unleaving’ as vividly as any music or painting.
Although there is more evidence for the influence of Welsh on Hopkins' work, from 1882 he learned Old English, combining what he found in its poetry with the very compatible constuction of Welsh verse to create work that owed much to our ancestors' compositions.
Distinctive alliteration is common to both Old English and some Welsh vernacular verse, coupled in the latter with assonance, internal rhyme and onomatopoeia, or a matching of word syllables within a phrase, called cynghanedd. This pattern can be appreciated visually without a knowledge of the Welsh language:
Ni chair y gorau ni’ch aur garaf;
“Marwnad Rhys ap Siôn o Lyn-Nedd”
Ni chwyn y milwyr ni chanmolaf.
The Work of Iorwerth Fynglwyd (1480 - 1527)
by Howell Ll. Jones
Another characteristic of Welsh poetry is a verse pattern Hopkins called ‘sprung rhythm’, based on stress rather than syllable number. Unsurprisingly, it is also called ‘Old English metre’. It can be found in works by Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson, and the example from Middle English that alerted Hopkins to its pedigree is William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1370 - 90). Here, in a line of poetry the first syllable is stressed, to be followed by from one to four unstressed syllables. The technique reflects the dynamic variations in stress, common particularly in Germanic and native British speech. These characteristic sound-patterns and imagery became evident in much of Hopkins’ poetry.
In addition to the metrical influence of Old English verse on his compositions, Hopkins creates some memorable compound words, metaphorical constructs that in Old English and Old Norse poetry are referred to as kennings. Many of these were of his own devising, but some he drew directly from Anglo-Saxon poetry: the first verse of his poem The Caged Skylark furnishes examples of both, along with alliteration aplenty:
As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells—
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.
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where Hopkins uses his own 'dare-gale’ for brave, and ‘bone-house’ for the human body, drawn from the famous kenning used in Beowulf, for example in line 3148 below:
Ongunnon þa on beorge bælfyra mæst
wigend weccan; wudurec astah,
sweart ofer swioðole, swogende leg
wope bewunden (windblond gelæg),
oðþæt he ða banhus gebrocen hæfde,
hat on hreðre.
They began then upon a mound the greatest balefire
warriors to wake; woodsmoke arose
dark o'er shrouds; roaring flames
with wailing bewound (a tumult of wind)
until the bonehouse it broken had,
hot at heart.
Other compounds of Hopkins' creation include ‘droop deadly’ in its cell, ‘black-about’ for ‘pitch black’, ‘silk-sack’ for dismal and ‘wilful-wavier’ for storm winds. With these techniques Hopkins displays what our Anglo-Saxon forefathers would have called stæfcræft or skill of speech.
When it came to English, Hopkins was also linguistic purist, and whatever the merits or otherwise of this viewpoint, his enthusiasm for Old English was clear, and it is worth enjoying his work from this, perhaps under-appreciated, standpoint as well.
First published in Wiðowinde, Issue 76, Winter 2015 (Membership Magazine of The English Companions)
This article was written by Drs Howard and David Jones.
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Consciousness in Nature
The whole of the natural world is imbued with a numinous sacred spirit. This is a belief that seems to have been associated with indigenous peoples ever since Homo sapiens first evolved on Earth. Indeed, whatever image people have of their deity, the notion still persists today amongst a majority of humankind that there is a purpose to human life and that there is a designing force or spirit behind our very existence. For many, such a spirit provides their image of their god.
The key feature that differentiates the levels within what the ancient philosophers called the Great Chain of Being is the extent to which we are able to interact with this cosmic spirit. At the lowest level we have the insentient rocks and minerals. Even here, some native peoples in Hawaii and in China and some spiritual healers in the west maintain that placing crystals of the appropriate colour on the human body over the sites where it is claimed that the chakras (vortices) of energy are located enhances the input of chi or spiritual energy from the universe into the individual. Many natural rock formations are considered to be sacred by indigenous tribes, such as Uluru or Ayers Rock to the Australian aborigines, Monument Valley in Arizona to the Navajo Amerindians and Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii as the birthplace of the goddess of volcanoes, Pele, to native Hawaiians.
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When Christianity came to Britain, the new Christians used pagan sacred sites to build their churches – partly so that pagans would continue to worship at the same place and probably also to make use of whatever sacred energy the site held. Similarly, the Hanging Monastery on Xuanshan Mountain in China and the Meteora monasteries in Kalampaka in Greece are built on precipitous outcrops of rocks because of the sacredness of these sites, despite their inaccessibility.
There are numerous artificially created ‘temples’ for prayer or sacred burial, made from megaliths of natural stone, to be found throughout the world when there are no suitable natural structures locally. Some of the best known examples of stone tombs or temples constructed of dolmens from the early Celtic pagan settlements are to be found in the Eastern part of Ireland, with the Newgrange megalithic tomb as the outstanding example. These structures probably date back to before the pyramids of Egypt, more than 3000 years BCE and a long time before the expansion of the European Celts into Britain. They were probably used both for burial of the elders of the tribes and as temples to the sun, moon and stars. These testimonies to pagan religion have survived in the more remote corners of Europe where the Roman invaders were never able to fully subdue the local population and form settlements of their own. The structures at Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire, England, are probably the best-known examples of such pagan temples on mainland Britain.
The erection of such massive constructions as these must have involved considerable time and labour, which must have been thought worthwhile for their spiritual ends – an indication of the importance of spirituality in the lives of early peoples.
In Scotland, the ceremonial sites are much less accessible than those of Wiltshire. The two most important are the Machrie Moor Standing Stones on the Isle of Arran and the Callanish Standing Stones in the Outer Hebrides. At Machrie only four stones now remain of two large circles. Erected at a time when the climate would have been much more hospitable and welcoming to the Celtic immigrants, the Machrie stones guard the graves of Neolithic farmers whose skeletal remains have been found buried with their arrowheads. The Callanish stones in the Isle of Lewis still form a veritable petrified forest which, legend has it, represent thirteen giants who refused to convert to Christianity and were turned to stone as a consequence by St. Kieran in a characteristically uncharitable act.
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In Wales, the Pentre Ifan Cromlech near Nevern in Pembrokeshire, known locally as Arthur’s Quoit, served as a burial ground for up to fifty tribesmen and women. It consists of a curved cap-stone, nearly 5 meters long, supported by three uprights. Some time after its construction the burial ground was covered with a mound of earth to make a barrow, rather like that at Silbury Hill near Avebury, bounded by a dry-stone and timber wall that has long-since disintegrated. Other Celtic burial sites at Samson’s Quoit and Llech y Drybedd (‘Stone of the Three Graves’) are near to Nevern. In the Preseli Mountains of Pembrokeshire there is a hillside, Carn Menyn, that is strewn with rough-shaped weathered boulders that have fallen from the rock formations above, like some gigantic scree. Sir Andrew Ramsey suggested in the mid-19th century that it was from here that the Bluestones of Stonehenge are likely to have been quarried.
It is not only in Britain that such ancient stone monuments survive. In Sine-Ngayene in Southern Senegal the necropolis is marked with a series of several dozen circles of small standing stones, each less than a metre high. The site here is also of Iron Age origin. At Tagarp in Sweden, an enclosed tumulus comprising passage and burial chamber within has a memorial site outside for worship so that successive generations could come and pay their respects to the ancestors. Such megalithic tombs are to be found in many other sites across Europe, but the menhirs and dolmens at Carnac are by far the most impressive. Carnac is a small town on the southern Atlantic coast of Brittany in France where there are more than 3000 Neolithic monuments of various kinds. All of these sites indicate the importance to spiritual people of establishing monumental locations that would allow them to commune with their gods through nature.
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Above the rocks in the Great Chain of Being come the plants. Indigenous people still venerate the trees and animals on which they depend for their very survival. Trees have been on Earth for more than 300 million years. Throughout human civilization they have been associated with magic and ritual because it was believed that they were imbued with spirituality, and spirituality was associated with wisdom. Because trees were usually much longer-living than humans, and natural rock formations even more so, it was believed that they retained knowledge from one generation to the next and, as a result, that they were home to the spirits of past generations with the wisdom they possessed. As Karen Armstrong says in her book A Short History of Myth: ‘Trees, stones and heavenly bodies were never objects of worship in themselves but were revered because they were epiphanies of a hidden force that could be seen powerfully at work in all natural phenomena, giving people intimations of another, more potent reality’. The old Norse word ‘vid’or ‘vithe’ means wood or forest but it has given us a number of words associated with knowledge or wisdom: witan (Old English: to know), wissen (German: to know), ‘wits’, ‘wise’ and ‘wisdom’. Cleve Backster and others have shown that plants too respond to tender loving care quite apart from their need for basic nutrients.
With our modern materialistic philosophy of life, animals are reared and slaughtered to sustain us with little or no thought of any possible consciousness that those animals might possess. The idea of not wasting any living thing that we have to kill – whether plants or animals – has been lost with the advent of junk food. Those who eat meat claim that the flesh of animals raised in the wild, or at least under humane, stress-free and ecologically friendly conditions, is much more flavourful than that from battery hens or cattle that never see the light of day to eat fresh grass. Native peoples hold ceremonies of thanks and prayers for forgiveness to their spirits if they need to slaughter other living creatures for food and other items needed for their survival, or even when they cut down trees to build shelter. Some adherents of structured religions still say grace before a meal – one of the few benefits of organized religion. The idea of simply eating together as a tribe, family or friendship unit and celebrating the source of our nourishment is another way of acknowledging and keeping to the forefront of our minds the enormous bounty that surrounds us – for the present. The philosophy of preserving our environment is of vital importance for the survival of us all, not just to a few New Age ‘Greens’.
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Cats and dogs are commonly kept as pets because they have a sentience that allows a special bonding with us. Rupert Sheldrake’s scientific study of dogs who know when their owners are coming home is well known. But as several people have shown in recent decades, even wild animals are capable of bonding with humans. The bonding of the Adamsons with a baby lioness, that of Dian Fossey with the mountain gorillas of Ruanda, and of Jane Goodall with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania have become the inspiration for popular books and movies. We need to treat our food-source livestock with the same loving care we show to our pets.
We now have ample evidence that belief in an extracorporeal spiritual agency communing with the human mind and the reality of continuing discarnate existence has been geographically widespread through time since the beginnings of human civilization. Despite the advances in science, these beliefs are just as prevalent today. This can be attributed partly to the human desire to find explanations for natural phenomena that seem to be beyond our control, but also to our wish that our existence does not terminate with mortal death. If human beings are able to communicate effectively in any way with this cosmic spirit, this implies that some degree of consciousness is associated with this non-material spiritual realm. But however many people may wish to believe that such a cosmic spirit exists, and however many believe they can commune with this spirit through the sixth sense or intuition, this does not make it so: only evidence that we can accumulate with the five senses and rational argument can be regarded as valid support for the concept of a nonlocal cosmic consciousness.
Jung’s concept of the cosmic or collective unconscious closely resembles Plato’s suggestion that the concepts we use in our everyday lives are reflections of similar Ideas or Forms that exist eternally in the numinous realm. Amit Goswami’s Self-Aware Universe is another representation of the same idea.
You always are and you always will be
There is no time when you were not
And there will be no time when you are not.
Or to quote from another ancient sacred text from the East:
The Tao that can be told
is not the universal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the universal name.
In the infancy of the universe,
There were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
Into ten thousand things and their manifestations.
Tao Te Ching. 1
No orthodox pre-20th century scientific explanation has even been able to account for the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, pre- or post-cognition, psychokinesis or spiritual healing, as psychologist Charles T. Tart has recounted. There have been enough instances of these events now, many investigated under as rigorous scientific conditions as is possible with human subjects, that the reports of such events cannot be dismissed as fraud or fantasy. Messages that mediums receive that it is claimed originated with discarnate souls convey information that the medium could not possibly have access to through physical means.
There is a message here for us humans that we should keep at the forefront of our minds concerning the consciousness that lies within the plants and animals of the natural world, however rudimentary that may be. Our thoughts and deeds impact hugely on others. If we regard the divine as an all-pervading cosmic spirit, then this energy lies within the rocks and minerals of the Earth too and comprises their sacredness and perhaps their healing energies. That energy is certainly a part of all living things as well as ourselves. If we are to flourish we need to be ever conscious of the sentience of the natural world of which we are an integral part. We abuse our trusteeship of Nature at our peril.
First published in Mind Body Spirit magazine, Issue 42, Summer 2015.
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The Expression of Soul through Music and the Arts
There are few people who can live without some form of spiritual refreshment. Our working lives are necessarily immersed in the material world in which we live during our time on the Earth plane. We are uplifted by spending time with friends and family; but we all recharge our energy by spending at least some time in solitary reflection – if only at night and in our dreams.
There are several channels of spiritual refreshment available for those who prefer some kind of activity to solitary meditation. Enjoyment of the natural beauty of the Earth is available to all, without the requirement for any technical expertise, electronic equipment or sporting prowess. However, participation in arts or crafts gives perhaps an even greater, deeper level of satisfaction that touches the creative soul.
When French philosopher René Descartes wrote of the res cogitans and res extensa, he apparently had in mind two different kinds of entity – a solid, material entity that could be examined with the senses and studied with the science of the emerging New Philosophy; and a numinous, ineffable entity that was somehow associated with the human body. In the 19th and 20th centuries, mind came to be defined as simply the working of the brain, and some scientists still regard it essentially in this light. The idea of ‘soul’ had no scientific interpretation.
But 21st century science, together with the ideas of Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, has led to the emergence of a different view of mind; and new forms of ‘Cartesian dualism’ have now been described. Psychologists have now defined a conscious mind, which is largely under our control, and an unconscious mind that is influenced by our actions but which also functions subliminally, beyond our reach through intention. Furthermore, while the brain processes and consciously interprets the input of our senses to constitute the rational mind, there is that aspect of being that we might describe as the spiritual mind, which comprises our emotions, feelings, passions and beliefs. It is this spiritual aspect of mind that many describe as soul or, particularly with discarnate entities, as spirit.
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The rational mind functions through a process called upward causation – the senses, stimulated by the material world, provoke neural processes. But there is a theory that the spiritual mind works through a process that the American social scientist Donald T. Campbell called downward causation in which a numinous energy interacts with mind to provoke intuition or inspiration. Put another way, the behaviour of individual human minds is influenced by a holistic spiritual energy, corresponding to Jung’s collective unconscious or, in modern scientific terminology, Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic field. In recent years, physicist Amit Goswami has made much use of this concept of downward causation in his writing.
We can to some extent quantitatively gauge the function of the conscious, rational mind through measures such as IQ tests or psychometric tests, but the propensities of the spiritual mind have so far eluded quantitation by science. Why does one person prefer Mahler, another Mozart? Why do some people go for walks in Nature or read the poetry of Wordsworth while others are fascinated by the paintings of David Hockney or the poems of Dylan Thomas? The human rational mind has produced the discoveries and inventions of science, engineering and medicine, but the unique quality that distinguishes human beings is the spiritual mind that gives us the ability to provide and share the aesthetic pleasure of arts and crafts.
Much as we need our children to become proficient in the basics of science and mathematics in order to become self-sustaining, contributing members of society, we should also leave room for them to learn how to appreciate music, poetry and painting, or participate in creative crafts, because it is these that will nourish their developing souls just as mathematics will help them to organize their rational minds.
The publicity surrounding the books and television presentations by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins has highlighted what the English physicist and novelist C.P. Snow called The Two Cultures. Our western education system has segregated children into followers of Science or Humanities at much too young an age. Dawkins has become the archetypal figurehead of a philosophical movement called ‘scientism’. This idea maintains that only science can give us meaningful information about the world through the senses and reason, or what the philosophers call empiricism and rationalism. A third and most important faculty of the human mind – emotion or intuition – is completely ignored because it cannot be studied quantitatively and reproducibly in a laboratory.
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There are many scientists today who regard science as able to provide all meaningful paths to knowledge, so that activities like music and poetry are quite useless in providing us with anything useful in our lives. Poetry books and music scores may just as well be burned along with books on religion as such texts only provide ‘entertaining self-deception’, according to another contemporary Oxford scientist: in his view, while ‘poetry titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates’. However, many of the greatest innovations in science and mathematics have arisen through flashes of inspiration rather than simply relentless compilation of data.
Science is not omnipotent: it does not provide the only route to meaningful knowledge. There is a deeper wisdom that touches the spirit and this can only be provided by mystical experience and an awareness of the aesthetic dimension of human existence. Our ability to reason is far above that of other animals, largely because of our sophisticated language skills, but it is the humanities that comprise the defining characteristic of being human. It is only humans that have the ability to respond with such sophistication to any such cosmic spiritual energy, such as that suggested by Jung or Sheldrake.
Modern science tells us that there is indeed a spiritual energy, in the form of the quantum energy field, that permeates all of the natural world – lakes, mountains, trees and rocks, as well as the whole of the animal kingdom. It is this spiritual energy that many believe provides the source of inspiration to the creative artist and there have been many artisans who have acknowledged this.
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The philosophy of scientism regards science as the only source of knowledge and truth; anything outside of scientific rationalism is regarded as fantasy or nonsensical superstition. This attitude goes back to the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England when attention was focused almost exclusively on material progress. The pervading philosophy of materialism in society was no doubt influenced by the moral and economic arguments of the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and the Wealth of Nations publication by Adam Smith. Activity that was not materially productive was a waste of human resources!
Those who create our music, poetry, painting, literature or crafts need to learn the practical skills necessary to produce creations that express the feelings they want to convey. But listeners, readers, or other admirers need learn only some basic fundamentals of the art-forms they wish to participate in and leave the works to speak for themselves by resonance with our emotions. Some Greek and Roman philosophers, like Pythagoras and Boethius, felt that music for example should be studied, dissected and analysed, by ‘setting aside the judgement of the ears’. While this may lead to added insight into the composer’s intentions for some, many of us would agree with Wordsworth: ‘Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things / We murder to dissect.’ Whether we listen to popular or ‘classical’ music, there is a wealth of emotional uplift to be gained simply from listening, without any analysis. The same can be said of the pleasure of reading poetry or escaping from reality through the pages of a novel.
Many creative artists, composers and writers believe that the creative process, though expressed by the individual, has its source in the spiritual domain. Published examples of such attributions nclude comments by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler [Blaukopf] and Tchaikovsky [Lane]. The Viennese psychoanalyst, Theodor Reik, who was a pupil of Freud’s, said of Mahler: ‘He sought for the hidden metaphysical truth behind and beyond the phenomena of this world, for the ideal.’ [Schoenberg]
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German composer Johannes Brahms is also recorded as having attributed his compositions to divine inspiration: ‘Straight-away the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God, and not only do I see distinct themes in my mind's eye, but they are clothed in the right forms, harmonies, and orchestration . . . All true inspiration emanates from God, and He can reveal Himself to us only through that spark of divinity within—through what modern psychologists call the subconscious mind . . . ’
Many such writers and composers feel this same sense of inspiration derived or channelled from the spiritual realm. Looking over what has been written, we may not be able to trace a logical path for creation of the words: the ideas have simply materialized from air, as it were, channelled through mind and body, just as Brahms expressed above.
In an interview on U.S. TV, the Russian born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) said of his composition of The Rite of Spring: ‘I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I was a vessel through which Le Sacre [de Printemps] passed’. These composers believe that such creative inspiration derives from an external spiritual source and that they tap into that spiritual domain in their compositions. Cellist Steven Isserlis similarly sees a divine origin for inspired composition. In an interview with Oliver Condy for the BBC’s Music Magazine, Isserlis was asked about his preparation for performance as to whether or not he listened to other recorded performances. Indicating his preference to go back to the manuscripts themselves Isserlis commented: ‘Why get your instruction from a vicar when you have a chance to talk to God?’
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Occasionally, the inspiration from the spiritual world is even better defined. The medium Rosemary Brown claimed that the piano compositions she wrote down in the style of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff or other composer-pianists were channelled to her from Spirit. Some eminent contemporary musicians, like Richard Rodney Bennett and Hephzibah Menuhin, have said they think the origin of the works is probably genuine, as Brown had little musical education.
It is not only composers and performers who find soul in music. Plato said: ‘Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything,’ while another, more modern, philosopher, Aldous Huxley, commented: ‘After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music’.
Of poetry, Thomas Gray writes: ’genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul.’ The English abstract painter Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) said: ’As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing’ [Hardy].
There is also much cross-fertilization between the arts, one art-form giving rise to another. Innumerable oratorios and requiem masses have been based on religious texts. As well as religious texts, many other great works of literature have provided inspiration for musical composition. Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, and Wolf, for example, set the German Romantic poetry of Heine, Mörike, Eichendorff, Müller, Goethe, and many others. Several English composers set poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst turned to the poetry of American poet Walt Whitman for inspiration. The rarely heard Lyra Angelica (1954) of William Alwyn was inspired by17th century English metaphysical poets while the Finnish mythical epic Kalevala, compiled in the 19th century by the Finnish rural physician Elias Lönnrot, served as inspiration to many works by national composer Jean Sibelius.
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The cycle of four epic music-dramas by Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, have their origins also in Norse sagas. Yet another Scandinavian tale by the Danish novelist and naturalist Jens Peter Jacobsen – the love of Waldemar and Tove whose trysting occurred at the Castle of Gurre – gave us Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. In recent years, the mystical essay Eternal Echoes by Father John O’Donohue inspired a similarly mystical orchestral suite from composer John Barry. Gustav Mahler wrote the text of his cantata Das klagende Lied from a mythical story of sibling rivalry between two brothers, originally worked on by Ludwig Bechstein and the Brothers Grimm, and then set his story to music.
Paintings too have formed sources of inspiration to many composers. Sergei Rachmaninov’s tone poem for orchestra, Isle of the Dead, (1908), derives from a painting by Arnold Böcklin of 1880-6. Ottorino Respighi found his inspiration for the Trittico Botticelliano (1927) in the paintings of Sandro Botticelli – La Primavera (1482), Adoration of the Magi (1475), and The Birth of Venus (1486). Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) is a favourite in the concert hall being derived from artist Viktor Hartmann’s 1874 exhibition in St Petersburg. Two of Liszt’s orchestral tone poems were inspired by artworks – the Hunnenschlacht and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe inspired by paintings of the same name by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Count Michael Zichy, respectively. And William Alwyn again with his Autumn Legend (1955) found its source in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damosel (1871). Claude Debussy’s piano piece, L’Isle joyeuse (1904), was inspired by the painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau: L’Embarquement pour Cythère (1717). Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night inspired the 20th century French composer Henri Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement for orchestra (1980) . . . and there are many more.
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Sometimes an outpouring of grief from the loss of a loved one is expressed through the catharsis of musical composition. English composer Herbert Howells lost his son Michael in 1935 and was moved to compose his choral work, Hymnus Paradisi. The piece was composed in the period from 1936 to 1938 but Howells withheld it from public performance for many years considering it too personal a work. Howells was also commissioned to write a commemorative choral piece for the memorial service for President John F. Kennedy: the resulting work, Take him, Earth, for cherishing, is a beautiful piece, scored a cappella. The impulse for Brahms to write what proved to be his longest work – his German Requiem – was generated at least in part by the death of his mother in 1865.
Of all such aesthetic expressions available to us, music is in many ways, the most universal. It provides an essential expression of the soul to most people throughout the world. Music has been used since earliest times as an integral part of many tribal and folk traditions, such as religious ceremonies and celebratory gatherings. Such ceremonies frequently involve dance as well, as another expression of spiritual communion. We use music as accompaniment to the most important rites of passage in our lives – birth, and religious ceremonies associated with puberty, marriage and mortal death, which marks our transformation into the purely spiritual state. Music also provides the background to social contact for many young people in both the East and the West.
Even listeners without any musical training and not possessing a ‘musical ear’ can still experience joy from music. The spiritual aspect of the human mind allows us to appreciate the tonal beauty and form of music even without any understanding of its fundamental structure: the more deeply we understand these things, the more intense our mystical uplift. Melodic line, harmony, orchestration, rhythm and the juxtaposition of these musical components can provide us with great emotional satisfaction – or sometimes, with other works, can also produce a state of emotional disquiet.
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When our eyes are presented with two colours (light frequencies) at the same time, we tend to combine them. Thus blue and yellow together give us the sensation of green; red and yellow together provoke our senses to see orange; and so on. But when we hear two different musical frequencies together, we can hear them both combined and separated. Not only can we distinguish between musical instruments of different families, like strings and woodwind, but with practise we can even differentiate between a clarinet and an oboe, or between a violin and a cello. It is this ability that gives us so much joy from an orchestral score. Our range of hearing (20-20,000 Hertz) is very much greater than our range of vision (about 400-700 teraHz) – a faculty that musical composition uses to full advantage.
The English composer and musicologist Deryck Cooke in his book The Language of Music described music as ‘the most articulate language of the unconscious . . . the expression of man’s deepest self’. Cooke believed not only that music was an international language of communication but also that music reflected qualities of other arts – of architecture since, in many compositions, both arise out of a similar formal pseudo-mathematical structure; of literature, and especially the Romantic literature and poetry of the 19th century, in its expression of emotion; and, in what is described as ‘programme music’, of painting in the representation of physical objects or phenomena within the natural world.
These qualities are reflected increasingly in music as it evolved from the medieval period to the present-day. Cooke also maintained that the aesthetic appeal of certain music was rooted in its ‘timelessness’ and ‘other-worldliness’: these qualities are to be found especially in the Hymn of Jesus by Gustav Holst and the final movement ‘Neptune’ in his suite The Planets. Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsodies, the scenes of Nature painted musically by Frederick Delius, the Poème of Ernest Chausson or Psyché from Cesar Franck provoke a similar mysticism. The resonance that Holst and Vaughan Williams felt with the pantheistic poetry of Walt Whitman is shown in their music, with several pieces actually setting Whitman’s words. I have not even begun to describe the number of musical compositions inspired by the world of Nature because they are simply to numerous.
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The music of the medieval, baroque and classical periods prized formal structure: sonata form, the string quartet and the symphony all developed during the 18th century classical period with composers such as Joseph Haydn and W.A. Mozart. The Romantic period in music, as in literature, focused on the expression of emotion. The use of minor keys became a feature of music intended to convey sadness or nostalgia. The Impressionists in music, like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, were so-called because their output generated the same kind of aesthetic atmosphere as their artistic counterparts. The term ‘Impressionism’ is derived from a painting by Claude Monet, but the same kind of painting with ill-defined outlines suggesting rather than depicting its subject was also characteristic of some of his contemporaries – a nebulous mysticism. Debussy and Ravel are to music what Monet, Sisley or Pisarro were to painting. In the 20th century, with the arrival of serialism, structure or form again became dominant, but the emotionalism expressed in the previous century in music refused to die out and tonal romantic compositions are still among the most popular today.
Music, like poetry, reflects the ambience of the society in which it is created. The Romantic poets expressed their unease at what they saw as the cold precision of Enlightenment rationality and of the graft and grime of the Industrial Revolution. European music of the 19th century is full of the warmth of emotional feeling of the Romantic movement. Much English music of the 20th century is redolent of the soft and verdant countryside that inspired its composition, often expressed through lush strings and gentle woodwind. Russian music of the same period however is characteristically harsh, often dissonant, and full of percussion and blaring brass, reflecting the ethos of the cold and brutal Communist regime.
Now, in the late 20th and early 21st century, our lives are once again being shaped by a philosophy of soulless materialism. From this has arisen the dry, academic dissonant world of the twelve-note serialism of Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg, and the mathematical rigidity of composers like Pierre Boulez.
The realm of music provides perhaps the most intense and universal source of spiritual joy, and recent research suggests that it may well improve cognitive skill too. For both the composition and the appreciation of music involve the emotions and the intellect of composer and listener. In an age when impersonal electronic communication is increasing, music represents soul-to-soul communion between composer and listener, and even between listeners in the concert hall. Electronic music, which has become increasingly popular, could also be seen as another aspect of this age of electronic communication. As conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim commented in his first Reith Lecture: ‘Music can and should become something that is used not only to escape from the world but rather to understand it’. As I described in the previous paragraph, music reflects the society in which it is created. Barenboim, together with his friend, the late Edward Said, set up an orchestra, The West Eastern Divan Orchestra, in 1999 with players drawn from Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East. He has done as much as the diplomatic shuffles to bring peace and concord to that troubled region. Now he has written a book, Everything is Connected, on the theme of a unifying global spirituality expressed through music – musical harmony as a metaphor for the harmony of humankind.
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Music is surely the most expressive of the creative arts in conveying human emotion. Appreciation of painting is instantaneous, though that is not to say that other layers of meaning do not emerge with subsequent study. The enjoyment of poetry is an extended experience but is essentially solitary. Music provides both instantaneous and extended aesthetic pleasure that can be shared socially with others and to a greater extent than poetry or painting.
In other spheres, we can touch the soul of the universe through our sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and grandeur of Nature, and through the fulfilment of human loving. It is therefore no surprise that love and Nature have been popular sources of inspiration for musical composition. It is not necessary to have visions of the divine in order to become aware of a connection with our spirituality. Even composers who professed no strong religious beliefs have produced works of stunning beauty that are incredibly emotionally moving – and often even on religious themes.
Many spiritual healers use music as an accompaniment to their healing; dentists use it to soothe their patients, and there are surgeons who claim that it is beneficial to the smooth running of operations in theatre; it is especially good for patients if surgery is to be performed under local anaesthetic or acupuncture. For the rest of us, once the ear is attuned to music, it can be the most powerful agent for reducing stress and producing relaxation and joy, allowing us to transcend the restrictions of the material plane.
In the days of silent films, cinemas would employ pianists to reflect with their playing the atmosphere of what was happening on the screen. Once sound-tracks could be incorporated with the visual presentation on film, a whole new genre of orchestral music associated with movies arose and has served as an introduction to ‘classical music’ for many young people. Popular music was incorporated into stage plays on Broadway and Hollywood to give us a wealth of new kinds of ballads. That same music has incorporated new rhythms to provide a background for social entertainment through dancing. The music of the black field-hands in the days of slavery gave rise to a distinctive kind of negro lament that reflected the harsh conditions under which they were made to work. This has evolved into the rap-music of today and, before that, into rag-time, jazz and dance music. Since the western world started to explore the faiths and cultures of the East, oriental music and instruments, like the gamelan, sitar and theremin have become more familiar in the west.
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Immersion in the aesthetic world of music, poetry, painting, or natural beauty allows us, for a while, to become independent of the physical world that rules our everyday lives to seek and hopefully find joy in a personal psychic dimension of our own. We can do as the mystics of Eastern religious philosophy encourage us to do and lose ourselves in our own meditative paradise within the material world – to enter our own mystical castle as St Teresa and contemporary mystic Carolyn Myss would say. Teresa is one of the eponymous saints in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts composed in 1927-8 by Virgil Thomson that was created from a libretto by Gertrude Stein; the other ‘real’ saint was Ignatius of Loyola. So many musical compositions have taken their inspiration from religious texts.
Science has come to present a view that only matter is real; the numinous is subjective and meaningless to others. But the mystical is as much uniquely characteristic of what it is to be human as the rationality of philosophy and science. Charles Darwin was puzzled by our passion for music. In The Descent of Man he said: ‘As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity
of producing musical notes are faculties of the least use to man . . . they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed.’ Of no use? If music and poetry prolong our lives by reducing stress, make us happier, and allow us a longer time and a more sublime state of mind in which to be creative ourselves, and they facilitate communion between different cultures in the world, then they are of very great use indeed. Popular music, as well as providing entertainment, has also become a medium for social contact. The development of sophisticated electronic gadgetry, from radio to ipods, has brought both popular and classical music to many millions of people more than could have had the opportunity to hear it before the 20th century.
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There may be no material stuff called culture or pleasure or joy, but our life would be unfulfilled without them. Though other animals can indicate clearly whether they are contented or stressed, aesthetic experiences are uniquely human aspects of a holistic life. Religious ideologies can be divisive, but music and the arts speak to all nations and creeds in an international language. A world without music and the humanities would be cold and arid, whatever knowledge rationality gives us and whatever material benefits our scientific and technical skills may provide for us.
Abell, A. Talks with the Great Composers, Schröder Verlag, 1964.
Blaukopf, K. Mahler, Thames and Hudson, pp.196, 204, 1976.
Campbell D.T. 'Downward causation in Hierarchically Organized Biological
Systems’, in: Studies in the Philosophy of Biology, 1974; F.J. Ayala &
T. Dobzhansky (eds.), Macmillan, pp. 179-186.
Cooke, D. The Language of Music, Oxford University Press, 1959.
Goswami, A. Self-Aware Universe, Jeremy P. Tarcher, New York, 1995.
Hardy,A. The Spiritual Nature of Man, p. 88, 1979.
Lane, J. Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, 1906, pp.274-312.
Myss, C. Entering the Castle, Simon and Schuster, London, 2007.
O’Donohue, J. Eternal Echoes, Bantam Books, 1998.
Schoenberg, H.C. The Lives of the Great Composers, Vol. 2, p. 139, Futura, 1972.
Sheldrake, R. The Presence of the Past, William Collins, 1988.
Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, 1577; trans. The Benedictines of Stanbrook,
Thomas Baker, London, 1921.
First published in The Journal for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, vol. 37(2), April 2014.
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Science meets religion
If we were to ask someone the question: What unique feature
makes us distinctively human?, most people would answer that
it is our ability to reason and to express our thoughts through
language. Yet the world is torn apart today by those who act
only through emotion – a lust for power or belief in
a man-made social structure we call religion.
If we are to find harmony amongst humankind, the time has
come to put religion and the scripture on which it is based
on a rational footing, and to cultivate a sense of our global
connectedness spiritually as well as commercially. Some scripture
represents a body of myths, traditions and rituals handed
down through many generations. Other texts are the edited
versions of the inspired insights of one man as to how we
may best live a fulfilling life as individuals in social harmony.
All scripture was created for a particular group of people
at a particular time and place in social history.
What scripture does not represent is a unilateral and unequivocal
version of truth that must be accepted by all people worldwide
throughout all human history. What we regard as ‘faith’
is an emotional attachment to a particular set of principles.
We have no reason to reject anyone else’s chosen path
to fulfillment, unless it infringes on our freedom.
Humankind, since the dawn of our species as far as we are
aware, has had a vision of a spiritual realm beyond that accessible
to us through our five senses. They saw gods amongst the awesome
power of the elements of Nature. They built temples and huge
stone monuments like Stonehenge to these gods in the hope
that they may look upon them favourably and make their lives
less arduous. Sometimes the rocks and rivers themselves were
deemed to have a mystic power, like Ayers Rock in Western
Australia or the rock formations of Sedona in the American
state of Arizona.
Mountains reached up to these sky-gods, so there was physical
and spiritual closeness to deity to be found on the mountain
tops. Thus in western scripture we are told that God gave
the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai; Jesus went up
into Mt. Hermon for his transfiguration; and Muhammad went
up into the hills above Mecca to receive the words of Archangel
Gabriel that became the Koran. Such high ground is a symbol
of humankind’s belief that there is a ‘higher’
spiritual domain that exists above and beyond the earthly
material existence of which our five senses are aware.
The spiritual messengers were often described as angels though,
today, scientists and lay people alike tend to regard talk
of ‘angels’ with extreme scepticism and regard
such visions as fantastic nonsense.
Many of our religions of East and West, however, have a similar
spiritual imagery as the focus of their faith. We have the
Holy Spirit in Christianity, the Schechinah in the mystical
belief system of Judaism; and in the East, Atman is the Hindu
vision of the spiritual breath of Brahman, and the Universal
Mind carries over the karma of one incarnation to the next
for Buddhists. What is ‘soul’ but a tiny part
of this cosmic spirituality within each of us? We express
the feelings of our soul in religious devotion, in our altruistic
concern for the welfare of others, and in the aesthetic part
of our being through our enjoyment of music, literature or
the beauty of Nature.
Shunning any notion of divine revelation, the rationalist
philosophers through two millennia have envisaged this same
spiritual domain in their own contexts. Thus, Plato thought
that there were Ideas or Forms that provided the templates
from which we derived our earthly notions. The English philosopher
John Locke thought that there was a ‘real essence’
inaccessible to our senses that lay behind the ‘nominal
essence’ of objects. The nominal essence was the collection
of the properties we observed with our senses that allowed
us to give names to things.
This concept of spirituality is not restricted in application
just to individual people or things. German philosopher G.W.F.
Hegel thought that there was a spirituality characteristic
of every society that he called Geist. This caused people
to act in unison at certain times to a much greater extent
than would be expected from the statistically diverse range
of human opinions and feelings. We have seen this in Britain
in the huge political swings of the electorate in the 1979
and 1997 elections. We saw it in the outpouring of grief at
the tragic death of Princess Diana.
The twentieth century psychologist Carl Jung thought that
there was a ‘collective
unconscious’ that caused people to act in this way.
Jung described two or more events occurring at the same time
without causal connection (in the scientific sense) as synchronicity.
Thoughts and feelings were transmitted through this spiritual
domain from one individual to another. This communal empathy
was described by the spiritual writer Peter Russell as synergy,
and James Redfield, in his Celestine books, borrowed Jung’s
term synchronicity to describe it.
In the wake of the revolution in physics in the early part
of the twentieth century there is now even amongst a range
of scientists a gradual realization that the foundations for
a rational scientific explanation for psychic and spiritual
phenomena may now lie within our grasp.
For several decades past, Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake
has been investigating psychic phenomena and explaining some
of his experimental results in terms of what he calls ‘morphic
fields’ – essentially, a domain of spiritual energy
to which we all have access for telepathic or empathic communication.
This is the realm with which psychics and mystics commune.
It is the realm of individual souls of the living and the
earthly departed, and of the Communal Soul of the
collective unconscious. It is indistinguishable from the spiritual
domain of the philosophers, psychologists – and theologians!
Here surely is the basis for dialogue between warring ideologies.
Many have this vision of a universal spirituality. All we
need is the will to live in peace and not pursue the
belief that force of arms can change others with a different
world-view and compel them to submit. If we are to achieve
world peace, reason and dialogue must prevail!
Published in the Western Mail, Cardiff, Wales, UK, Wednesday
24th January 2007
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Healing spirit and the scientific paradigm
Developments in science over the last century have provided
us with the realistic possibility of explaining spiritual
and psychic phenomena in terms of rational science.Phenomena
like spiritual healing, telepathy, clairvoyance, mystical
communication with spirits in the afterlife, so long rejected
by most scientists, are becoming increasingly the focus of
If the still rather speculative ideas can be further substantiated,
this will give immense comfort to the bereaved and to those
nearing the end of earthly existence. It will also provide
authentication of many of the practices familiar to indigenous
peoples since the
evolution of our species, but which are still regarded with
suspicion, if not rejected outright, by Establishment science,
religion and medicine.
In living today we have become too attached to Establishment
systems, perhaps because in enriching our lives with diversity
they have also become more complicated. In many facets of
our lives it is expected that we will follow established procedures
– or perhaps, these simply represent the easiest, most
readily available solutions.
If we are ill, it is expected that we will go to an orthodox
medical practitioner to be
treated with government-approved synthetic drugs. If we have
beliefs it is assumed that we will ‘belong to’
a formal organised religion.
When we seek knowledge, we turn to the empirical discoveries
of science, because we have come to rely on the fact that
each new observation will be fitted into an established theoretical
framework. This way of looking at the world on the basis of
a set of accepted principles scientists call a paradigm.
From time to time over the past four centuries of scientific
exploration of the natural world, there has been a monumental
shift in the existing paradigm. The medieval belief of Earth
as the centre of the universe was replaced by the discoveries
of Copernicus that Earth was just one of a number of planets
revolving around a sun. We cannot conceive today what a huge
shift in world-view this must have been for the scholars of
the day, and it certainly met with great resistance from the
In the first decades of the twentieth century, there was
another monumental paradigm shift. The laws that governed
the behaviour of objects in the material world, which had
been established in the seventeenth century by Galileo and
Isaac Newton, were found not to apply to the constituent particles
of which those same material objects were
made up. These fundamental particles or atoms were not even
indivisible and indestructible as had been believed for over
two thousand years, and the strange behaviour of the constituents
of atoms created the new paradigm of quantum physics.
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At first, even the physicists themselves couldn’t believe
the findings of quantum physics because so often they seemed
to defy the laws of common sense – like particles appearing
successively in two different places without crossing the
space between, or particles that behaved as particles only
some of the time but then disappeared into waves of energy.
Gradually, this new world-view has provided explanations
for events, not only in physics but in chemistry, in biochemistry
and now even in realms previously consideredoutside the remit
of science – that of psychic and mystical experiences.
So the new paradigm itself appeared a century ago. What is
new now is an extension of its field of application that offers
the possibility of bringing together ideas from philosophy,
psychology, religion and science. We have heard much about
the conflict between the world-views of science (objective
rational empiricism) and religion (subjective divine revelation),
and we are all too aware of the turmoil that is created by
differences in outlook between different religions.
But we cannot thrive on conflict. We all live in the same
universe, and the many faiths and reason cannot exist in parallel
worlds, speaking different languages. The Earth is undergoing
a transformation as a result of Man’s activity, and
we must transformourselves with it. We need to heal the wounds
we have created in Earth and in humankind.
The healing we need applies to our secular lives as well
as to the religious, and on three fronts – individual,
social and environmental. Individually, more and more people
are falling victim to the addiction of alcohol or food. Obesity
is now rated as a national epidemic in Britain and America.
For several decades now, society has been indoctrinated by
the advertising industry to want more and more material goods.
The whole purpose of advertising is to create envy and discontent,
to make us feel inadequate or inferior if we do not have possessions
on a par with those of our neighbours or work colleagues.
We, and others, measure our success not by ourfulfilment at
service to other people but by the goods we possess.
The third area of healing needing our attention is the natural
environment. Our capitalist economic system is based on ‘growth’,
and that means encouraging us all to buy more and more each
year and to make equipment inoperable or obsolete as soon
as possible. But all these manufacturing processes require
energy and raw materials and, however ingenious we may be
in finding new processing techniques, Earth’s finite
limited resources are rapidly being used up.
The potentially unifying and healing aspect of the new scientific
paradigm that I want to focus on here is the notion of Spirit.
As I said above, the bits of atoms that behave like particles
some of the time can also melt away into a sea of energy:
and what is Spiritbut a field of cosmic energy?
Two thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Plato suggested
that all of our worldly concepts were a reflection of Ideas
or Forms that served as our templates and which existed in
a spiritual realm. The greatest of the Ideas was the Form
of the Good, which is a simplistic vision of the God of western
Another philosopher called Plotinus saw his deity as a spiritual
World Soul. All we can know of the world of matter, said Plotinus,
is what is in our mind: this is the only reality – which
sounds very like something out of the religious philosophies
of the East.
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of both East and West have a spiritual vision of deity.
In Christianity, it is called the Holy Spirit. The Kabbalah,
the mystical division of Judaism, describes the spiritual
emanation of deity as the Schechinah, and she is often
viewed as feminine. In Hinduism, Atman is regarded as
the breath of their deity Brahman, while in Buddhism
there is a Universal Mind to carry over the karma of
each incarnation to the next. What is it that Spiritualist
mediums commune with if not the spirits or souls of
those who have departed earthly life?
Other philosophers of the Enlightenment
had their own visions of this spiritual domain. John
Locke thought that behind the ‘nominal essence’
of each object – the collection of properties
that caused us to give the object its name – there
lay a ‘real essence’, forever unknown to
our five senses. German philosopher Immanuel Kant called
Locke’s real essence the noumenal dimension of
the world lying behind the phenomenal aspect accessible
to our five senses.
The psychologist Carl Jung, who was a firm believer in the
reality of the spiritual component of existence, proposed
that a ‘collective unconscious’ was part of the
mind or spirit of every individual. We transmitted ideas,
said Jung, through this spiritual dimension. The most persistent
ideas, of symbolic significance in human life and recurring
within many of the myths of religion, he called archetypes.
Philosophers, theologians, psychologists – all have
had a vision of this spiritual domain relevant to the subject
in which they were working. Now, quantum science has a concept
that could explain rationally the nature of this all-pervading
Every particle of every atom continually pops in and out
of material existence by
alternating the nature of its being with a packet of wave
energy, in accordance with Einstein’s famous E = mc2
mass–energy relation.. This energy is called the zero
point field, or z.p.f. for short. It fills in the spaces between
the bits of the atom.
Our body, and especially our brain and spinal cord, is a
mass of electric currents that travel not only along these
nerves but also along the proteins that make up our tissues
and the DNA that characterises our cells. Nobel Prizewinner
Albert Szent-Györgyi was the first to suggest this half
a century ago and now the mobility of these electric particles
(called electrons) has been established by scientists, together
with the activity of biophotons (light waves behaving as particles
in the body). Where we have moving electrons, we also have
a magnetic field.
We are a mass of such electromagnetic energy fields. We should
not be surprised therefore if we find that some people are
particularly susceptible to electronic equipment or overhead
power cables. The z.p.f. is not only within every material
atom of our bodies and of the air we breathe, of every plant
and animal, of every mountain and river, it is also out in
space, where it is more commonly referred to as the quantum
vacuum. The halo of the z.p.f. around our bodies comprises
the aura that can be detected by some sensitives.
||When a clairvoyant ‘predicts’
the future, they are tuning in to this quantum vacuum
that forms part of a continuum of space and time. Spiritual
healers channel the energy from this same cosmic energy
field into the chi of the patient through the chakras.
Empathic people communicate their thoughts by telepathy
through this spiritual energy field that Cambridge biologist
Rupert Sheldrake calls a morphic field. We have all gazed
in awe and wonder at the myriad stars in the night sky,
but cosmologists tell us that most of our universe is
unknown to us in our mortal lives for it is undetectable
by the appliances of science: they say it is made up of
‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’
engaging in their own cosmic dance.
It may be that this is the domain of those who have left
material earthly existence to transform into spiritual souls,
but capable of assuming material form, as testified to by
What this new scientific paradigm of quantum physics tells
us is that the zero point field
is everywhere, in everything, at all times, and it is indistinguishable
from Jung’s collective unconscious or the Holy Spirit
or Atman, or Communal Soul. It is the all-pervading motivating
Spirit of the universe. What a unifying healing vision this
would be if only we could all embrace it.
Published in Healing Today, the magazine of the National
Federation of Spiritual Healers, Issue 108, May-July 2007
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Is religion just superstition?
Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford has taken issue with religion
for some years now, the argument being that if we cannot subject
religious experiences to the rigour of scientific double-blind
tests, then it must be rejected as ‘superstitious nonsense’.
Dawkins maintains that religion is an enemy of reason and
the root of all evil as well.
Science has made the progress it has because similar experiments
on similar materials are supposed to give identical results
at different times and places. In practice however, there
are always ‘experimental errors’ and human errors
that have to be taken into account. Equipment doesn’t
always behave in exactly the same way. The physicist Wolfgang
Pauli was renowned for the disruptive effects he had on measuring
equipment in any laboratory he visited, and some measuring
apparatus can be sensitive to electromagnetic fields and humidity.
Furthermore, scientists of course are human and we are subject
to the same errors and emotions as everyone else. It’s
always satisfying when an experiment turns out exactly the
way we planned, so we are all looking for a particular outcome,
however objective and professional we try to be. The security
in science comes from the repeatability of an experiment by
Science has developed a technique for trying to eliminate
human bias in assessing results and that is through what we
call ‘the double blind test’. The double-blind
test has become the standard scientific method of testing
the validity of empirical evidence. The principle is that
a neutral observer assigns numbers to some test materials
or subjects and that neither the experimenters themselves
nor the assessors of the results, nor the subjects themselves
very often, know the identities of the subjects or the exact
nature of the test until all the results have been analysed.
Only then are the identities of the subjects disclosed, or
patients are told whether or not they have received a drug
or placebo, so that the success of the experiment can be evaluated
Religious experiences are most difficult to assess in this
way. The subject knows whether or not they have had such an
experience – there is no possibility of keeping them
in the dark as to the nature of the trial, and the assessment
of a mystical event has to be highly subjective, by its very
nature. The affirmation of mystical events comes mainly from
the fact that different people at different times and places
have similar experiences – as is the case in a more
restricted way with scientific experiments.
Also, just as herbal medicine has been established through
thousands of years of successful use (probably with many calamities
along the way in the early years!), so any claimed revelation
or mystical experience has to be judged by its coherence and
social value. Taking a completely pragmatic approach we have
to ask: are the claims reasonable and do they work in practice
for the enlightenment of the individual and cohesion of society?
In the pluralistic modern world, where we are all aware of
many more faiths than that with which we were brought up by
our parents, we are able to make choices – we can change
our religious adherence to another faith, or to hold fast
to a cosmic spirituality as our faith but to dispense with
the dogma of a formal religion. This is what many within Britain
are now doing. It provides a much more holistic world-view
than if we insist on the veracity of any one set of religious
principles. Inevitably, this implies that everyone else is
wrong in their beliefs. An ancient eastern philosopher recommends
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Find enlightenment through heeding many points of view
Find ignorance through heeding few
Wei Zheng, Tang Dynasty
Making choices as to which religion most closely accords
with our world-view and the life we wish to lead is using
reason in assessing the claims of revelation by the prophets
or seers. This is far removed from superstition, which is
defined as ‘irrational belief in supernatural agency
Furthermore, we are not so much believing in a supernatural
agency as believing that the words of one particular man contain
a wisdom that we would benefit from following, whether those
words represent divine revelation or not. And it is usually
men who have served as prophets of the major world religions
though, in the nineteenth century, Mary Baker Eddy claimed
inspiration from the New Testament to found the Christian
Science movement and Helena Blavatsky wrote her book The Secret
Doctrine, under the guidance of her spirit guides Morya and
Hoot Koomi, that provided the foundations of theosophy. In
the East, Siddhartha Gautama, Lao Tzu and Kung Fu Tzu never
claimed any kind of supernatural revelation for their wisdom.
There is ample evidence, some of it gathered under stringent
scientific criteria, of the occurrence of events that are
classed together as psychic events or psi. The most studied
are forms of telepathy and Guy Lyon Playfair has written authoritatively
on the subject in his book, Twin Telepathy. But there are
numerous anecdotal accounts of clairvoyance or of contact
with discarnate souls that have been verified as genuine by
We are dealing here with evidence of individual human experiences
and we cannot sensibly apply the same sort of criteria of
verification and repeatability that we would do in science
for experiments with test tubes or lumps of rock. Even when
we turn to experiments with animals or animal tissues, there
is much greater variability in results than when we examine
inert materials. How much greater then must we expect variability
to be when we deal with human subjects with their range of
daily emotional experiences.
The potential energy field that underlies all matter at the
quantum level has been suggested by several scientists as
the medium through which psychic and mystical communication
may occur. It is a concept that has been suggested in other
fields of human endeavour, such as psychology and philosophy.
Carl Jung believed that the recurrence of certain mythical
images he called archetypes, like an incarnate son of a sky
god who is resurrected after death, takes place because humans
possess a collective unconscious for the exchange of images
through space and time. Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake
called a similar spiritual domain the morphic field.
The idea goes back to the dawn of human articulation of such
ideas amongst the Greek philosophers. Plato believed that
human concepts had their origin in a domain of the gods he
called the Forms or Ideas. Our earthly concepts were a reflection
of those held in the realm of a universal spirit.
Thus many people use reason in arriving at their religious
beliefs. The spiritual dimension is an integral part of the
human psyche and an all-pervading spiritual field of energy
forms the ground of quantum physics. This is not superstition!
This essay was first published in the Tree of Life magazine
in autumn 2007 (www.treeoflifemagazine.com)
and a reworked version on the same theme was published in
De Numine, the magazine of the Alister Hardy Society No.44
in Spring 2008 (www.studyspiritualexperiences.org).
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In the Summer 2007 issue of the Action Against Allergy Newsletter,
a medical practitioner in Bournemouth UK, Dr John Millward,
made several valid points about the attitude of the medical
profession to disease and to nutrition. In May of 2006, a
group of physicians and scientists in Britain sent a letter
to the chief executives of health trusts urging them to reject
alternative medical treatments as ‘unproven or disproved’.
In addition to being circulated within the NHS, the letter
was also sent to Prince Charles, a known advocate of the use
of alternative therapies.
Regrettably, the Oxford zoologist Professor Richard Dawkins
has now extended his attack on religion to include alternative
therapies as equally vacuous. We certainly need to be protected
from bogus practitioners selling ‘snake oil’,
but genuine therapists have a very real part to play in therapy
of those who have some kind of biochemical or physiological
imbalance that makes them feel less than well.
In orthodox ‘scientific’ medical practice there
were 40,000 errors in drug administration in British hospitals
in 2005 alone (National Patient Agency, 10 August 2006).
In America, there are approximately 7,000 deaths each year
due to medication errors (www.amcp.org)
, and the FDA states that there is at least one death each
day and 1.3 million people injured each year due to medication
A professor of psychology at the University of California,
Theodore Roszak, believes that much of the physical and mental
illness prevalent in society today can be traced to a loss
of spiritual connection with our natural environment and stress
and pollution – particularly from alcohol and tobacco
smoke – undoubtedly make a significant contribution.
It is also assumed incorrectly that the whole population
has adequate nutrition. As Dr Millward said, it has been known
for more than a century that deficiencies in certain trace
elements or vitamins can produce debilitating disease.
One of those who first raised concerns about the quality
of our food was Weston A. Price (1870-1948), a dentist who
ran a practice in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early years of the
20th century. He gave this up in the early 1930s to travel
the world with his wife exploring the lifestyles of native
peoples who had not yet had their ecologically sound holistic
existence disrupted by the intrusion of western capitalism.
He collected food samples from native diets and analyzed
them in his laboratory. His findings, published in 1939, showed
levels of micronutrients four to ten times that of foodstuffs
in the American diet of the time.
Price’s work inspired the nutritionist Sally Fallon
to set up her own organization, the Weston A. Price Foundation
in Washington, D.C., and she has updated Price’s findings
in a book of her own (Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions,
New Trends Publishing, Winona Lake, Indiana, revised 2nd edn,
Graham Harvey pointed out in his book, We Want Real Food
(Constable, London, 2006), that the liberal use of agrochemicals
has impoverished the soil to such an extent that plants are
often unable to extract minerals from the soil, even if they
are there. We need some university medical team to launch
an epidemiological study of the levels of nutrients in the
population in various parts of the country.
Pharmaceutical drugs have saved countless lives and reduced
much suffering throughout the last century. But they should
be used sparingly and alternative naturopathic remedies sought
wherever possible, because the strain imposed on the immune
system by the toxicity of these drugs can make patients more
susceptible to adverse reactions to other xenobiotics (compounds
not part of the body’s natural biochemical system).
The overall load of these compounds can be more than the body
The apparent association of autism and Crohn’s disease
with MMR vaccination may well arise from such inability of
the body’s immune system to cope with raising antibodies
to three diseases at the same time. It would be surprising
if we did not find some children who did not react adversely.
Many older people find they cannot tolerate the annual ‘flu
vaccine for the same reason. Dr Millward’s suggestion
of a nutritional deficiency as a factor in autism should also
be taken seriously and investigated.
There are naturopathic alternatives available in health food
stores all over the country that may be effective in treating
some of the population’s common ailments.
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The family of drugs called
statins is very popular with doctors at present for
reducing cholesterol levels in the blood and, provided
the patient is able to metabolize them, they are quite
effective. Statins work by inhibiting the production
of cholesterol in the liver, most of all at night,
but they also inhibit one of the body’s key
metabolic agents, co-enzyme Q10.
Statins frequently produce insomnia, myalgia (muscle
pain in the legs or arms), and shortness of breath
as side effects and can even damage muscle tissue
(myopathy). When the patent was first granted for
the use of statins it was recommended that doctors
prescribe co-Q10 at the same time, to minimize their
adverse effects, but this seems to be done only rarely.
There is a gentle herbal alternative to statins available
and that is to use spreads, yoghurts or tablet supplements
containing plant sterols and stanols. Plant stanols are also
available in capsule form. In the human diet they appear to
lower the undesirable LDL cholesterol while leaving the desirable
HDL cholesterol unaffected.
Antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, the flavonoids and
xanthones also seem to have a beneficial effect in inhibiting
atherosclerotic plaque formation. Vitamin C is to be found
in all fresh fruit and vegetables. You can find flavonoids
in citrus fruit, vegetables (especially onions), legumes and
green tea, or again in capsule form if desired. Vitamin E
is obtained from wheat germ and sunflower seeds and mangosteen
is the best source of xanthones.
While cholesterol levels may well be an important factor
aggravating arteriosclerosis (blocked blood vessels), there
are other compounds, like homocysteine, the blood concentration
of which is believed to be even more important, but this is
never measured routinely.
High protein diets, especially those that include much red
meat, tend to produce elevated homocysteine levels, which
are known to be detrimental to health.
The usual treatment prescribed for osteoarthritis is to take
pain-killers, as Lynne McTaggart says in her book, What Doctors
Don’t Tell You: ‘Conventional medicine tends to
take the view that there is no known cause or cure for arthritis,
so all it can do with certainty is to alleviate your pain’
(McTaggart, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, Thorsons, London
and San Francisco, 1996). These drugs all have damaging effects.
Paracetamol can be taken in only limited quantities because
of its toxic effect on the liver. The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory
drugs (NSAIDs) all produce irritation of the gut. The American
FDA estimates that there may be up to a quarter of a million
cases of gastric bleeding from use of NSAIDs each year, while
in Britain about 4000 people die from taking NSAIDs each year.
Again, there is a naturopathic alternative. The natural compound
glucosamine, taken with fish oils containing omega-3 fatty
acids, may prove to be a safe and simple alternative in the
treatment of osteoarthritis.
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There are some powerful allopathic drugs (like finasteride)
available to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH –
an enlarged prostate gland leading to difficulty with urination)
that is common in men in later life, but all of them frequently
produce some rather nasty side-effects. The gentle natural
compound saw palmetto is just as effective with, generally,
only mild or no side-effects.
Readers should note however that orthodox medical opinion
is sharply divided on the treatment of BPH because such treatment
may mask prostatic cancer. However, there is no reliable method
of assessing prostate cancer, and the two basic treatments
– surgery or radiotherapy – frequently result
in impotence or incontinence or both, with no convincing evidence
that such radical measures prolong life.
There have been quite extensive clinical trials on humans
for the past decade or so on the use of extracts of Ginkgo
biloba for the treatment of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease
and poor circulation. With fewer clinical trials so far, the
xanthones from mangosteen have also proved to be effective.
The staff at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging
at Tufts University, Boston, MA, have conducted research into
mangosteen over the past decade. The results have been positive
and side effects are generally few – mild headaches
or gastrointestinal upsets. This is another example where
a gentle herbal remedy may obviate the need to use more toxic
synthetic pharmacological compounds.
There are undoubtedly health benefits from food sources rich
in anti-oxidants, though there are also some more wary researchers,
like Dr Ralph Moss who has published what he calls a friendly
skeptical look at mangosteen (http://chetday.com/mangosteen.htm).
The overall guiding principle is to eat healthily with as
much fibre, fruit and vegetables as your system can tolerate
and to avoid completely if possible tobacco products, alcohol
and any other synthetic ‘recreational’ drugs that
are, in fact, even more toxic than many of the pharmaceutical
The bottom line is: Enjoy your food and take naturopathic
medications to restore the balance if this has become disturbed!
Dr Jones is the author of The Tao of Holism, published by
O Books early in February 2008. A fuller discussion of the
above issues, with extensive references, may be found there.
A modified version of this article first appeared in the
Action Against Allergy Newsletter No.91 for Winter 2007 (www.actionagainstallergy.co.uk).
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Science and Religion: Is Dawkins Right?
Report of lecture given by Howard Jones
at University of Wales, Lampeter, published in De Numine,
the newsletter for the members of the Alister Hardy Society.
On 28 May 2008, Dr Howard Jones, author of The Thoughtful
Guide to God: Making Sense of the World's Biggest Idea and
The Tao of Holism, spoke to us on Science
and Religion: Is Dawkins Right?
An immediate impression Dr Jones gives as a speaker is of
quiet authority and broad grasp, and he soon proved himself
no narrow scientist. Surveying the history of scientific discovery
within a succinct exposition of its evolving cultural context,
he was even able to illustrate this breadth with an account
from his own life. Like Kekulé, Howard solved a long-standing
problem of biochemistry whilst in a meditative state, in this
instance whilst listening to Bruckner's eighth symphony. Einstein,
too, tells us that he conceived his theories by a picturing
imagination rather than by verbal analysis.
As Howard reminded us at the beginning of his talk, some
of our most significant scientific discoveries emerged out
of the same process of envisioning which is the wellspring
of dreams, meditation and creativity, from the deep recesses
beneath our full consciousness upon which consciouness rides.
This being so, Dawkins is out of step with his own community.
Chris Clarke, Rupert Sheldrake, Ervin Laszlo and others have
shown that quantum physics has altered our perception not
only of the universe 'out there' but also of our own consciousness,
and there are many ways of knowing that embrace both objective
and subjective, the scientific and the spiritual.
Dawkins' views on religion are well known to some of his
hearers but Howard had the task of speaking to an audience
largely unknown to him. However, he succeeded in showing not
only the irrationality of Dawkins' antagonism towards religion
and his lack of philosophical grounding but also that, whilst
Dawkins professes to be a 'card-carrying rationalist', in
reality he lives more by a kind of faith than by reason. Dawkins
ought to be well-equipped, and sufficiently informed, to understand
what he scorns, but seems instead to believe that complacent
ignorance and dogmatic assertion are sufficient to obliterate
'the world's biggest idea'.
The lecture showed a clarity of exposition, of delivery,
of form, which was a relief and a pleasure but, limited by
the clock, left us wishing to hear more on certain topics
within its broad perspective. Howard demonstrated the holism
he preaches, for the lecture was itself a whole, like a well-formed
At question time the comprehensiveness of Howard's grasp
of subject and his urbane manner were demonstrated again.
Unknown to many of us, one of his questioners had followed
him from venue to venue intending to undermine his views and
support those of Dawkins, an action which bespeaks the great
strength of the holistic interpretation of what it is to be
human which Howard was advocating. He handled the critic,
who thought his lecture important enough to follow him to
Lampeter, with humour and tact.
I'm pleased to report that we're to have the pleasure of
hearing Howard again at the next Residential Conference for
The Body MA at the University of Wales, Lampeter. His topic
will be Envisioning the Holistic Way, and he plans to speak
on how we arrived at our unholistic lifestyle following Newton,
Descartes and Laplace, and what we might do, both as individuals
and as a society, to get back on the holistic path. All will
Dr Maureen Lockhart, Lecturer and Tutor, The Body MA, University
of Wales, Lampeter. Website: www.studyspiritualexperiences.org.
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Jung and the collective unconscious
Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a Swiss psychologist who
was brought up in a family background that included medical
men, preachers and mystics. Jung was born in the small village
of Kesswil, on the shores of Lake Constance in Switzerland,
but before Carl was four, the family moved to Basel where
Jung’s paternal grandfather, a respected physician,
became Rector of Basel University.
Jung’s father was a Protestant pastor. His maternal
grandfather was also a theologian but one who had a deep interest
in the occult. His cousin, Hélène Preiswerk,
was a medium and details of her seances were to form part
of Jung’s Doctoral thesis, On the Psychology and Pathology
of So-Called Occult Experiences. This family background of
spiritualism, theology and medicine was to shape Jung’s
future career path and his world view.
Because his mother was rather emotionally unstable, the family
home was far from providing him with a happy relaxed atmosphere.
This drove young Carl within himself, which was not necessarily
a bad thing for this introverted, introspective personality
served him well in adulthood in understanding the minds of
others as he had been driven to understand himself. He was
much more at home in the personal world of dreams, day-dreams
and mystical visions than in the external world of real people.
Jung’s first academic paper was presented to a student
debating society at Basel University. It was called ‘On
the Limits of the Exact Sciences’ and in this he criticized
orthodox science for its inflexible materialism and reductionist
At the start of his professional career Jung worked with
Freud for six years, but then differences emerged in their
approach to analysis which demanded that they go their separate
Jung did share the views of Freud and Adler about the importance
of the unconscious, but his views were rather different. Jung,
like Freud, accepted the importance of the unconscious mind
in shaping the development of the personality but, expanding
on the ideas of Freud, Jung suggested a four-fold division
of functions of the mind.
Jung defined the preconscious and conscious divisions of
the mind in much the same way as Freud, but considered that
the unconscious comprised two separate and distinct components.
He defined the personal unconscious, which includes repressed
wishes that are socially unacceptable and traumatic experiences,
corresponding to the ‘unconscious’ of Freud’s
first analysis of mind function. But then Jung postulated
another division of mind called the collective unconscious.
It was Jung’s belief that we all have a predisposition
to act in well defined ways under a particular set of circumstances.
The reason we do this, he maintained, is because certain intuitive
images are passed from each generation to the next, and even
from one culture to another. These patterns of action or primordial
images appeared in dreams or imaginings and found practical
expression with recurrent themes found in myths, legends and
rituals of many indigenous tribal groups whose spirituality
had not been corrupted by technological advances.
He called these patterns of behaviour archetypes, which he
defined as ‘a priori, inborn forms of ‘intuition’
. . . of perception and apprehension . . . Just as his instincts
compel man to a specifically human mode of existence, so the
archetypes force his ways of perception and apprehension into
specifically human patterns’.
The archetypes correspond to Plato’s Ideas or Forms
that provide us with the templates for our conceptual notions.
The realm in which the Ideas exist is effectively the same
as the collective unconscious or Hegel’s Geist or Sheldrake’s
morphic field, the spiritual medium through which the thoughts
of one individual are transmitted through space and time to
Jung considered that the human propensities for religion
and myth were universal expressions of these archetypes residing
in the collective unconscious. Certain religious icons, like
that of a divine redeemer son, may be found in Babylonian,
Egyptian and even in Hindu and Mayan mythology as well as
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We are clearly shaped by both nature and nurture. Our genes
may provide the predispositions to develop in a particular
way, but our home environment and other external factors that
we encounter on life’s journey will determine the path
our lives take. Modern biological research indicates that
these life events feed back information to the genetic material
in every cell of our bodies.
We cannot alter the structure of our DNA but we can it seems
modify the way it performs through changes in our RNA. It
is in our response to the environment that we exhibit our
ability to resonate with the domain of the collective unconscious.
Jung believed that as we grow older we develop a realization
of our full potential in the state that he called individuation,
achieving the whole spiritually content individual as part
of society and the natural environment. We have achieved our
material goals during the acquisitive phase and found contentment
and meaning in our lives in the inquisitive phase. As ecologist
Thomas Berry said: ‘Nothing is itself without everything
else’. Individuation was the goal of life which Jung
equated with wisdom.
Part of this process of individuation, said Jung, was admitting
to ourselves, if we were male, that we had a gentler, more
emotional, sensitive and compassionate side to our natures
– qualities that we generally associate with our ideal
feminine: Jung called this the anima. The corresponding quality
in women, when they needed to be more aggressive or logical
Jung called the animus – a reflection of how women thought
the ideal man would behave.
Women still occupy a subordinate role in many societies:
it is more difficult for them to be promoted, especially to
top jobs, and they are usually paid significantly less, even
for doing the same job, despite gestures by politicians at
establishing equality with men. We still have a long way to
go to enable women to play a fulfilling role in our society,
to their detriment and ours generally.
Jung’s introversion was probably one reason for the
personality clash that he had with his mentor, Sigmund Freud,
who was certainly more of an extrovert. Another would have
been that Freud, with his scientific training, was always
looking backwards in time in the sense that he always sought
causes and origins of things – a typical reductionist.
Jung, on the other hand, looked forwards in that he was a
dreamer who was more concerned with an individual’s
motives, goals and objectives (working towards individuation)
and he envisaged some ideal unifying spiritual realm amongst
humankind as a whole. The collective unconscious could be
thought of as fulfilling just such a role.
As a spiritually oriented introvert personality, Jung had
many psychic experiences himself and believed that many of
his ideas came from his spirit guide that he called Philemon,
an old man with a white beard and wings of a kingfisher –
the archetype of the wise old man. The winged image recalls
the Faravahar icon central to the Zoroastrian religion.
From these personal encounters, and the experiences described
to him by Hélène Preiswerk, Jung had no doubt
about the validity of psychic visions. When he was 68, Jung
suffered a pulmonary embolism which nearly killed him. It
was in this state that he had a near-death experience, with
the usual concomitants of seeing oneself from afar (or, in
Jung’s case, the whole planet Earth from out in space)
and a certain resentment at being brought back to real existence
again. Happily, he recovered and lived to within a month of
his 86th birthday.
This essay was first published in the Winter 2008 edition
of the Tree of Life magazine.
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The God Confusion
God, Nature and Science
Over the last four centuries, the prevailing world-view amongst
ordinary people has progressively changed in accord with social
evolution. We can scarcely comprehend the culture shock of
Copernicus’ discovery in the sixteenth century that
Earth was one of a number of planets revolving around the
sun, rather than the centre of the universe. This had been
the Church’s view for well over a millennium and thence
the view of lay people, for the Church was regarded as the
authority on all matters, both spiritual and temporal. In
this sense, the world-view up to that time was a holistic
unity, as it has always been for indigenous peoples and adherents
of some of the eastern religious philosophies: for them, all
the material world is imbued with spirituality, so there are
no separate domains of matter and spirit. From the outset,
Western theology distanced itself from this pagan idea of
deity within the natural world and focused on a transcendent
and wholly inaccessible God.
After Copernicus (1473-1543), the idea of a world ordained
and maintained by God was eroded – first, by the astronomical
discoveries of Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century,
then by the increasingly impressive man-made structures produced
by the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and finally,
by what seemed to many at the time as the coup de grâce,
the theories of Darwin and Wallace, Lyell and Hutton in biology
and geology in the nineteenth century. The theistic vision
of God immanent in the human world was replaced by the deist
God as Creator and Designer of a mechanical universe operating
to His laws – laws that increasingly were unfolding
to the investigations of scientists. We really did seem to
be uncovering the mind of God.
English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) exhorted scientists
to use the resources that Nature offered for the benefit of
humankind to subdue ‘Nature with all her children, to
bind her to your service and make her your slave [for] the
enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting
of all things possible’. Now, not only was God remote
from humankind but so too was the natural world. This was
where our exploitation of the environment as something other
than ourselves really began: we no longer regarded ourselves
as a part of Nature but rather apart from it. Up to that time,
we had always worked in harmony with the seasonal cycles of
Nature, knowing that by desecrating Nature we endangered ourselves.
Those societies that ignored this fact, like the Easter Islanders,
In its enthusiasm to destroy the pagan god within the natural
world all around us, western religion had to create prophets
who were either in intimate communion with or who were actually
incarnations of the deity, revealing His word to the world.
However, in the age of increasing rationalisation that marked
the Enlightenment, it was unsurprising that many rejected
these wholly subjective revelatory world-views. Some went
even further in their notion of deity maintaining that there
was no longer a role for God at all, as Alister McGrath pointed
out in his book The Twilight of Atheism [Doubleday, 2004].
Thus, in the West, there was now confusion as to which of
three world-views – theism, deism or atheism –
represented the actual state of affairs in the world, that
is, which of these represented reality or truth. And there
was still a fourth option: the nineteenth century biologist,
T.H. Huxley, described as agnostics those who maintained that
we have no way of deciding between these alternatives. As
deism acknowledges a more restricted role for deity than that
of theistic belief, the fundamental choice was really between
theism and atheism – the existence (and possible ongoing
participation) or non-existence of God, with agnosticism representing
the fall-back position if the evidence suggested that no choice
could be made.
From the seventeenth century on, in the material world it
was science that people now looked to as the authority on
truth. But while scientists have discovered a vast amount
of information regarding those patterns of behaviour of the
natural world that we describe as physical laws, we have uncovered
no information that could unequivocally be interpreted as
favouring one of our three theistic options. Though we can
work on hypothetical model systems, we cannot explore these
options rigorously by the methodology of science. We cannot
conduct experiments to re-enact the exact conditions of Creation,
and we cannot say what test would disprove the hypothesis
of God as Creator, Designer or immanent presence.
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The fact that something has not been observed or explained
does not disprove its existence. While we cannot establish
the existence of God with the empirical certainty that, as
scientists, we expect from our experiments, a lower degree
of certainty might still be achievable. In his book, The Coherence
of Theism [Oxford, 1977], the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne
has used the inductive method of science to suggest that observation
of the natural world and logical reasoning do indeed imply
the existence of a deity. Using the standard theological first
cause, design and morality arguments, Swinburne suggests that
God is as plausible a hypothesis to explain the creation and
apparent design of the universe as the quarks and superstrings
that are used to explain the properties of matter.
Science has told us how many natural systems operate but
not why they should behave in this way: science suggests immediately
preceding physical causes but not philosophical reasons. The
evolutionary theory of Darwin and Wallace provides a convincing
explanation of the mechanism of species development but, despite
its title, Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) says nothing
about the origins of life. The long-standing philosophical
question of ‘why there is something rather than nothing’
which, despite its antiquity, has still been debated in recent
months in the pages of the Catholic magazine The Tablet, is
vacuous. From a secular viewpoint, even if science could tell
us the ‘how’ of creation, it is beyond its remit
to tell us the ‘why’. For the theist, to know
the ‘why’ of Creation would mean getting inside
the mind of God.
There is another issue. We can say nothing with any certainty
about how physical systems originated nearly fourteen billion
years ago from our vantage point within the system –
and that for only a few million years. We can speculate about
how it all began, as Stephen Weinberg did in his book, The
First Three Minutes [Andre Deutch, 1977], but we can know
nothing. Furthermore, as Kurt Gödel said of mathematics
in his Incompleteness Theorem, we cannot define the bounds
or limits of a system unless we can observe it from outside,
which obviously we can never do in the case of the universe.
Although the Big Bang theory of an instant of creation for
the universe some 14 billion years ago is the favoured theory,
it is by no means settled whether this was simply the creation
of our present universe from nothing (and therefore the beginning
of space and time), or whether the event occurred from some
pre-existing eternal and infinite state of being such that
there is an oscillation between creation and annihilation
of the universe, or whether ours is one of many universes,
or even whether the steady-state theory of continuous creation
is at all applicable. The acceleration of the expanding universe
has not been explained, and Fritz Zwicky’s dark matter
and dark energy ideas still have to be fitted into the picture.
There is a confusing array of scientific possibilities, all
of which have implications for various religious systems and,
most especially, for a role for divine participation.
Medieval theologians spent much time and energy trying to
reconcile the world-view presented in their respective scriptures
by revelation with the rationalism of the philosophers of
ancient Greece and Rome. From the time of the Enlightenment,
scripture had to be reconciled too with the empiricism of
science. Since the Enlightenment the world-view represented
by a literal reading of scripture, and especially the Bible,
the core text of western religion, has been generally acknowledged
as incompatible with either rationalism or empiricism. It
is accepted by most theologians that scripture is essentially
either myth and fable conveying age-old traditions of a particular
social group or the moral message of a prophet at a particular
time in human history as to how we should best live our lives
as individuals and as a society. It follows that religions,
like scripture, are man-made social institutions: religion
is the externalised communal expression of emotionally held
beliefs that represent the internalised faith of each adherent.
The very nature of deity is such that its form, too, must
be created out of the human imagination though its existence
can be inferred using the accepted arguments of natural theology,
applying reason to evidence gathered from the five senses,
as suggested by Swinburne.
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The reason versus revelation controversy
The controversy of a role for God and the validity and worth
of scriptural revelation continues to this day. Whatever the
truth of scripture, and however God is conceived, the subject
of the Divine is an emotive topic of relevance to a huge proportion
of the population of the world, particularly in the West.
In recent years, two Oxford academics have come to represent
the opposing views of atheism and theism, respectively, Richard
Dawkins and Alister McGrath, so I shall concentrate on their
writings. Dawkins (b.1941) is a zoologist who, for the past
decade, has held the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding
of Science at Oxford University. McGrath (b.1953) is now Professor
of Historical Theology at Oxford but he trained originally
in chemistry and biophysics. There are others who have added
their voices to the controversy: Peter Atkins, a chemist at
Oxford, supports the Dawkins view; Keith Ward, an Oxford evangelical
Christian, supports McGrath. John Polkinghorne is another
physicist turned Christian evangelist. As a generalisation,
it is the biologists who most ardently believe that Darwinian
theory can explain the emergence of life, the most complex
of natural systems, and that God is therefore unnecessary,
while the physicists, like Fritjof Capra [The Tao of Physics,
Wildwood House, 1975], see connections between the world-view
of quantum physics and the mystical viewpoint of eastern religious
The fact that several of the protagonists lined up against
Dawkins are evangelical Christians does, however, raise another
confusion. McGrath has recently published a three-volume treatise
called A Scientific Theology (T & T Clark, 2001-3) and
a distilled version called The Science of God (T & T Clark,
2004). In the latter (p.25) McGrath claims that ‘A scientific
theology is based on traditional Christian orthodoxy’,
and immediately the theological argument is both limited and
undermined by being linked to Christianity. Those who reject
Christianity are likely to reject the whole theology.
Any realistic theology must embrace at least Judaism and
Islam and, with little extension of the concept of the Divine,
Hinduism as well. One reason why Enlightenment scientists
like Isaac Newton and philosophers like John Locke and J.S.
Mill were anti-Trinitarians was that Christianity was considered
to be the least rationally coherent of any of the major religions.
Religion in general told people what to believe instead of
allowing them to think for themselves. A belief in God therefore
cannot logically be restricted to the Christian viewpoint.
Locke and Newton were deists but in his book The Twilight
of Atheism McGrath implies that they, together with Thomas
Paine and the founding fathers of America were atheists. There
has long been a view in mainstream Christianity that a belief
in God necessarily demands belief in the divinity of Jesus.
The atheistic viewpoint has been presented by Richard Dawkins
in many books over the past two decades, but most comprehensively
in The God Delusion (Bantam/Transworld 2006). In this, and
in two pairs of television programmes – ‘The Root
of All Evil’ and ‘The Enemies of Reason’
– Dawkins presents not only the case against God and
religion but a refutation of all mystical and psychic experiences
on the grounds that they are individual and subjective and
cannot be confirmed by others. Dawkins maintains that all
such experiences are meaningful only to the subject and are
totally meaningless to everyone else. Like the Enlightenment
thinkers above, he supports the idea that people should be
allowed to frame ideas for themselves through reason and not
be given a set of rules and beliefs by an authoritarian religious
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The idea of communal sharing of an individual’s subjective
experience through claimed revelation as a basis for a system
of morality is regarded by Dawkins as nonsensical at best
and, at worst, as in the religious indoctrination of children,
as actually evil. Many atrocities have indeed been committed
in the name of religion, but many other acts of genocide have
been racist obsessions, as with Hitler, or committed overtly
for the acquisition of power by atheists, like Stalin, Mao
or Pol Pot. Evil is not the preserve of religious fanatics
though they may be its most prominent contemporary exemplars.
Dawkins ignores the benefits derived from religion –
a guide to morality for individuals, a cohesive ethical structure
for many societies and a reaching out to the ineffable that
has created so many inspirational works of art. Religion has
provoked great evil, but it has also provided a spiritual
basis for faith for many more millions of ordinary people
and for artisans, and it has continued to exist despite the
passionate predictions of its demise by atheists or rationalists.
Empirical observations by the five senses made coherent by
rational thought that comprises the technique of science have
given us a vast amount of detail about how the world works.
But this is not the only route to knowledge. All knowledge
gained in other ways cannot be dismissed either as worthless
superstition or delusion. We all have, to varying extents,
three routes to knowledge of the world – empiricism,
rationalism and intuition. These can function for each of
us as individuals or we can accept the respected authority
of others. One of the definitions of ‘faith’ is
‘belief in the testimony of another’. This is
how most of us regard the facts of science or the theorems
of mathematics. Even scientists and mathematicians must themselves
have faith in the abilities of their fellow professionals
in other specialist fields.
The essence of the science and religion controversy hinges
on the fact that all statements in mathematics and science
are amenable in principle to verification (or falsification)
by others with sufficient expertise. The difficulty in assessing
the truth of mystical and psychic experiences is that they
are intrinsically subjective and rarely verifiable by others.
There is, however, an increasing body of evidence, some of
it gathered by the standard ‘double-blind’ technique
of science, of the validity of the effectiveness of prayer,
the existence of telepathy and clairvoyance, and even communication
with the disincarnate. There is also a wealth of anecdotal
evidence gathered over many centuries from around the world.
The psychic ability of shamans, prophets and seers has been
a fundamental component of human social evolution in both
secular and religious matters.
Until the rise of the pharmaceutical industry in the twentieth
century, what is now described as alternative or complementary
medicine was the only available method of treatment of illness,
except for dramatic intervention by surgery in extreme cases.
In its earliest days herbal medicine must have developed to
a large extent through ‘trial-and-error’ using
the intuitive knowledge of tribal ‘medicine men’;
such techniques have established many effective treatments
without the use of ‘the scientific method’.
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Pharmaceutical preparations have saved countless lives and
reduced much suffering over the last century – but they
also have their drawbacks; alternative therapies, in the right
hands, are certainly not the ineffectual nonsense that Dawkins
would have us believe. Using the orthodox ‘scientific’
medical practice that Dawkins champions, there were 40,000
errors in drug administration in British hospitals in 2005
alone [National Patient Agency, 10 August 2006]. In America,
one report says that there are approximately 7,000 deaths
each year due to medication errors [www.amcp.org],
while the FDA states that there is at least one death each
day and 1.3 million people injured each year due to medication
errors [www.fda.org]. Adverse drug reactions remain at least
the third or fourth biggest killer in the western world, and
more recent studies suggest they may be the biggest killer
[G. Null et al. Death by Medicine, Nutrition Institute of
America, New York, 2003]. Millions of people in the West turn
to alternative therapies as a last resort and secure successful
treatment when orthodox drug regimens are ineffective or side
effects of allopathic drugs are intolerable.
Complementary medical techniques have a long history of successful
use. Eastern medical practitioners have for many generations
used meridians of the energy they describe as chi to induce
anaesthesia by acupuncture. Dowsers and shamans tune in to
comparable energy fields or ley lines in the Earth in their
practices. All attempts to describe these energy fields in
terms of the four fields of energy described by western science
have so far failed. This does not mean either that fields
of chi do not exist or that a fifth field of nature will not
one day become amenable to our methods of scientific study.
For the present, what can be said with certainty is that this
field is real inasmuch as it has practical applications in
our everyday lives. The conclusion that we should draw from
these results is that much alternative medicine that was initially
based largely on intuition has been shown by traditional practice
to be effective and should not be dismissed simply because
it has often not been verified by scientific methodology.
Alternative or complementary medicine that Dawkins decries
as ‘meaningless superstition’ can in some cases
be a great deal safer and more effective than synthetic drugs,
provided of course it is used by qualified practitioners.
There is also reputable evidence for the validity of clairvoyance
and mediumship going back to the works in the early twentieth
century of Oliver Lodge (1851-1940), Professor of Physics
and Mathematics at Liverpool University, and William Crookes,
F.R.S. (1832-1919), who made pioneering discoveries in both
physics and chemistry. These were not gullible men and they
would certainly have been conscious of the effect that involvement
with psychic phenomena would have on their professional reputations.
There have been numerous books about the afterlife in recent
decades but some of the more recent and academically robust
include those by psychologist Gary Schwartz [The Afterlife
Experiments, Atria, 2002], and by Victor Zammit, formerly
a lawyer with the Supreme Court of New South Wales and High
Court of Australia [A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife,
Ganmell Pty, 1996] – again, a man whose profession demanded
conclusions based on evidence. Psychology professor David
Fontana has also presented an account of the evidence for
continued disincarnate existence in Is There An Afterlife?
[O Books, 2005].
These books relate accounts of information provided by mediums
or clairvoyants that is claimed to come from the world of
the disincarnate. Logically, such claims are in no way different
from those of sages and prophets whose insights have given
us the Neviim of the Judaic Tenakh, the Islamic Qur’an,
the Pali Canon of The Buddha, or The Secret Doctrine of Helena
Blavatsky on which theosophy is founded. All such scripture
is an account of subjective but intuitive experience to which
we subscribe through emotionally held beliefs.
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In The Dawkins Delusion [SPCK, 2007], McGrath criticises Dawkins’
book for its hyperbole and emotional charge. Yet, even when
professional theologians like McGrath write about their subject,
they find it difficult to be objective because their emotionally
held beliefs get in the way of their rational ideas. Dawkins
is criticised for not defining what he means by ‘delusion’.
Now ‘delusion’ is a common enough word in the
English language, but Dawkins gives not one but two definitions
on p.5 of his book. Dawkins is further taken to task for calling
Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Five Ways’ ‘proofs’
of the existence of God. Says McGrath: ‘At no point
does Aquinas speak of these as being ‘proofs’
for God’s existence’. That is simply incorrect.
In Chapter 1 of the concise version of Summa Theologiae edited
by Timothy McDermott [Methuen, 1991] we read the section heading:
‘That there is a God needs proof’ and, in the
text, that ‘There are five ways of proving there is
a God’. McGrath continues: ‘... rather they [the
‘proofs’] are to be seen as a demonstration of
the inner coherence of belief in God’ – just as
Swinburne demonstrated using the inductive methods of science.
To describe such beliefs in mystical or psychic events as
‘delusion’ implies that they are ill-founded which,
as I have explained above, is not necessarily the case. I
have emphasised these points to illustrate my contention that
evangelical Christians can be as biased or prejudiced in their
assessments as fundamentalist atheists.
Although criticised by McGrath, Dawkins’ definition
of faith as ‘blind trust, in the absence of evidence,
even in the teeth of evidence’ is in fact precisely
how many people do accept religious scripture, with the latter
part of the definition applying more perhaps to fundamentalist
religion. In a talk given in Swansea last October, taking
issue with Dawkins, Dr Rowan Williams said that belief in
God was ‘a matter of faith and unconditional’,
and that ‘religion cannot be approached scientifically’.
But this makes religious faith no different from fantasy or
imagination – it is just an emotional feeling. Even
secular faith in our doctors or politicians is at least grounded
in reason. The one feature that gives validity to any belief
is reason. Beliefs that are wholly subjective and without
either rational or empirical support to which others can assent
are indistinguishable from imagination, fantasy or even self-delusion:
intuitive insights can be validated only by practical reason.
The basic argument against fundamentalist religious belief
is precisely that it shows blind trust in certain ideas as
truth even in the face of rational or empirical evidence to
the contrary, just as Dawkins claims.
The healing spirit
Scripture is seen by many, depending on their religious viewpoint,
as the word of God. However, no scripture can logically represent
an unequivocal, unilateral world-view because we are all aware
now of a multitude of different religions in the world, many
of which claim their own unique but mutually incompatible
versions of divine wisdom. Which religion we grow up with
and accept as ‘truth’ is a matter at first of
the geography of our birth, the beliefs of our parents and
the society in which they live. In the global context, we
must accept rationally that no one religion is any truer than
another: they are simply alternative paths to enlightenment
that we choose emotionally to follow.
Surely the divisions that produce such hatred between different
religions will never be healed, nor the seeming irreconcilability
of science and religion, of reason and revelation, be resolved
until reason is accepted as an integral component of faith.
Scientists and theologians alike regard humankind as the highest
pinnacle of the evolutionary process, and the defining characteristic
of humanity is our quality of mind. A rational world-view
indicates that scriptures and the religions based on them
are man-made, however inspired their source. There is ample
anecdotal and scientifically based evidence to indicate the
existence of a universal spiritual domain. To embrace this
cosmic spiritual energy would bring us all once more within
the realm of the natural environment that gave us birth and
of which we have always remained a part, irrespective of our
Science can neither disprove nor prove, in the logical mathematical
sense, the existence of God, but the grandeur of the universe
that inspires the awe and wonder of humankind implies the
existence of an overarching guiding force. Such beliefs suggest
a way through the confusion of religions and are much more
than imagination or fantasy, and certainly not delusions.
This article appeared in The Scientific and Medical Network
Review, No. 96, Spring 2008 and in The Journal of Spirituality
and Paranormal Studies, January 2009 (published in Bloomfield
Back to the top
The wisdom of the trees
The Wisdom of the Trees
have been on Earth for more than 300 million years.
Throughout human civilization they have been associated
with magic and ritual because it was believed that they
were imbued with spirituality, and spirituality has
always been associated with wisdom. Because trees were
usually much longer-living than humans it was believed
that they retained knowledge from one generation to
the next and, as a result, that they were home to the
spirits of past generations with the wisdom they possessed.
As Karen Armstrong says: ‘Trees, stones and heavenly
bodies were never objects of worship in themselves but
were revered because they were epiphanies of a hidden
force that could be seen powerfully at work in all natural
phenomena, giving people intimations of another, more
potent reality’. Even in our highly rational day-to-day
existence, most of us feel a sense of enhanced spirituality
when walking through woodland.
Trees, shrubs and plants of all kinds have always been admired
as a source of spiritual uplift. The Egyptian pharaohs all
had extensive gardens attached to their palaces and the wealthiest
in Egyptian society had pleasure gardens on a smaller scale.
There were few inhabitants in Roman society who did not have
a garden attached to their home, both for the growing of herbs
and for aesthetic pleasure.
The ancient Greeks had their green spaces too, but mostly
outside of the metropolis because running water was not generally
available to Greek urban areas until after the Roman conquest.
Beautiful gardens and courtyards embellished with fountains
and running water were a feature of the homes of the caliphs
and even public areas in Cordoba and Toledo at their zenith
during the Moorish reign in Al-Andalus.
In the 21st century, gardening remains one of the most popular
of hobbies and city dwellers often prize their window-boxes.
The setting up of National Parks and Country Parks is a symbol
of our increasing awareness of our need for green spaces that
preserve our natural landscape, and psychologists believe
that many of the behavioural problems of children today would
decrease if they spent more time playing in green spaces.
Myth and Wisdom
Trees and shrubs and grasses have thus played a vital role
in the social lives of all early cultures as they do for people
today. The Celts are just one group who venerated trees as
repositories of knowledge and memory and the domicile of spirits.
Only their spiritual leaders, the Druids, were allowed to
harvest the mistletoe that grew symbiotically on the oak,
willow, rowan, maple or hazel; the mistletoe and the oak itself
had special spiritual significance. Mistletoe must have seemed
a particularly magical plant to early pagans as it grew high
up on a tree but had no roots in earth. To kiss a maiden wearing
a crown of mistletoe in her hair would bring good fortune,
and for a couple to kiss under a bunch of mistletoe would
bless their union – a custom we reserve now for Christmas.
old Scandinavian word ‘vid’ means wood or
forest but it has given us a number of words associated
with knowledge or wisdom: witan (Old English: to know),
wissen (German: to know), ‘wits’, ‘wise’
and ‘wisdom’, and there are other examples
of the association of trees and knowledge. The beech
tree has a special claim to be associated with knowledge
and wisdom. The beech together with the yew were the
woods favoured for the creation of ogham sticks and
runes, though the latter more commonly found are made
of more durable metal or stone. The ancient ogham and
runic alphabets were line symbols carved on wood or
stone that were used by the bards for passing secret
messages to one another. They were also used for divination
by Celts, and by Germanic tribes in central Europe and
Scandinavia from at least 1200 BCE. In divination, the
Druids would gather together a selection of ogham sticks
in their hands, ask a question of the spirits, then
cast the sticks or runes on the ground. The Druid would
then make a prognostication depending on what combination
of symbols were uppermost. The ogham sticks and runes
are the European counterpart of the book of I Ching
(‘The Changes’) used from earliest times
in the East and still in use today in China and Japan.
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In Scandinavia and Germany, the different runes, of which
up to three were selected in each throw, were associated with
one of 24 Norse deities. Again, each rune combination or raedan
(which gives us our English words ‘reading’ and
‘riddle’) had to be interpreted by the tribal
seer. The etymology of trees, wood, knowledge and wisdom is
frequently linked from our pagan heritage. In German, the
beech tree is die Buche and the word for book, of the same
origin, is der Buch, while a letter of the alphabet is der
Buchstabe, literally ‘beech sticks’, indicating
their ogham background. In modern Swedish the word bok can
mean either beech tree or book.
Specific trees that are native to certain geographical areas
often become associated with local myth, folklore and spirituality.
The baobab tree is venerated in Africa as the Tree of Life
because its massive trunk can hold many litres of water –
enough to sustain a small village for some days – so
providing a very practical spiritual image.
North American Indians refer to trees as ‘our standing
brothers and sisters’. The monkey-puzzle tree, Araucaria,
is so venerated by a native tribe in Chile that they take
their name, Pehuenche, from the tree (pehuen – monkey-puzzle;
che – people). The tree is used as a food source for
the tribe with bread made from ground seeds, while the resin
is used medicinally – another Tree of Life!
Other trees have significance in other contemporary religions.
The banyan tree, one of the Ficus (fig) genera, is linked
with Brahma, creator of the universe in the sacred Hindu scriptures,
the Vedas and Upanishads. The banyan is therefore the Tree
of Knowledge. Before effigies of the Buddha started to appear
in the 2nd century CE, the Buddha was represented by a wheel
(indicating the unity of all that is) or a pipal tree. The
pipal and banyan are revered throughout Asia, as is the ginkgo
After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, every
living thing within several miles of the epicentre was destroyed
– except for four ginkgo trees, the closest less than
a mile away from the epicentre, that survived and began to
blossom again in the following spring. All four trees still
flourish today and, not surprisingly, the ginkgo is therefore
regarded by the Japanese people as a symbol of hope.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks at least the longevity,
the girth and dark density of the yew has been associated
with death and transfiguration into immortal soul. The yew
tree, Taxus, was associated with the pagan season of Samhain,
when the gates between the worlds of the living and the dead
were open. This is why so many graveyards to the present day
have yew trees growing within them. It also probably has something
to do with the fact that most parts of the tree are very poisonous.
Because of their longevity through successive human generations,
yew trees are also associated with the continuity of the life
process. Samhain occurs at the end of October and beginning
of November, to mark the beginning of winter: it therefore
includes Halloween which we still celebrate with ghostly images.
The juniper tree was regarded by Germanic pagan tribes as
a watchful sentinel, no doubt because of its erect habit.
It was an intermediary between the mortal and spirit world.
The modern German word for a juniper, der Wacholder, reflects
this (German: wachen – to be awake, alert).
The tree may be viewed as an allegory of the human individual
– the trunk represents the individuated self, the roots
are the ancestors and their traditions from which the self
develops, the branches are the connections we make with the
physical and spiritual world, and the leaves that are shed
each autumn to nourish the ground beneath are the thoughts
and ideas that we disperse to nourish humankind as a whole.
All trees are truly Trees of Life and purveyors of wisdom.
This article was published in The Tree of Life Magazine in
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A World Without Music
A World without Music
Imagine a world without music or poetry or fiction of any
kind. This sounds like some kind of Orwellian nightmare, but
such a world was partially created in Afghanistan under the
Taliban as this extremist Islamic group forbade the playing
of music of any kind. There are many scientists today who
regard science or even their own specialty
subject as omnicompetent and able to provide all meaningful
paths to knowledge, so that activities like poetry are quite
useless. Poetry books may just as well be burned along with
books on religion as such texts only provide ‘entertaining
self-deception’. We are told that while ‘poetry
titillates and theology obfuscates, science liberates’.
Some scientists seem to counter their insecurity by portraying
their subject as unintelligible to anybody other than specialists
in the same field: this is especially true of physics which
now involves much high-powered mathematics.
The publicity surrounding the four television programmes
by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins has highlighted what the
English physicist and novelist C.P. Snow called The Two Cultures.
In two pairs of programmes Dawkins has taken issue first with
then with alternative or complementary medicine as being vacuous.
He sees anything outside of scientific rationalism as fantasy
or nonsensical superstition. Because of his eloquence and
easy style of presentation, Dawkins has become something of
a figurehead for this philosophical movement, but he is by
no means its only representative or even the most extreme.
A fellow Oxford don, chemistry professor Peter Atkins, who
is quoted above, takes an even more aggressive stance towards
frivolous activities like poetry.
But science is not omnipotent: it does not provide the only
route to meaningful knowledge. There is a deeper wisdom that
touches the spirit and this can only be provided by mystical
experience and an awareness of the aesthetic dimension of
human existence. Our ability to reason is far above that of
other animals, largely because of our sophisticated language
skills, but it is the humanities that comprise the defining
characteristic of being human.
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Deryck Cooke in his book The Language of Music described
music as ‘the most articulate language of the unconscious
. . . the expression of man’s deepest self’. Cooke
believed that music reflected qualities of other arts –
of architecture in its formal pseudo-mathematical structure,
of literature in its expression of emotion, and of painting
in the representation of physical objects. These qualities
are reflected in music as it evolved from the medieval period
to the present-day.
The music of the medieval, baroque and classical periods
prized formal structure: sonata form, the string quartet and
the symphony all developed during the 18th century classical
period with composers such as Joseph Haydn and W.A. Mozart.
The Romantic period in music, as in literature, focused on
the expression of emotion. The use of minor keys became a
feature of music intended to convey sadness or nostalgia.
The Impressionists in music, like Claude Debussy and Maurice
Ravel, were so-called because their output generated the same
kind of aesthetic atmosphere as their artistic counterparts,
Claude Monet and his contemporaries – a nebulous mysticism.
Debussy and Ravel are to music what Monet and Sisley were
to painting. In the 20th century,
with the arrival of serialism, structure or form again became
dominant, but the emotionalism expressed in the previous century
in music refused to die out and tonal romantic compositions
are still among the most popular today.
Music, like poetry, reflects the ambience of the society
in which it is created. The Romantic poets expressed their
unease at what they saw as the cold precision of Enlightenment
rationality and of the graft and grime of the Industrial Revolution.
European music of the 19th century is full of the warmth of
emotional feeling of the Romantic movement. Much English music
of the 20th century is redolent of the soft and verdant countryside
that inspired its composition, often expressed through lush
strings and gentle woodwind. Russian music of the same period
however is characteristically
harsh, often dissonant, and full of percussion and blaring
brass, reflecting the ethos of the cold and brutal Communist
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The Emotional Element
Music is surely the most expressive of the creative arts
in conveying human emotion. Appreciation of painting is instantaneous,
though that is not to say that other layers of meaning do
not emerge with subsequent study. The enjoyment of poetry
is an extended experience but is essentially solitary. Music
provides extended aesthetic pleasure that can be shared socially
with others and to a greater extent than poetry or
The realm of music provides perhaps the most intense and
universal source of spiritual joy, and recent research suggests
that it may well improve cognitive skill too. For both the
composition and the appreciation of music involve the emotions
and the intellect of composer and listener. Music represents
soul-to-soul communion between composer and listener. As conductor
and pianist Daniel Barenboim commented in his first Reith
Lecture: ‘Music can and should become something that
is used not only to escape from the world but rather to understand
Moved by the Spirit
Many creative artists, composers and writers believe that
the creative process, though expressed by the individual,
has its source in the spiritual domain. Austrian composer
Gustav Mahler was one who saw the process of composition as
part of this mystical interaction. When speaking of his Second
Symphony, popularly known as The Resurrection, he said: ‘Creative
activity and the genesis of a work are mystical from start
to finish, since one acts unconsciously, as if prompted from
outside, and then one can hardly conceive how the result has
come into being’ and ‘For me, the conception of
the work never involved the laying down of a process, but
at the most of a feeling ...The parallelism between life and
music may be deeper and wider than we are yet in a position
In an interview on U.S. TV, the Russian born composer Igor
Stravinsky said of his composition of The Rite of Spring:
‘I heard, and I wrote what I heard. I was a vessel through
which Le Sacre [de Printemps] passed’. These composers
believe that such creative inspiration derives from an external
spiritual source and that they tap into that spiritual domain
in their compositions. Cellist Steven Isserlis similarly sees
a divine origin for inspired composition. In an interview
with Oliver Condy for the BBC’s Music Magazine, Isserlis
was asked about his preparation for performance as to whether
or not he listened to other recorded performances. Indicating
his preference to go back to the manuscripts themselves Isserlis
commented: ‘Why get your instruction from a vicar when
you have a chance to talk to God?’Many writers feel
this same sense of inspiration derived from the spiritual
realm. Looking over what has been written, we may not be able
to trace a logical path: the ideas have simply materialized
from air, as it were, channelled through mind and body, just
as Mahler expressed above. Music has been used since earliest
times as an integral part of many tribal and folk traditions,
such as religious ceremonies and gatherings for rites of passage.
Such ceremonies frequently involve dance as well, as another
expression of spiritual communion.
In other spheres, we can touch the soul of the universe through
our sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and grandeur of
Nature, and through the fulfilment of human loving. It is
not necessary to have visions of the divine in order to become
aware of aconnection with our spirituality. It is not the
dogma and ritual of organized religion that provide the spiritual
dimension of holistic living but this experience and expression
of innate spirituality for which music provides the most universal
Many healers use music as an accompaniment to their healing;
dentists use it to soothe their patients, and there are surgeons
who claim that it is beneficial to the smooth running of operations
in theatre; it is especially good for patients if surgery
is to be performed under local anaesthetic or acupuncture.
For the rest of us, once the ear is
attuned to music, it can be the most powerful agent for reducing
stress and producing relaxation and joy.
Immersion in the aesthetic world of music, poetry, painting,
or natural beauty allowsus, for a while, to become independent
of the physical world that rules our everyday lives to seek
and hopefully find joy in a personal psychic dimension of
our own. We can do as the mystics of Eastern religious philosophy
encourage us to do and lose ourselves in
our own meditative paradise within the material world –
to enter our own mystical castle as St Teresa and contemporary
mystic Carolyn Myss would say.
Science has come to present a view that only matter is real;
the numinous is subjective and meaningless to others. But
the mystical is as much uniquely characteristic of what it
is to be human as the rationality of philosophy and science.
There is no material stuff called culture or pleasure or joy,
but our life would be unfulfilled without them. Though other
animals can indicate clearly whether they are contented or
stressed, aesthetic experiences are uniquely human aspects
of a holistic life. Religious ideologies can be divisive,
but music speaks to all nations and creeds in an international
language. A world without music and the humanities is cold
and arid, whatever knowledge rationality gives us and whatever
material benefits our scientific and technical skills may
provide for us.
Published in Kindred Spirit magazine, May/June 2008 and Tree
of Life magazine, Summer 2008
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Envisioning the Holistic: (Lampeter Oct 08)
In the West, holism is a new philosophy, a new way of thinking.
Elsewhere, it is very old – it is the philosophy of
indigenous ‘primitive’ societies and of societies
in the East.
It has been the practice of these cultures to live in harmony
with one another and with their environment, as far as possible.
In the West (and particularly in Christianity, which has
been our predominant religion in the last several centuries)
we have focused on individualism (salvation through Jesus),
and the acquisition of knowledge (through science) and material
goods (Industrial Revolution).
The whole western philosophy is individualistic, materialistic
We judge a person’s success by their material possessions
– what Erich Fromm described as the having mode rather
than being [Fromm].
In the East, traditionally, it is societal cohesion and cooperation
that are paramount. There is much greater respect for family
responsibilities and for the wisdom of the elderly.
The transformation of Ladakh corrupted by western capitalism
as described by Helena Norberg-Hodge is a prime example of
this different philosophy of life [Norberg-Hodge]
Holism implies relationships. Modern technology is encouraging
people to have virtual electronic relationships rather than
Western religion is dominated by scriptures that tell people
what to think and how to behave.
In the West, the deity is outside the natural world, outside
humankind, and can only be accessed through the good offices
of priests and rabbis and imams.
In eastern and indigenous religions, people are encouraged
to find their own way spiritually, guided by the words of
their shamans and sages like The Buddha, Lao-Tzu and Confucius
or tribal elders.
Irrespective of whether or not the religion embraces a view
of deity, there is respect for the natural world (ahimsa)
of which humankind is a part.
In the West, Man and God and Nature are separate;
with indigenous peoples they are one.
It is this holistic vision we need to recapture – less
religion and more spirituality: religion is divisive; spirituality
is potentially unifying.
Medieval theologians tried to reconcile the rational knowledge
of Greek philosophers, often inspired by Eastern wisdom, with
the knowledge claimed by the respective prophets through revelation,
each presenting different versions of ‘truth’.
Religion had to defend the revelatory claims of scripture
Then in the Renaissance and still to the present day, religion
has encountered a new threat from the rise of a new form of
rationalism in science.
It is not only religion that has taken us away from holism.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment and the rise of science
also took us down this path away from holism.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in The Advancement of Learning
(1605) and Novum Organum (1620) suggested studying complex
objects in Nature one part at a time with the tacit assumption
that they would perform in the same way in the complete object
The idea of mutual interaction of components was not considered.
The purpose was to “subdue Nature with all her children,
to bind her to your service and make her your slave [for]
the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting
of all things possible” [Quinton, Vickers].
This reductionist approach may apply to William Paley’s
pocket-watch on the heath, and to many other inanimate objects,
but it most certainly does not apply to living organisms,
and least so to humans.
The human body is not just a machine.
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Human creativity in music and literature, social interaction,
law-making, and the economic structure of nations, to quote
just a few examples, cannot be reduced to particle physics.
We can distinguish between those aspects of brain function
that can in some sense be evaluated quantitatively –
by IQ tests for example – and which we describe as functions
of mind. This is the physical mind, located in the brain during
Then there are those brain functions that deal with ethics
and morality, imagination, intuition, insight, aesthetic appreciation,
and such, that many describe as soul: this is the spiritual
The emotional aspect of individual behaviour can perhaps
be regarded as the intermediary between the rational mind
and the spiritual soul:
Physical self (body) – rational self (mind) –
emotional self – spiritual self (soul)
It is not just an assembly of individual cells that composes
a symphony or falls in love; it is a human being, an organism
possessed of continual creativity.
Living cells continuously interact and thereby create complexity
and give rise to the emergence of new properties [Capra].
We are creatures composed of and immersed in a sea of cosmic
spiritual, e.m. and quantum energy and our cells are therefore
continuously interacting with this energy.
We should not be surprised if some people fall ill from the
influence of man-made e.m. fields.
The structure of our DNA is determined through conception,
but its function is continually influenced throughout our
lives through the operation of RNA [Lipton].
Darwinian evolution provides the ‘nature’ influence
on our personality while the Lamarckian mechanism of inheritance
of acquired characteristics contributes to the ‘nurture’
component that shapes our personality through the nature of
our environment and that of our parents.
Instead of arguing about the religious validity of our evolutionary
origins of where we came from we need to look forward and
envision what we can be in a new cooperative, spiritual, holistic
world view developing fully the enormous resource we have
of human potential.
Reductionism takes no account of human being and becoming.
Galileo (1564-1642) and Newton (1642-1727) and Laplace (1749-1827)
described the natural world in terms of rules or immutable
laws that all objects followed – determinism. [Gillispie;
There are certainly regularities or laws of Nature; but much
that happens is intrinsically unpredictable.
The world is not entirely deterministic, for if it were there
would be no human creativity or free will.
This creativity means that we have a responsibility in shaping
our own lives and those of others.
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The universe is organised chaos – it contains both order
But events in the universe are not totally random (as many
life scientists believe), for this would demand that they
were totally independent (while the world is increasingly
and that the conditions under which they occur should never
change (whereas evolution is all about change and we are surrounded
by change in every aspect of our lives).
There are laws or regularities behind many seemingly random
natural numbers or events, like pi (p = 3.14159), or phi (F
= 1.618 033 = ½(1+v5)), or in the law of radioactive
decay. These correspond to Plato’s world of Forms. Where
there is pattern, we have a relationship [Davies, Thirring].
So, in the universe, we have order and chaos blended together.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650): Discourse on the Method of the
Sciences (1637); Meditations (1641). By suggesting that the
human body is essentially a material object (res extensa)
with a controlling mind or soul (res cogitans) he created
the philosophies of materialism and dualism which have influenced
science to the present day [Descartes].
The interaction between mind and body was not understood
and therefore ignored – ‘science’ and medicine
dealt only with the material body; the spiritual mind was
the province of religion.
These philosophies - revelation, individualism, reductionism,
determinism, materialism, dualism - have dominated religion
and science, medicine and education for the intervening centuries
since they were proposed and have turned the West away from
The result is the emergence over these last four centuries
of two world views: Religion and Science, each contributing
to the current non-holistic world-view.
But there is only one God, one humanity, one truth.
Religion deals with different aspects of human life than
science, but it cannot conflict with it.
Religion and science must find compatible world views.
Religion must take account of science, but equally science
must have regard for the spiritual dimension of humanity and
not dismiss it as nonsensical superstition.
Scientism is unacceptable – the view that the only truth
is scientific truth.
We must envision a new holistic world-view that provides a
spiritual basis for our existence that currently is provided
by religion. This is the challenge we must overcome to envision
a new holistic world view. As the 20th century German theologian
Dorothee Sölle [1929-2003] said: “Religion in the
third millennium will either be mystical or dead.”
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The Holistic Way forward
This unifying spiritual base already exists. In science it
is called the quantum field or zero point field. We also have
gravitational fields and e.m. fields, all representing ‘action
at a distance’.
Religions too have their spiritual view of the divine: The
Holy Ghost, Ruach, Dhat, Atman, Universal Mind, the Nature
spirits of paganism or Shinto .
Establishment science has not accepted the existence of spiritual
or psychic phenomena described as psi, describing them as
‘paranormal’ or ‘supernatural’ where
in fact they are both normal and natural.
Science and medicine like religion must have faith in things
unseen, as researchers in quantum physics do already.
Solid material objects are really full of space – not
empty space but space filled with fields of energy. All of
matter interacts by ‘action at a distance’, that
is, things that don’t come into contact interact with
one another. This makes the idea that each of us interacts
with everyone else on the planet through universal love, conveyed
on a cosmic energy field, easier to comprehend.
Establishment or allopathic medicine treats the body by reductionist
principles, one organ or system at a time, where complementary
medicine deals holistically with the whole individual.
Training in medicine needs to be reformed to take account
of the new holistic paradigm in science and what we now know
about the interaction of mind and body.
Having a positive vision of one’s body and health promotes
healing [Benson, Dossey, Dyer, Hamilton, Hay].
Those at the top of the hierarchies in science and medicine
are too comfortable to change unless the public at large demand
such a change.
There are successful holistic healing techniques that science,
in the existing paradigm, is not equipped to handle.
The meridians or nadis that acupuncturists have worked with
successfully for thousands of years have no counterpart in
The same is true of the chakras and koshas that are at the
core of spiritual healing.
The nadis of the body have their counterpart in the ley lines
of the Earth that dowsers can detect.
Formal acceptance of holistic concepts by science and medicine
should only enhance their status, certainly not erode them.
At present, the ‘health service’ is actually a
sickness service, almost entirely devoted to treatment of
illness rather than its prevention.
People turn to complementary therapies despite the costs involved
because of the failings of orthodox medicine to prove effective
treatment for their ailments and the unpleasant and sometimes
fatal side-effects of medication.
As the costs of naturopathic medicines are usually considerably
less than that of pharmaceuticals, and certainly less costly
and less traumatic than surgery, both state and patients would
Patients are much more involved in their treatment in complementary
therapy than in allopathic medicine. Complementary medicine
works best when it is accompanied by self-belief.
The more books and other promotional material there are on
the dangers of abusing the body with drugs like tobacco and
alcohol, and pharmaceutical drugs, the more likely we are
to inform and persuade people of the dangers and to get those
in positions of authority to envision a new holistic paradigm.
We have to encourage scientists and medical authorities to
be more open minded and accept that we must embrace a holistic
world-view that gets away from the reductionism, determinism,
materialism, dualism and the past four centuries.
Our health system is now a commercial enterprise, the success
of which is judged by quantity rather than quality.
Our educational system in schools is based on cramming in
facts rather than teaching values, to secure top places in
competitive ‘league tables’.
Our economic system is based on material growth and the welfare
of those in the system or served by the system is of secondary
importance. Profit should be incidental; it is the wellbeing
of the employees, customers and clients that should be paramount.
Happiness, the goal of human existence, consists of the pursuit
of pleasure and health, the avoidance of pain and sickness,
and the achievement of fulfilment of our goals in life, to
be at ease with our place in the world and the meaning of
our existence – which involves the mental and spiritual
as much as the physical.
To improve our wellbeing as individuals and achieve a holistic
vision of ourselves in the world - what Jung called individuation
and what G.W.F. Hegel called Selbstgewusstsein - will require
metanoia, self-transformation, to be what we truly are and
to fulfil our potential [Fordham, Tacey, Stevens].
We need to encourage a sense of oneness with divinity and
with all of creation, a belief in what Whitehead and Hartshorne
called Process Theology, that we are a part of the cosmic
creative energy, that there is a fragment of divinity within
all of us as soul, and that our every thought and action contributes
to this cosmic energy [Freeman, Whitehead].
We have just begun to embark upon the stage of evolution
that Teilhard de Chardin called noogenesis, where we each
embrace a universal consciousness [Chardin].
Until we can envision this of ourselves as individuals, and
encourage others to do the same, we will not be able to change
the bureaucratic systems that rule our society.
Back to the top
Jeff Astley, David Brown and Ann Loades (eds), Problems in
Theology 4: Science
and Religion – A selection of key readings, T &
T Clark, 2004.
Peter Barrett, Science and Theology since Copernicus, T &
T Clark, 2004.
Mario Beauregard & Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual
Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the
existence of the soul, HarperCollins, New York, 2007.
Herbert Benson, Timeless Healing, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Wildwood House, London,
1975; The Web of Life,
Anchor-Doubleday, New York, 1996; The Hidden Connections,
Pierre Teihard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, Collins,
Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, Penguin, London, 2006.
Rene Descartes, Meditations & Discourse on the Method,
Larry Dossey, Healing Words: The power of prayer and the practice
of medicine, Harper-
Collins, 1994; Healing Beyond the Body, Shambala Publications,
Wayne Dyer, The Power of Intention, Hay House, 2005.
David Fontana, Is There An Afterlife? A comprehensive overview
of the evidence,
O Books, Winchester, 2005.
Frieda Fordham, An Introduction to Jung’s Philosophy,
Penguin, 3rd edn 1966.
Anthony Freeman, God in Us, SCM Press, 1993.
Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? Jonathan Cape, London, 1978.
Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace, 1749-1827:
A life in exact science,
Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997.
James Gleik, Isaac Newton, HarperCollins, London, 2004.
Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates
the material world,
David Hamilton, It’s the Thought That Counts, Hay House,
Louise Hay, You Can Heal Your Life, Hay House, 1984; The Power
Is Within You,
Hay House, 1991.
Esther and Jerry Hicks, The Amazing Power of Deliberate Intent,
Hay House, 2006.
Howard Jones, The Thoughtful Guide to God, O Books, Winchester,
The Tao of Holism, O Books, Winchester, 2008.
Stuart A. Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of
science, reason and religion,
Basic Books, 2008.
Ervin Laszlo, The Creative Cosmos: A unified view of matter,
life and mind, Floris Books,
Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief, Cygnus Books, 2005.
Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures, Century, London, 1991.
A.R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science, Oxford,
John Polkinghorne, Science and Creation, SPCK, London, 1988;
Reason and Reality,
SPCK, London, 1991.
Anthony Quinton, Francis Bacon, Oxford, 1980.
Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, Blond and Briggs,
The Presence of the Past, William Collins, London, 1988.
Anthony Stevens, Jung, Oxford, 1994.
David Tacey, How To Read Jung, Granta, London, 2006.
Walter Thirring, Cosmic Impressions: Traces of God in the
laws of nature, Molden Verlag,
2004 (in German); English edn. Templeton Foundation Press,
Brian Vickers (ed.), Francis Bacon: The major works, Oxford,
A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, Macmillan, New York,
This was presented as a lecture as part of the Body MA Course
at University of Wales Trinity-St David's, Lampeter.
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Our roots as individuals are grounded in our family history.
As a social group, we look to the myths and traditions of
the tribe, the stories of long-departed ancestors told around
the camp fire of an evening, or family anecdotes shared in
an intimate home setting. The scriptures of East and West
are often tales that were transmitted orally by the elders
of the tribe, the sages and shamans, through many generations
before they were written down for posterity to form a record
of traditions that were thought worth preserving.
The handing down of tribal traditions from one generation
to the next plays a part in shaping the current society as
it is, and this sense of continuity with the past is an essential
component of a stable society. It also establishes a bond
between the material world of the present and the spiritual
world of the past and it is as important today as it ever
has been that we should be aware of our history – it
is part of the wholeness of our lives.
The word ‘myth’ comes from the Greek word mythos
meaning, as it does in English, an ancient imaginary story
with symbolic meaning for a group of people. It is closely
related to the terms ‘mystery’ (Greek: mysterion)
and ‘mystical’, from the Greek mystikos, an initiate.
The myths and traditions are what bind a social group, whether
it is a band of religious adherents or a national or tribal
Tradition is important whether it is viewed religiously or
secularly. There are many who believe that one key issue underlying
many of the problems in society today is that we have rejected
the myths of scripture as untenable or irrelevant without
having defined and absorbed a new world-view, a ‘new
story’, of universal spirituality and wholeness to take
There are some myths that are universal, like the tales of
Cinderella, the downtrodden and exploited servant, or Faust,
an appropriate symbol of our times as a man who seeks power
or pleasure at the expense of his soul. There are other tales
that are strongly representative of a national culture, like
the Mabinogion of Wales and the Kalevala of Finland. The word
‘mabinogion’ is derived from the Welsh word mab,
meaning son, and it is translated as ‘tales of a boy
hero’ or simply ‘the bard’s tales’.
The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven tales that were transmitted
orally through the ages until they were preserved in written
form in medieval times and in the native tongue as the White
Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest
(1375-1425). They remained little known, even in Wales, until
they were translated into English in the mid-19th century
by Lady Charlotte Guest. Like many myths, they are allegorical
tales of good and evil, of love, loyalty, trust, betrayal,
The Kalevala were compiled in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot
(1804-1884), who was a district health officer in the eastern
region of Finland. They were a great source of inspiration
to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and several of his tone
poems have tales from the Kalevala as their theme. The set
of thirty-two poems were published in their first edition
in 1835 from poems spoken or sung to Lönnrot or one of
his contemporaries during the field trips they made to rural
areas over the course of fifteen years. A second edition of
the Kalevala was published in 1849 containing fifty poems.
The rhythm or metre of the poems is trochaic, as in Longfellow’s
poem Hiawatha, which is also a tale of a native people. There
is much internal rhyme and alliteration in the poetry, similar
to that found in Welsh poetry where it is called cynghanedd.
The word ‘Kalevala’ means ‘land of Kaleva’
or ‘land of heroes’. The suffix ‘-la’
indicates place in Finnish. In Welsh, place is indicated by
the suffix ‘-fa’: for example, a doctor is meddyg
and their surgery is meddygfa. There are similar linguistic
developments in different cultures that are not directly related
to one another suggesting some deeper underlying spiritual
connection – what psychologist Carl Jung called archetypes
transmitted via the collective unconscious.
Other secular myths with strong national connections are the
tales of the journeying of Odysseus after the fall of Troy,
presented by Homer in the Greek epic poem, the Odyssey, while
the Norse and Germanic people have their Niebelungenlied that
inspired the creation of The Ring tetralogy from Richard Wagner.
Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, to mention but two,
collected traditional folk songs from different parts of England
and created much inspiring music from them. The 19th century
was a time of nationalistic pride during which other European
composers – Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok, for example
– were also inspired to preserve traditional melodies
of the homeland before they were extinguished by our increasingly
materialistic society. The chanting of psalms and singing
of hymns have a similar function in the Jewish or Christian
religions – a bonding within the group as well as reinforcing
a link with the past. One wonders how much of the search for
hedonistic pleasures we see so often in our young people derives
from the sense of rootlessness generated by dysfunctional
or broken families.
Myth, scripture and religion may be human in origin but they
constitute an essential and ongoing part of the cultural development
of humankind and cohesion of tribes and nations. Those who
decry religion as ‘worthless superstition’ ignore
this essential cohesive element. Myth has its source in humankind’s
creative imagination inspired by spiritual insight and intuition.
It presents moral tales and encourages a world view beyond
that of sensory experience: this is one of the distinguishing
features of humankind. Myths and folk tales are not created
to provide us just with an escape from reality; they represent
humankind’s attempt to live our lives more fully and
give us new insights into the meaning of our earthly existence.
In our materialistic existence we have lost sight of this
spiritual dimension of holistic living: the material and the
spiritual should be one, as it is still for native peoples.
We cannot live fulfilling lives only on the material plane
and myths transport us to other times and places, often to
confront creatures that represent ideas of beauty, fear, evil,
loyalty, betrayal or other expressions of human emotions.
Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are traditional myths that
we tell to children to fire their imaginations and often to
teach a moral message. The recent popularity of such fantasy
tales as The Lord of the Rings, the Tales of Narnia and Harry
Potter testify to the excitement children feel for such stories.
As Sue Palmer points out in her book Toxic Childhood, ‘they’re
ideal for introducing children to the rhythms of language
and tuning their ears to language sounds’. As nursery
rhymes are usually sung, she stresses the ‘huge importance
of music and song in developing children’s social and
communication skills’. The reciting or singing of myths
to children by parents or the elders of a tribe perpetuates
their traditions and brings children into the social context
of the whole community, and it is this sense of community,
of belonging – the holistic ethos – that is so
lacking in society today.
First published in Carmarthen U3A Musings 2
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The material brain, the human soul and the
Today we can describe the human body at several different
levels of detail. We can talk of the whole person –
body, mind and spirit – and their relationship with
other human beings on the planet. We can describe the individual
in terms of the functioning or dysfunction of the organs of
their bodies. We can go into still further detail of the biochemistry
of the molecules that comprise these organs. Then, at the
most fundamental level of description we have at present,
we can talk about the constituents of those molecules, their
energies and interactions.
Science has made the progress that it has by applying this
principle of reductionism – looking at parts of the
world in ever greater detail. As a result, science and its
application in technology have given us the quality of life
that most of us in the West are able to enjoy today. We have
come to rely on science as the bedrock of our rational understanding
of the way the world works. But, reductionism has its limitations,
and rarely more so than with regard to the human body. At
a social and economic level, humankind is increasingly inter-related
and in those spheres of activity the complementary holistic
approach is essential. The holistic approach is equally important
when we consider medical problems of the individual.
Body, mind and spirit are not three separately functioning
parts of a human being. Physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists
such as Larry Dossey, Jeffrey Schwartz and Herbert Benson
have shown how profoundly interactive are the material brain
and the non-material mind. Not only does mind to some extent
emerge from brain function, but mind can also have a physiological
effect on the structure of the brain. Neurophysiologists Mario
Beauregard and Andrew Newberg have shown that spiritual experiences
produce measurable physiological effects and structural changes
in the brain. Dossey has also shown how prayer and envisaging
well-being towards other individuals can have beneficial effects
on the health of both the sender and receiver. Conversely,
living with an attitude of malevolence or anger does harm
to the health of that individual and certainly no benefit
Psychologist Charles Tart, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, and
several others have shown how thoughts and images can be received
by some individuals having been transmitted from elsewhere
through time and space. This is a fine example of the archetypes
or universal images envisaged by psychologist C.J. Jung as
capable of being transmitted through the spiritual domain
of the collective unconscious. Jung was focussing primarily
on the religious symbols that recur in different civilizations
at various times in human development, even though these social
groups had no direct contact with each other. Sheldrake envisaged
what he described as a morphic field as the medium for this
non-material communication between individuals, that could
even involve animals under some conditions. But the concept
of ideas being imposed on some kind of time-independent universal
consciousness is identical in these two approaches.
Science and its application in medicine have made huge strides
in understanding the functioning of the human body at a materialist
level. But materialism too must be tempered with idealism
? the recognition that we are not automatons or even, ultimately,
machines. The aesthetic or spiritual dimension is an integral
part of the functioning of most individuals, be it as religious
observance or appreciation of music and poetry or of the natural
world, or experience of one of the kinds of psychic communication.
Until relatively recently, the mind and consciousness have
been almost excluded from scientific study because they were
considered outside the remit of the subject – they were
non-material and subjective entities and therefore unlikely
to meet the requirements of universal repeated testing and
observation, or even quantitative measurement.
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To a great extent, it is the findings of those scientists
I mentioned above that have started to change attitudes within
mainstream science. Neuroplasticity of brain structure and
function has been experimentally demonstrated by several neurophysiologists.
Now, brain function can conveniently be described as being
broadly of two kinds. There is the material and mortal function,
described by mind, which records and interprets the input
of the five senses. This function can be measured and, to
some extent, can be quantified by IQ tests, speed in performing
calculations, faculty for learning languages or playing a
musical instrument, and so forth. But there is also another
aspect of brain function that is spiritual, and which empirical
evidence suggests is immortal. These different functions of
mind have been described by the American psychologist Howard
Gardner as different kinds of intelligence. This capacity
for aesthetic appreciation is the human quality that many
would describe as soul. As yet, no way has been found to quantify
this faculty so it remains a qualitative function of the brain
in the living human that persists in the discarnate individual.
Although MRI scans can tell us which part of the brain is
responding to, say, a symphony by Mozart or Mahler, we have
no way of telling why any particular individual should get
more pleasure from one or the other. A holistic description
of human beings, individually or collectively, must therefore
embrace body, mind and spirit.
One of the challenges of the last few decades has been to
give an account of the concepts of consciousness and soul
that would stand up to scientific scrutiny. Spiritual experience
is only one of a number of events described as psychic phenomena
that have come to be studied in a science of their own, parapsychology.
Sir Alister Hardy, a biologist who set up a research unit
at the University of Oxford to collect data on spiritual experiences,
set out a classification of such experiences in his book,
The Spiritual Nature of Man. The most scientifically tested
of these are telepathy, clairvoyance, pre- and post-cognition,
psychokinesis and spiritual or psychic healing. The last of
these has been extensively explored in the clinical setting
by Larry Dossey. In general though, the biologists have been
very reluctant to recognize these human abilities: rather,
biologists were content to dismiss them as imaginary or fraudulent
or untestable, even though the empirical observations have
often been reported by people of undisputed scientific eminence
for over a century.
It is to the physicists that we must turn to find scientific
support for the notion of soul or spirit. According to American
physicist Henry Stapp, the same theoretical concepts can be
applied to interpret the activity of mind. Quantum physics
is a century old now and it is in this specialism that the
theoretical basis for the notions of an individual and collective
spiritual energy can be found.
From the early 19th century on, we thought we had found the
ultimate constituents of matter in the atoms described by
John Dalton. A century later, we found that atoms could be
broken up into still smaller components – the proton,
electron and neutron that together make up the basic structure
of an atom. For a time, these were thought to be the ultimate
particles of matter: but now we know about quarks that make
up the proton and neutron. It was also found that we needed
some kind of energetic glue to hold all these subatomic particles
together, in addition to the so-called strong force that held
protons and neutrons together in the core or nucleus of an
atom. This ‘glue’ is called the zero point energy
field. It takes its name from the fact that it is the only
energy left in an atom at the zero point of temperature (zero
Kelvin or –273°C).
The zero point field (zpf) penetrates every atom of matter
in the universe – solid, liquid or gas. It is in our
bodies and in the air we breathe. It is the fundamental wave
energy component of de Broglie’s wave–particle
duality and of Einstein’s mass–energy relationship.
At root, the objects of the whole material world are simply
our images of the coherence of packets of the zpf. It is the
world the eastern mystics describe as maya. A famous Irish
philosopher of the Enlightenment, Bishop George Berkeley,
went so far as to say that the only knowledge we had of the
existence of the material world was though our perception
of it. These ideas were presented to the human mind by what
Berkeley called God but which our 21st century scientist might
describe as the universal spiritual energy field.
Shortly before Berkeley wrote his seminal thesis, the English
Enlightenment philosopher John Locke described our sensory
interpretation of the world as comprising a ‘nominal
essence’ of every object (those qualities we observe
to give objects their names), but behind which there was a
‘real essence’ that gave rise to those qualities
but which was forever inaccessible to the rational mind. The
German philosopher Immanuel Kant called these same qualities,
respectively, the ‘phenomenal’ and ‘noumenal’
aspects of our material world.
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Most significantly, the zpf is the medium through which the
neurons of the central nervous system can function. The nerve
cells of the brain and spinal cord send their messages mostly
by electrons travelling along the length of a nerve cell,
jumping over the gap (synapse) at the end (sometimes accompanied
by the release of chemicals) and on to the next neuron. Everywhere
that we have moving electrons (actually, they never stand
still!), we have the zpf. Our brains are full of the stuff.
This is accompanied by another energy field created by the
streams of electrons called the electromagnetic energy field.
Now, philosophers have debated and agonised for four centuries
over how the lump of cells representing the matter of the
brain could generate the non-material entity we call mind
or thought or consciousness. Modern neurophysiology has it
that it is the passage of the electrons through a neuron,
or more likely a whole network of neurons, that produces an
idea. It is somewhat comparable to the parenchymal cells of
the gut joining forces to produce what we describe as digestion.
Give them a morsel of food and they will get to work on it.
The only ‘outside’ influence is that from time
to time some chemical messengers called hormones will direct
operations. It is the individual chemical reactions comprising
metabolism that we collectively describe as ‘digestion’.
It is the name we give to the function of an organ (or collection
of organs, since liver, kidneys, etc. are all involved). Similarly,
‘mind’ is the name we give to the function of
the brain at a material level.
‘Thinking’ then, generating ideas, is just what
neural cells do when electrons pass through them. ‘Consciousness’
is our awareness of these ideas in the brain both during internal
processes and in interpreting the input from the five senses.
The brain function we describe as the physical (but non-material)
mind is the result of the passage of streams of electrons
through a collection of neurons. These ideas or mental images
can be triggered by sensory input, or they can be triggered
by other neural pathways (association of ideas), or they can
simply appear spontaneously – what we mean when we say
‘it just popped into my mind’. ‘Memory’
refers to the collection of neural pathways already established
and available for recall from the unconscious database.
These neural processes can be observed by others through
the technique of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Measurement
of brain wave activity using EEGs indicates that spiritual
people, shamans, mystics, mediums and others who are able
to generate deep meditative states for themselves display
significantly more theta wave activity in the 4-7 Hz range
than those of us who spend most of our time in the active
beta wave state at 12-30 Hz. So much for the physical mind
that essentially dies with the mortal death of the body.
We can understand what triggers ideas when we have sensory
input. These impressions give us our mental representations
of the physical world. If an idea arises spontaneously, we
have no need to account for a ‘cause’. Electrons
are coursing through the neurons of the central nervous system
continuously while we are alive, so it would not be surprising
if one piece of circuitry here and there represented an idea.
If some networks are already in contact with one another,
we can see where one idea might lead to another.
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What we must consider is that particularly important instance
of neural function when we create an original thought or decide
to search for one of these neural pathways buried in the memory
of the unconscious mind or, indeed, make any decision. If
we are to avoid ‘infinite regress’, we must account
for the original thought in a succession of neural processes
and our mental recognition and interpretation of it. The triggering
of that original idea, even if recalled from memory, must
itself also come from a neural process, and this is the process
we call Will. The American philosopher-psychologist William
James described it as an ‘act of volition’. Living
some fifty years before James, the German philosopher Arthur
Schopenhauer called this mental driving force der Wille,
The zpf that is associated with the human body is inextinguishable:
it is infinite and eternal. This is the component of mind
that we describe as the immortal soul. It accompanies us in
every moment of our life on Earth and continues on in the
discarnate spirit after what we regard materially as death.
It is the collective unconscious described by Jung as source
of the archetypes, and there are many other comparable descriptions.
Rupert Sheldrake calls it the morphic field; for Ervin Laszlo
it is the akashic field of eastern mysticism. It is the spiritual
God of western religion and the Brahman or the Infinite Mind
of the East. It is the World Soul or Communal Soul to which
we turn for guidance and inspiration. It is that spiritual
Source with which we commune in prayer and of which our individual
souls are parts. It is the representation of that cosmic energy
that spiritual healers draw on to treat their patients, and
through which other psychic events are transmitted. It is
the spiritual realm with which mediums commune and which holds
the spiritual images of the discarnate. To live in harmony
with this cosmic spirit, with constant awareness of its presence,
is a more holistic attitude than many on the planet display
at present. It is also an attitude we surely must cultivate
if we are to save planet Earth from annihilation.
As early as 400 years BCE, the Greek philosopher Plato suggested
in his Theory of Forms or Ideas that all our learning comes
to us from a previous incarnation. There are spiritual templates
for the ideas that we call upon in mortal life. Now we know
that we have to learn to walk and talk, to learn the information
that we need to pass examinations, and so on, in each lifetime.
But Plato was thinking beyond this. It is our spiritual learning
that progresses with each incarnation, learning that we take
from the spiritual to the mortal plane. This is what the eastern
mystics call karma – the actions of each soul that must
be learned through life, or lives, on Earth, to be refined
in the afterlife.
When we create original ideas, especially if these are particularly
constructive and creative, our zpf communes with the cosmic
zpf – tunes into it, if you will. The greater the harmony
or resonance between our individual zpf (as soul) and the
cosmic soul, the more inspired and creative the thought is
likely to be. All original works of art, poetry, literature
or music come into being in this way. Of course, the material
brain still has to learn the practical techniques of creating
works of art, or of writing music, or lines of poetry. That
same mystical insight has created works of scripture and great
mathematical and scientific theories. Scientists and mathematicians
still have to learn the fundamentals of their subject through
the material brain, but it is the creative leaps that come
in moments of cosmic inspiration. In the field of parapsychology,
the psychic or medium captures the images of another person
or place by tuning in to this cosmic spiritual zpf energy.
As energy has no directionality of time associated with it,
the medium is capable of tuning in to events of past, present
We can all tune into this cosmic spirit at any time under
the direction of Will but mediums and those who can enter
deep meditative states can reach into higher levels of spiritual
Will or Volition involves focusing our own neurons and their
associated soul so that they resonate with cosmic soul. An
act of Will is a conscious gathering together of neural pathways
that are there already, and bringing these unconscious pathways
into the conscious mind. Not every trivial decision in our
lives necessitates our tuning into cosmic soul. Many habitual
actions, like driving or knitting or walking, have become
so ingrained in our mental processes that only the appropriate
mental stimulus is needed to provoke the relevant pathways
of the physical brain into action. Here, the material functions
of mind can operate quite successfully without the input of
cosmic energy. But communication with the cosmic spirit is
an essential mechanism of psychic, spiritual, numinous or
mystical experience or inspired creativity for that aspect
of human activity we describe as soul. It gives us our holistic
spiritual inter-connectedness with every other human soul
on the planet, with Earth itself, and with those who have
moved on to the higher spiritual planes of the discarnate.
Published in the Journal of Spirituality and Paranormal Studies,
Connecticut, USA, July 2011
Revised text: De Numine, magazine of the Alister Hardy Society,
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Living in a Spiritual World
The name of Roger Sperry will probably not be as familiar
to readers as that of, say, Isaac Newton or even Richard Dawkins.
But, in the 1960s, Sperry pioneered a quiet revolution in
the science of the mind, a revolution that has created ripples
in philosophy, psychology and parapsychology.
Sperry’s idea was simple – that consciousness,
or conscious awareness, was simply an innate property of the
brain, more specifically, of the neurons or nerve cells that
make up the tissue of the brain. Science has thrived for four
centuries working on a principle of materialism, that is,
that interactions between the solid objects of the world are
the only things scientists can study, and the results of those
studies depend on how objects interact with the five senses.
Now, for the first time, Sperry suggested that mind or consciousness
could also produce physical effects – on the brain itself
and on the rest of the human body. Other psychologists have
since extended Sperry’s studies to show that the mind
can also affect other human minds (through telepathy and other
psychic phenomena), and even have effects on animals, on plants
and, under certain circumstances, on inanimate objects. This
idea of an all-pervading spiritual energy is described philosophically
as idealism. It corresponds to the eastern mystical vision
of the world as maya.
If this sounds nonsensical, let me say that science has discovered
the existence of a new kind of energy field through which
these kinds of interactions probably occur. This was unknown
in the 19th century and its existence has only emerged since
the development of 20th century quantum physics. Psychologists,
and even more especially philosophers, have agonised for centuries
over how a non-material entity could possibly interact with
a physical or material one, in particular, how could mind
emerge from or interact with the brain? But Newton and Michael
Faraday showed centuries ago that invisible gravitational
and electromagnetic ‘fields’ could interact with
matter, like planets and magnets. So the idea that this new
field, called the quantum field or zero point field, could
interact with human brains as minds was not really that bizarre.
Mind functions by the passage of tiny bits of atoms called
electrons running along the neurons and jumping over the gaps
(synapses) between them. This happens continuously in a live
human body. These neural pathways we call thoughts or ideas.
When we learn something, a new neural pathway gets established.
This stays dormant in the (unconscious) mind as memory until
we want to recall it. The act of recall is brought about by
acts of volition or (free) will. Will can be triggered by
some other neural pathway (association of ideas), or by some
sensory input (something we see or hear), or can arise by
chance (it just ‘pops into our minds’ as we say).
When mind interacts with the external quantum field, especially
in creation of works of art, literature or music, we often
call this ‘inspiration’. If it warns us of forthcoming
(sometimes dangerous) events we call it ‘intuition’.
If we experience a feeling of transcending our everyday world,
perhaps in meditative states and perhaps accompanied by some
religious vision, we call it ‘mystical insight’.
This function of ‘mind’ many people describe as
Newton and scientists up to the 20th century thought that
the workings of the natural world could all eventually be
expressed neatly by mathematical equations. Scientists describe
this world-view as determinism. But the fundamental bits of
atoms have very different properties to those of the Newtonian
world. They operate a policy of indeterminism – it is
a world of statistical probabilities rather than mathematical
certainties. This indeterminism is an intrinsic property of
the electrons whizzing every moment through the neurons in
Science has made such good progress by selecting bits of
the natural world to study one at a time – a philosophy
of reductionism. Now science is moving more into a policy
of seeing how all the bits interact and work together –
holism. So mind and matter are not separate entities but are
interconnected parts of this wonderful world we live in. Let
us hope that Sperry is enjoying the advances his spiritual
vision has created.
Published in Labyrinth magazine, June/July 2011
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NDEs, OBEs and the Divine Spirit: A critique
of the views of Professor Michael Marsh
Michael Marsh, now a professor of theology at Oxford University
but formerly an academic medical researcher, has written a
book on these psychic experiences that essentially interprets
them in a materialistic way as ‘brain-state phenomena’
rather than as ‘glimpses of immortality’. Indeed,
his interpretation of the data that Sir Alister Hardy used
as the basis of his book The Spiritual Nature of Man (1979)
leads Marsh to the conclusion (De Numine No. 50, Spring 2011)
that they ‘represent anomalous phenomenology engineered
as subjects’ brains recover from immediately preceding
insults . . . merely offering this-worldly bizarreness and
banality’. From this it is obvious that Professor Marsh
does not believe NDEs or OBEs give us any information whatever
about the afterlife or divine spirit, however envisaged.
Dr Penny Sartori has already given us a highly critical but
insightful review (De Numine No.51, Autumn 2011) of Professor
Marsh’s book1. Unlike Dr Sartori or Professor Marsh
I have only a limited background in medicine so my comments
are derived from my experience in physical sciences and philosophy;
but I think there are still other points that can be made
critical of Marsh’s dismissal of NDEs and OBEs as any
kind of spiritual experience. Furthermore, my comments relate
only to Marsh’s AHS Open Day Address given in November
2010 and précised in the De Numine article, though
this summarises the conclusions reached in the book.
First, even though he worked from accounts of NDEs rather
than interviews with patients who have experienced them, Marsh
is quite incorrect in stating that NDEs ‘are due to
mental activity taking place as brains rapidly recover during
the waking process’ after traumatic experiences. Many
books on these experiences relate events and detailed conversations
that occur throughout, say, serious operations where the patient
is in a totally unconscious state as assessed by medical criteria
for several hours. They certainly do not relate only to ‘minutes
or seconds . . . only when subjects are awakening’ from
unconsciousness: ‘memories are not made when subjects
are ‘unconscious’’ says Marsh – this
is patently incorrect. Prospective hospital research by Prof
Bruce Greyson, Pim Van Lommel, Schwaninger et al, Sam Parnia
and Penny Sartori – although in its infancy - is highlighting
that NDEs and OBEs can no longer be dismissed. The Sartori
book The Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive
Care Patients: A Five Year Clinical Study published by Edwin
Mellen Press 2008, showed that some patients were clearly
accessing information and reporting things that were occurring
during a time when they were deeply unconscious.
Cardiologist Pim van Lommel2 cites examples of patients pronounced
clinically dead, some for five minutes or more before being
resuscitated. They are often able to give detailed accounts
of the measures taken during that time to revive them. Cardiologist
Michael Sabom has described similar experiences3. As this
is the key point in Marsh’s arguments and the premise
is fundamentally flawed, the whole thesis constructed on this
basis is without foundation. In recent years, Michael Tymn4
and Lisa Williams5 have given us mediumistic accounts of an
afterlife whose characteristics correspond closely to those
described by NDE subjects in this book.
Marsh claims: ‘critical review of NDE language reveals
its bizarreness and banality’. In fact, the language
used in describing NDE states after a medical trauma is usually
a layperson’s account of medical procedures and equipment.
Furthermore, many NDEs and OBEs reveal details of a spiritual
state that often embraces visions of God or avatars or, in
secular matters, precognition or clairvoyance of often traumatic
events presently occurring, or even in the future, to close
relatives. Marsh says they are ‘mere trivialities, worldly
memories – from Hollywood or Sunday school.’ As
children as young as four or five can experience NDEs with
some of the characteristics of adult experiences6,7, this
spiritual devaluation of the experience is also quite unfounded.
Most persons are spiritually uplifted by an NDE and live the
rest of their lives in a more holistic way, so the experience
is far from trivial.
There are documented cases from reliable subjects, often
verified by other onlookers of integrity which provide further
evidence that the events related are often of great significance.
Swedenborg’s clairvoyance of a fire in Stockholm when
he was giving a dinner party many miles away was confirmed
by the other party guests and is a well-known example. There
are documented records of people who were intending to travel
on the Titanic’s fateful voyage who made written accounts
in diaries of premonitions of impending disaster.
Marsh compares the brain state during these experiences as
being like the ‘double-aspect consciousness common to
lucid dreaming and epilepsy’. My son suffered from epilepsy
for several years and I have for many years been subject to
lucid dreaming. The experiences that I and my son have had
were nothing like those reported by NDE or OBE subjects. This
is confirmed by van Lommel’s study. There is no ‘double-aspect
consciousness’ in NDEs: in anaesthesia or death, the
conscious mind is stilled; only the unconscious soul is active.
Furthermore, in OBEs or shared NDEs, subjects are usually
fully conscious but may still experience some of these phenomena.
Professor Marsh refers to Dr. Raymond Moody’s classic
book Life After Life (1975) but not to Glimpses of Eternity8
that describes shared death experiences. Here, groups of people
who are physically close, and usually but not always emotionally
close, to a dying individual, but who are all in a fully wide-awake
state, individually report some of the phenomena described
by NDE or OBE subjects.
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‘NDE phenomenology is culturally-determined, historically
and geographically’ says Marsh: why should this count
against their validity as spiritual experiences? Would we
not expect souls in the spiritual domain, especially if only
temporarily, to relate to Jesus or Mary or Muhammad or even
to pagan gods and goddesses as they did in earthly life?
Marsh’s desire to replace what he calls ‘Hardy’s
panentheism’ interpretation of these phenomena by ‘a
more robust footing in the ‘Otherness’ of God,
envisioned as triune hypostatic inter-relationships of Father,
Son and Spirit’ does nothing to support his case.
As indicated by several authors of books on the subject, while
there are certainly culturally-influenced aspects of NDEs,
there are certain features that are remarkably uniform between
adherents of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths in the
west and the mystical religious philosophies of the east.
‘The relationality of the Godhead to creation is exhibited
through the dual nature of Jesus who is at once intrinsic
to the Triune Godhead, but also incarnate Man, thereby bridging
humanity and creation to the divine’, says Marsh. Surely
any role for Jesus in interpretation of these phenomena is
an irrelevance to Jews, Islamists, Hindus and atheists who
all report having similar NDEs. There is nothing whatever
specifically Christian about NDEs or OBEs. The argument is
confounded rather than illuminated by any interpretation in
terms of a uniquely Christian viewpoint.
Humanity and the divine are bridged far more closely by the
concept of a panentheistic divine cosmic spirit in which,
as souls, we all participate than by invoking Jesus as intermediary.
Hardy’s process theology, in which human souls are regarded
as part of the divine cosmic spirit – a concept so disparaged
by Marsh – represents a far more coherent interpretation
of these and other psychic events. Furthermore, it is one
that is more compatible with modern theoretical science than
with a biblical viewpoint which even many theologians now
accept is largely allegorical man-made myth.
Professor Marsh has concentrated exclusively on NDEs and
OBEs in his thesis. However, these are only one or two aspects
of psychic phenomena. Certainly, because subjects claim to
see ‘Jesus in white robes’ or ‘the face
of God’ during the events, this cannot by itself be
regarded as a ‘glimpse of immortality.’ What they
do indicate clearly is that it is possible for people to undergo
mental experiences that are inexplicable on the materialist
world view of pre-20th century science.
To get a more balanced view of the phenomena we must surely
take into account other psychic events in fully alert subjects,
particularly those who claim to have some form of spiritual
psychic vision. The consistency between the reports of an
afterlife provided by mediums4,5 and that of NDEs and OBEs
is surely significant – it may not constitute proof,
but it is certainly very persuasive evidence, for those who
are open-minded and not ingrained materialists, of an eternal
spiritual domain to which we are all apprenticed in mortal
Both Sabom and van Lommel, as well as Mark Fox9, and Peter
and Elizabeth Fenwick10 interpret NDEs and OBEs as having
far more spiritual significance than Marsh attributes to them.
The state of being during NDEs and OBEs cannot be satisfactorily
explained in materialist physiological terms: it is certainly
not confined to a few moments before full consciousness and
its effects on the subjects are anything but bizarre and banal.
The outstanding success of some spiritual healers, especially
those who have no medical training themselves but claim to
have medically qualified spirit guides11, is surely further
evidence of a continuing existence of human souls in the afterlife,
functioning as spiritual guides.
1 Michael N. Marsh, Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences,
Oxford University Press, 2010.
2 Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life, HarperCollins,
3 Michael B. Sabom, Recollections of Death, Corgi, 1982.
4 Michael Tymn, The Articulate Dead: They brought the spirit
world alive, Galde Press, Lakeville, Minnesota, 2008.
5 Lisa Williams, The Survival of the Soul, Hay House, 2011.
6 M. Morse and P. Perry, Closer to the Light, Villard Books,
New York, 1990.
7 P.M.H. Atwater, The New Children and Near-Death Experiences,
Bear and Co., Rochester, VT, 2003.
8 Raymond Moody, Glimpses of Eternity: An investigation into
shared death experiences, Rider, 2010.
9 Mark Fox, Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience,
10 Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, The Truth in the Light: Investigation
of over 300 near-death experiences, Berkley Books, New York,
11 See the books by J. Bernard Hutton on the work of medium
George Chapman working through ophthalmic surgeon Mr Wiliam
Lang (Healing Hands, Virgin, 1995) and medium Mrs Leah Doctors
working through a 15th century Chinese surgeon called Dr.
Fu Lin Chang (The Healing Power, Leslie Frewin, 1975).
Published in De Numine, magazine of the Alister Hardy Society,
No. 52, Spring 2012
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A New Look at the Philosophy of Education
On education by examination
Something seems to have gone awry with the education system
in Britain. Once, our schools were the envy of the world:
now, we have industrial employers bemoaning the fact that
too many applicants lack fundamental skills in numeracy, literacy
and communication. Certainly, grammatical and punctuation
errors abound on radio and television. Those in universities
responsible for selecting entrants to degree courses say they
have difficulty in assessing the quality of applicants for
places because even the top grades at A-level are not an adequate
criterion for differentiation of students. So keen are universities
to accept overseas students that undergraduates are entering
on courses without even a basic knowledge of English. The
Royal Society of Chemistry has even gone so far as to suggest
that Examination Boards be fined heavily if they make their
examination papers in chemistry too easy in order to secure
higher grades for their Board, particularly by minimizing
the amount of mathematics required. It is generally agreed
by teachers and psychologists in the developed world that
the education of children is failing badly. Journalist Nicholas
Pyke reports that ‘targets set in 1997 have never yet
been hit’ for some Key Stages.
Yet we have had successive governments in Britain telling
us that GCSE and A-level pass rates and grades have improved
by some two to three percent each year for the past two decades.
Over the same period, Examination Boards have insisted that
standards of test papers have not fallen. If there have indeed
been improvements of 2–3% in the skills of candidates
from state schools for more than twenty years — giving
an increase in skill of well over 50% overall – this
does not reflect well on the standards attained by those of
us who qualified half a century ago.
One factor that undoubtedly contributes to ‘better’
results is that pupils are now drilled for quite specific
examination questions where previously they were taught many
different topics within a subject, from which examination
questions would be extracted. Today, examination questions
are often very similar, year after year, so that rote learning
of certain topics has a much greater chance of producing correct
answers, though not necessarily contributing to a better understanding
of, or enthusiasm for, the subject as a whole. The policy
at present is not so much the education of the child by stimulating
the excitement of learning but rather the attainment of examination
results that will push the school up the league tables. As
a result, many children are just simply bored with the tedium
of school learning, especially since lessons only rarely come
close to the excitement of DVDs and computer graphics in their
Furthermore, fifty years go pupils sat a maximum of 8 ‘O’-levels.
Now, sitting 13 GCSEs is not uncommon for the best students.
With a school day that is no longer, how can subject material
increase by more than 50% without a decrease in detailed knowledge
in each subject. Yet standards haven’t fallen, the government
says: that is not what teachers and employers say! Even the
BBC, once regarded as a paragon of model English, daily displays
slovenly use of our language.
There is now also an educational philosophy that no pupil
should ‘fail’ — hence we have results that
indicate that almost everyone passes everything. But children
do need to be given a fair assessment of their abilities so
that they can come to terms with their shortcomings in some
areas and try to address them. There will be some subjects
in which they are strong and others in which they are weak.
To heap praise continually on children even when they are
academically weak does them no service at all and simply leads
to confusion. If they know that they are not making the required
effort, but still ‘passing’ examinations, there
is little incentive to make greater effort. If they are making
their best efforts but understanding still eludes them, then
the teacher has to adopt a new approach or the pupil’s
efforts must be directed elsewhere — to regard such
pupils as successful undermines the whole purpose of the examinations.
The philosophy that no child must ever fail is misguided.
We all ‘fail’ at times in life, but we learn from
failure as much as we do from success, if not more since it
can send us in a more rewarding direction. One could adopt
a viewpoint that says that there really is no such thing as
failure — only different degrees of success. But is
this attitude really helpful to students getting grades F
and U in GCSE subjects, even if few do?
The ultimate purpose of schooling is to prepare children for
life, to gain satisfaction and happiness for themselves and
those with whom they interact. Knowing there are fields in
which they are unlikely to succeed provides an opportunity
for them to redirect their efforts as early as possible into
areas where they will be rewarded with success and fulfilment.
Achieving happiness and fulfilment is surely the ultimate
goal. Psychologists tell us that happiness stems from achieving
pleasure, avoiding pain and, most of all, from securing fulfilment.
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Putting subjects in perspective
It is important that all students should have some understanding
of science, and Foundation Level examinations in mathematics
and science have been introduced for this purpose. However,
these syllabuses really are very fundamental (!) and much
of the material formerly comprising the Intermediate Level
syllabus has now been omitted. In particular, many of the
topics involving serious mathematical calculations have now
disappeared from the sciences. Even more basic material –
like simultaneous and quadratic equations in algebra, compound
interest calculations in arithmetic, all trigonometry and
circle geometry – have now been discarded from Foundation
mathematics. Nevertheless, students can still attain the lowest
of the top three grades that are regarded as indicating a
satisfactory level of basic competence in the subjects. Having
taught these subjects for the past forty years, I would disagree.
I do not think that such Foundation Level passes indicate
any meaningful grasp whatsoever of the relevant subjects and
it is confusing, both for students and prospective employers,
to suggest that candidates have a basic grasp of the subjects
concerned, either in mathematics or science.
In mathematics and, more particularly, in science, with which
I am most familiar, there has also been increasing emphasis
on making the subjects more ‘relevant’ to applications
in industry. Of course, we must train up-coming students in
the skills they need to take their place in industry, or to
teach the next generation. However, one consequence of this
has been that the history of the subjects has almost completely
disappeared from the syllabus. The history of science is a
fundamental part of the development of the subject. Science
seems no longer to be taught as the evolution of constantly
changing ideas about how the world works but as a body of
incontrovertible facts that must be learnt (rather than necessarily
understood) in order to pass examinations. In the extreme
attitude of scientism, science is regarded as the only means
we have of discovering facts about the natural world. One
result of this is that lay people are confused when different
scientific ‘experts’ give conflicting advice;
this has led to a diminishing of respect for science and those
who practice it — arising from a lack of understanding
of the true nature of the subject. There is no time to dwell
on the philosophy of science in the race to cram in the requisite
body of facts so that examination results can be seen to be
making continual progress. Indeed, a case could be made for
adding philosophy as a subject in itself, were there not an
already overcrowded school curriculum.
If time were spent on teaching something of the history and
philosophy of science, this would give students a feeling
for how important the sciences have been, and still are, in
the development of western society and why they were studying
the subject, quite apart from gaining qualifications. The
time taken away from cramming facts would be amply repaid
in having happier and better motivated pupils. It is so much
easier to learn facts if there are pegs on which to hang the
information: learning facts in isolation is very difficult.
This would also provide an opportunity to put into perspective
the current media clamour about how technology has ruined
the planet. It would make students aware that science and
technology have huge sociological, economic and environmental
impacts that cannot always be foreseen at the inception or
implementation of a new idea or discovery. These have to be
taken into consideration subsequently as far as possible in
exploring the industrial development of any scientific idea.
It should also give students a greater sense of excitement
about science and the contribution they could make to human
social history, an excitement they could hardly get from mere
assimilation of ‘useful’ facts.
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The beginnings of enlightenment
But all of this is at secondary and tertiary level education.
Let us start at the beginning. The place to begin inculcating
the fundamental principles of an ecologically sustainable
holistic world-view embracing science, the humanities and
spirituality is within primary education. The Italian educationalist,
Maria Montessori (1870-1952), had the foresight to realize
that the process of shaping young minds to be happy and successful
contributors to society should begin in primary school: ‘We
shall walk together on this path of life. For all things are
part of the universe, and are connected with each other to
form one whole unity’. What a wonderful message to convey
to little five or six year olds as they begin their exploration
of the wonders of the world!
Children must learn even at primary level that learning requires
effort, that not all rewards are immediate, that resources
must be shared, and that the needs of others must not be ignored.
The idea of instant gratification has now become such a common
attitude within society, for both children and adults, that
everyone expects their wishes will be immediately granted.
This is one of the reasons for the ever increasing amount
of personal debt in the population – they have been
taught at school, and thence as adults, to expect that they
will get whatever they want with the minimum of effort, and
that education itself is a business for which they will have
to pay dearly if they go on to tertiary education. It is now
accepted that graduates will start their working lives with
several tens of thousands of pounds or dollars of debt that
will have to be paid off, if they can find a job: and having
a degree is no guarantee of employment.
There is also an increasing tendency for denial of responsibility.
Why should parents bother about the nurture of their children?
— many feel that that is the school’s and the
state’s job. Why bother about dieting? — any illness
will be sorted out by modern medicine. Deferred or delayed
gratification and acceptance of social responsibility are
such important principles to inculcate into children from
the very earliest age if we want them to become responsible
members of adult society. These are the kinds of principles
prevalent in Montessori and other private schools, but only
in the best of state-run schools.
Montessori schools, and schools at secondary level run along
lines originally set out by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), both
stress the spiritual aspect of life and the societal role
of the children as adults. These principles are allowed to
operate alongside the practical and rational learning, but
always there is encouragement for children to be enthusiastic
about the material they are learning. Contented children have
insatiable curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, so they need
only to be guided along the right channels to learn in a safe
and peaceful environment.
Reading is a skill that is finding increasing emphasis in
schools once again, and it is long overdue. Reading stimulates
the imagination by the creation of mental pictures from words
in black and white on a page and as such it helps develop
those all important neural networks in the brain. However,
reading has become too passive and too slow a pastime for
many children today, indoctrinated by television and videos
with their constantly changing images. Children who read fluently
typically show better performance in all of their subjects.
Fortunately, after a few decades when it was abandoned at
the behest of educational theorists, the phonics system of
reading is now back in primary schools (where children learn
to read by learning the sound of individual letters). Learning
to read and speak a second language at primary level would
broaden this skill even further.
||While learning to walk and
talk comes naturally, learning to read and write are applied
skills that require focused attention. The effort required
by the child is itself an emotionally rewarding process
and teaches them that prolonged effort may be needed to
fulfil some of life’s achievements — deferred
gratification again. The debate as to whether language
is a product of nature or nurture continues, but recent
research suggests that the basic ability for language
is genetically programmed. Nevertheless, the onus is on
parents, teachers and the students themselves to make
the most of any ability that they have through inheritance:
nature lays the foundations; nurture builds up the fabric
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Setting the right examples
Alongside instruction in school, children need right examples
to follow from parents at home. Children will take little
notice of admonishments not to take drugs unless the home
environment supports this, with parents setting the example.
An increasingly overweight adult population with higher levels
of diabetes is hardly the kind of role model we want our children
to follow. There is too much overindulgence and irresponsibility
amongst adults in living hedonistically; we cannot then expect
overstretched medical resources to sort out the problems that
will undoubtedly occur. This is not the philosophy of life
to teach to our children.
Prerequisites for learning are a healthy diet that avoids
junk food and drugs, adequate exercise and sleep, judicious
use of television and computers for entertainment and learning,
time spent with parents and other family adults in reading
and talking, and adopting a relaxed lifestyle and a holistic
moral outlook that avoids any specific religious indoctrination.
Many children are being encouraged to live the kind of frantic
lifestyle of their parents. Lots of activity to use up that
bountiful energy in childhood, and the opening up of as many
experiences as possible are great, as long as there are times
too for quiet reading, talking and reflection.
Television ‘soaps’ present a highly damaging example
of human behaviour. A large proportion of the exchanges in
these episodes are aggressive with the combatants continually
shouting and swearing at one another. We could be spending
our time in much more constructive and meaningful activities
that would contribute to our happiness and well-being. As
Sue Palmer says in her book Toxic Childhood: ‘It would
help a lot if television — the window through which
we now all see the world — could reflect the advantages
of healthy social interaction, rather than concentrating so
much attention on dysfunctional relationships and social breakdown.’
As she says, family breakdown has now become so commonplace
that it has become a form of entertainment. If children are
led to believe that this is the way differences of opinion
are resolved in the adult world, we cannot be surprised if
they are aggressive to teachers and fellow pupils.
However much the liberals may scream ‘censorship’,
it is difficult to see who else but the government has the
power and the duty to influence this if we do not want to
encourage a nation of illiterate delinquent adolescents. The
majority of pupils just want to get on with their learning
in peace, but those few who are led astray by these poor role
models can disrupt a class or even a whole school. Discipline
in schools has long since deteriorated to the point where
some pupils now feel they need to carry weapons for their
own protection. From being one of the most satisfying of careers,
teaching has now become one of the most stressful.
With no form of sanctions available to discipline children,
and faced for political reasons with mixed-ability classes,
teachers have to spend a disproportionate amount of time with
recalcitrant pupils at the expense of teaching the orderly
majority. Everybody suffers; so we cannot be surprised if
educational standards in state schools decline, whatever the
examination results indicate. Treating people differently
because they are different is not elitism. It is equality
of opportunity that is required, not necessarily equality
The issue of school discipline is but one of the social problems
that governments in Britain and America have scarcely begun
to address. With adults too often having to work away from
home for long periods, or commute great distances, there is
insufficient time or energy left for parents to spend with
children. It is up to employers to see that their staff live,
say, within 15 miles of the workplace so that the employees
are in a better mental state to do their work and can have
more time and energy for family and recreation. In rural areas
of course, this might not be possible. With increased marital
breakup there are often fewer older family members able to
baby-sit or tell stories, both fictional and factual from
their earlier life, to the children. Story-telling, family
or ancestral tales, and tribal myths are such an important
part of making a growing child feel part of the society in
which they live. They accustom a child to the vocabulary and
grammar of the language as well as immersing them in the practices
of their own or other families or social groups. Including
classes on relationships would be a valuable part of every
secondary school curriculum.
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Small is more effective
Many smaller village primary schools in Britain have been
closed and moderately sized secondary schools amalgamated.
The theory has been that bigger schools allow more opportunities
for a diversity of subjects for the pupils. But all pupils
do not need all of these facilities at this age and there
are huge drawbacks. Where once, teachers knew their pupils
well enough to know their strengths and weaknesses, there
are now so many students in a school that any kind of individual
rapport is very difficult. The result is that the pupil feels
isolated, alienated and less valued, especially if coming
from a single-parent home or one where both parents work,
where contact time with adults is likely to be more limited.
The most important single quality of life that we must provide
for our children is that of security — at home and in
school. This is far more important than providing availability
of a wide range of specialist subjects at secondary level
in huge schools. There is time enough for that in college
education at tertiary level.
Because of the relative inaccessibility of such large schools,
instead of being able to walk or cycle to school, children
now must be bussed in or brought in cars by parents because
the distances they have to travel to these centralized schools
are so much greater, which means less exercise for pupils
and more traffic congestion and pollution.
In the older educational system, boys and girls were usually
educated separately. It is probably preferable socially to
have boys and girls educated together because psychologists
now accept that there are certain traits that, in general,
are to be found more often in boys or girls, respectively.
Each gender then learns about social interaction with the
other in co-educational schools. From an academic viewpoint,
however, boys and girls probably benefit from single-sex education
so that, at least in school hours, the influence of adolescent
hormones in attracting a mate is not paramount. The best of
both approaches could be achieved if instruction in lessons
were to be given to boys and girls separately in adjacently
located schools, and then seeing that there were adequate
social opportunities for the two sexes to mix socially, say
at lunch breaks or in after-school activities.
Comprehensive schools were created in Britain to eliminate
the supposedly divisive structure of grammar schools and so-called
‘secondary-modern’ schools. The principle was
that all children should be treated equally. But this was
muddle-headed thinking by politicians and their educational
advisors. Children should not be treated equally but given
equal opportunities and treated, each according to his or
her own needs, as in the Montessori and Steiner schools. Some
children are largely self-motivated while others need coercion
to study, especially during adolescence. Some thrive on challenging
academic study while others have more aptitude for practical
pursuits. This may seem obvious; but the two-tier system of
grammar and secondary-modern schools catered for this difference
in approach very well while many comprehensive schools do
not have staff or time in the curriculum to cater for such
differences in outlook.
Another great disaster of comprehensive education has been
mixed-ability teaching. In classes of over 30 pupils, which
are the norm, it is quite impossible for a teacher to provide
enough stimulation to the brightest pupils while, at the same
time, giving enough attention to the less able, so that they
too can keep up with the flow of a lesson. If the less able
include physically impaired children, the situation is exacerbated.
Such children are supposed to have a ‘helper’
sitting beside them to help them along, but cuts in funding
have meant that such a helper is often not present. The result
is that disabled children are bored and frustrated and, more
often than not, become disruptive as they seek the attention
they so desperately want and need. They are also frequently
made the target of derision by able-bodied students, thus
further diminishing their self-esteem.
The idea of putting disabled students with able-bodied pupils,
because this is how they will have to live in society, is
ill-conceived. Although introduced ostensibly for the benefit
of the students there is little doubt that it was really implemented
as a cost-saving measure so that special schools could be
dispensed with. Again, the opportunity for disabled children
to live amongst those who are able-bodied can be left to the
time when pupils leave school having had a sound and secure
secondary schooling. It is within the power of government
to correct some of these anomalies if only they would put
the welfare of the people they govern before the quest for
political power, in-between elections.
Government policy in
both health and education has been towards centralisation:
concentration of resources suggests greater value
out of the education budget, and this is the overriding
goal. But children are not impersonal units and neither
is education a business; and the first step in improving
standards in education must surely be to return as
far as possible to pupil-friendly smaller schools
where pupils and teachers have time to establish some
rapport Then pupils can once again feel secure in
the knowledge that they are an integral part of the
school as an institution, and take a pride in their
contribution to its wellbeing. Hopefully, this might
also reduce the incidence of bullying, victimization
and other violent behaviour. What we need is a much
more holistic approach to education to consider other
aspects of a child’s development besides academic
performance, and government must surely take the lead
in this. We have had many changes in syllabus and
structure of examinations over the past twenty years
in Britain. The election of a new government provides
an ideal opportunity to change the philosophy of primary
and secondary education.
Bailey, Richard (2009), The Philosophy of Education: An introduction,
Martin, Paul (2006), Making Happy People, HarperCollins, London.
Palmer, Sue (2006), Toxic Childhood, Orion, London.
Woods, Ronald and Barrow, Robin (2006), An Introduction to
Philosophy of Education
(4th edn), Routledge, London.
(a survey of primary
(on secondary education policy)
(information on secondary schools from heads of schools and
Published on the Scientific & Medical Network website
Back to the top
Medicine and Healthcare
By Howard Jones with Jennifer Jones
There is no doubt that our healthcare system is in crisis
regardless of the sterling work of those working within it.
It is trying to cope with too many people calling on its services,
the numerous medical advances in pharmaceutical preparations,
and complex and expensive equipment and treatment regimes
developed over the last twenty to thirty years. With the limitations
of the funding available, even a bottomless pit of money would
still not bring it to a state of balance.
Our original view of the health service has not changed fundamentally
since its inception – that it would always provide healthcare
free at the point of delivery for anyone who needed it. If
we wish to bring our healthcare system out of crisis, we have
to introduce a period of radical re-education of each individual,
both within and outside of the health service, to reduce the
demands made upon it. The words ‘each individual’
are used advisedly because this is not one of the ubiquitous
and never-ending target-based government solutions to the
healthcare crisis, but one that is more personal to each and
every one of us.
The twentieth century philosophy
The development of the pharmaceutical industry, leading to
its disproportionately large influence today, has moved medicine
inexorably away from its naturopathic roots. This was all
we had (besides surgery) until the twentieth century, but
now the opposite extreme of allopathic medicine has become
the first-line treatment in both Britain and America. We now
rely almost totally on drugs for the resolution of the symptoms
of ill health. The vast majority of drugs do not cure us of
anything; they only mask the symptoms so that we may carry
on with our lives with as little inconvenience as possible.
This is not to say that we should not use drugs, but a balance
of treatments, with far more emphasis on naturopathic medicine,
addressing causes rather than treatments, would be far less
radical, less expensive and often just as effective, with
fewer of the toxic side effects, now so common that they have
given rise to the whole sub-discipline of iatrogenic medicine.
However, this also requires a new attitude to health amongst
the general population.
When we visit the doctor’s surgery, we expect to leave
with a prescription. If we experience side effects from a
drug for a particular condition, doctors often have available
another drug to counteract these ill-effects. Doctors need
to be more aware of the different reactions to drugs by different
people, accept patients as individuals, be prepared to listen
to the patient and adjust their prescription regimes accordingly,
and not be led unthinkingly by promotion literature from drug
companies. Taking prescribed medicine puts the responsibility
for our health onto the doctor: we need individuals to take
responsibility themselves for their wellbeing.
If it is a choice between adjusting our diet and lifestyle
to resolve an imbalance in the body or taking a pill, the
pill will win out at present for too many people. In a series
on British television in 2008, aimed at undermining naturopathic
remedies as valueless in most cases, an eminent professor
(of obstetrics and gynaecology!) said she would take a pill
to lower her cholesterol rather than bother about adjusting
her diet. This attitude, expressed by a prominent academic,
encourages people to take the easy option, without regard
for the deleterious side-effects — it is a demand for
instant gratification, much like that in so many other aspects
of our lives today, and avoidance of individual responsibility.
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A new cultural ethos
We have lost sight of the fact that each of us has a body
that is the most incredible creation: if we allow it to, it
will function in harmony with the rest of nature for over
seven decades. The body works quite efficiently even when
there is an imbalance, and there are numerous examples of
those with serious or debilitating medical conditions who
achieve enormous satisfaction and success in their lives.
Our bodies co-operate with us to live successfully through
what can only be described as our abuse of them — but
we have come to accept this miracle as a normal state of affairs.
We take our bodies for granted.
If we wish to spend less time resolving the health issues
we have created in our bodies, we have to stop abusing them
and start respecting them as vital organisms for a successful,
creative and enjoyable life: in other words, we have to take
responsibility and exercise a degree of self-control.
As individuals, we need to understand that, if we do not want
to spend a large proportion of our later life in pain and
discomfort, attending hospital appointments and staying in
hospital for treatment, we have to change our view of our
bodies and how we treat them. The simple fact is that a lack
of respect and love for our bodies causes us ill health: we
no longer live in harmony with nature. It is a principle of
holistic ayurvedic medicine to regard our bodies as a sacred
part of the natural world, and a large component of ayurveda
Equally, we need to have respect for our loved ones who have
to live with us while we go through our health crises —
giving us the love we need on an emotional level and the practical
help with our everyday lives. Allowing ourselves to become
ill through undisciplined behaviour places a huge stress on
all of those around us, and includes the financial issue of
perhaps not being able to earn our living and support others.
Many people assume that, after they have poisoned their bodies
with alcohol, tobacco, and other ‘recreational’
drugs, everyone will rally round and support them. By eating
convenience ‘fast’ food, our bodies may well not
be in a sufficiently robust state to deal with these assaults.
Another sociological aspect of ill health is the drain on
the resources of the wider community. Ill health costs money
that is found from the taxes we all pay into the public purse.
Some of those whose illnesses are genetic or develop in early
life are experiencing a lack of funding for their treatment
because it is being spent on those whose illnesses develop
as a result of their irresponsible and hedonistic lifestyle.
Whilst this shortage of funds is not evident in all areas,
as the population rises, resources will have to be spread
even more thinly and this situation is likely to occur more
frequently. There is already a triage system for surgical
treatment, and this will have to become more ruthless unless
people take more care of themselves.
In defence of the average person, it is not altogether surprising
that people have over-indulged in substances like alcohol
and tobacco when successive governments have given advertisers
of these products free-rein because of the vast quantities
of tax these addictions brought into their coffers. Unfortunately,
politicians were not astute enough to realize that the health
issues created by this over-indulgence have cost the country
more than the taxes collected. We have known of the dangers
of smoking for half a century, and of passive smoking for
at least two decades, but what a battle it has been to get
smoking banned in public places! Alcohol abuse has been linked
to cancers of the oesophagus and gut, but the response of
the government in Britain was to de-restrict alcohol sales,
with the unsurprising result of an increase in alcohol-related
crime and drunkenness.
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Many people are considered to be stoic in their acceptance
of the chronic ill health they have created but if, as a society,
we began to view their conditions as the result of their irresponsible
and hedonistic behaviour, this would perhaps bring a more
balanced approach to healthcare and would bring social pressure
to bear on those who abuse their bodies with drugs. At present,
such people are described as ‘victims’ –
as if their condition was forced on them by others.
This is not to say that we should be unsympathetic but rather
that we should encourage each individual to take responsibility
for their own body and their health. The health service and
the media have achieved a certain amount of success by providing
information on maintaining health, despite pitifully small
amounts of funding for health promotion, but no real emphasis
has ever been placed on this aspect of individual responsibility.
Establishing promotional systems for guidance on preventative
medicine, diet and lifestyle should be a high priority for
any future government, and such advice should begin in schools.
Private medical insurances cover only a limited range of illnesses,
outside of which the insured person has to provide the financial
resources for treatment or use social healthcare systems.
If we set up life insurance and we then take our own life,
our loved ones do not benefit financially: we accept these
rules as reasonable. Yet, effectively, we expect others to
compensate us for reducing the quality and longevity of our
lives by our own deleterious lifestyle choices. We have, in
effect, shirked our personal responsibility to maintain a
healthy body: yet we perceive it as our right that someone
else will find the financial resources to keep us alive with
a reasonable quality of life, or compensate our loved ones
if we die.
The new organizational ethos
The strongest and most effective part of the healthcare system
is in acute care – emergency services. This is where
the British National Health Service excels. But it is chronic
care that costs the most money and this is where healthcare
systems are not as effective. The huge demand for chronic
care is largely due to the results of the abuse of our bodies,
and treatment is less effective because these illnesses can
rarely be cured; the symptoms can only be reduced or alleviated.
The pharmaceutical industry’s very lucrative interventions
in chronic illness can keep patients functioning in moderate
health for many years, during which time the pharmaceutical
bill may well rise to a much higher level than the patients’
contributions made in taxes during their working lives.
Another view of the health service is that it is there to
extend our lives for as long as possible. A large proportion
of the population is fearful of ill health, and indeed their
own mortality, and yet an individual’s quest for survival
tends not to include changes in behaviour until they are confronted
with the realities of ill-health, and perhaps not even then
for some. Traditionally, medicine has, quite rightly, been
practised to save lives but the emphasis now is on prolonging
life at any cost, whatever that may be. Most would agree that
it is the quality of life that is paramount rather than our
longevity. Death of the body is a natural part of life that
we can never avoid but we are presented with many opportunities
to avoid much ill health.
Although the use of the name, National Health Service, would
indicate an organization that maintains good health, it has
never been viewed in this way. In everyone’s mind it
is a ‘national sickness service’. The medical
profession has virtually no interaction at all with healthy
people: doctors and surgeons intervene only when people are
ill! Even many of those who work in the healthcare system
offer poor role models for patients, a significant number
of them being smokers or overweight, if not obese. The beginning
of the opportunity to bring the health service back into balance,
out of its current crisis, is to change our perception to
one of a service offered by exemplary role models in preventative
medicine to maintain good health, with the continued availability
of excellent emergency treatment facilities.
The change in our thinking suggested above may seem harsh,
but we have to face the realities at some point. Already,
sick people are prioritized for treatment because of a lack
of funds. Up to now, we have been in denial about the ability
of our healthcare system to cope with the rising population,
and particularly the increase in life expectancy, and the
emerging and expensive treatments that every patient would
wish to have available to them when they need them. Prevarication
over any issue puts us in the position of having to apply
crisis management to the situation and this is always radical
and painful – our healthcare system is no exception.
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A different approach
There is another aspect of re-education that could help to
ameliorate some of the pain of the changes that will inevitably
have to take place if we are to maintain a system of healthcare.
It is obvious that we are all here on this planet living together
and that we do not live in isolation. Whatever we do impacts
on other people, mentally and physically.
Many people have the view that what they do with their lives,
and their bodies, is entirely their own affair. If they choose
to abuse their bodies, it is nobody’s business but their
own. But, in a very real sense, their actions have a massive
impact on the rest of the population: emotionally for family,
friends and co-workers; economically, both at a personal and
public level; psychologically in terms of their own and others’
mindset as a result of their perception of the illness and
Part of our re-education is about remembering that we are
all here together on this planet for our own individual lifetimes,
regardless of how long or short, painful or happy they may
be. Taking responsibility for our own good health is essential
for our development and evolution, personally and on a global
level. Whether we like it or not, we are inextricably linked
to one another. We have come to stress too much our rights
as individuals with too little regard for our duties and responsibilities
as a society.
Taking this a step further, re-educating individuals needs
to include a sense of our not being alone, because we are
all part of the interactive natural environment, however you
view it depending on your scientific, religious or spiritual
beliefs. We are, in effect and in reality, all one. Our societies
are based on fear — of ill health, our mortality, terrorism,
strangers and many other perceptions. Denial of the effects
of alcohol abuse, of smoking or other drug taking is an expression
of fear of facing the inevitable consequences and a refusal
to exert self-control. When we take responsibility for our
bodies, we take action — and action is the fastest way
of evaporating fear. When we take responsibility for any one
thing in our lives, it makes it easier to do the same for
other areas. When we reduce or lose our fear, when we face
the consequences of our denial, we can start accepting and
loving the bodies we are in.
Whatever we care about, we take care of: those who love their
cars and houses spend many hours cleaning and looking after
them; those who love their gardens spend time tending them;
those who enjoy other hobbies make the time to pursue them.
It is simple — these people have a passion for something.
Sometimes their passion for something outside of themselves
far outweighs their passion for their own well-being. We must
be encouraged to have a passion for being healthy for as large
a part of our lives as we can, for without health we are unable
to pursue our other activities.
This can be facilitated by our healthcare system in providing
different types of treatments that have a preventative effect;
this would include both orthodox and complementary therapies.
Weekly massages, reflexology treatments, acupuncture, healing
and many other complementary therapies give us the opportunity
to show our bodies gratitude for the efficient job they do
in keeping us functional and pain-free. When ill health arises,
which it can in even the healthiest person, the health service
would then have the financial resources to offer orthodox
and complementary treatments to explore the root cause of
the imbalance and resolve it, if possible.
We would also have financial and other resources available
to help all of those with terminal illness, offering palliative
care for as long as it is needed in an environment that is
compassionate, calm and loving. The passing from this life
does not need to be frightening or even uncomfortable if the
appropriate care and counselling are given.
The resulting redeployment of financial resources would reduce
inequalities in the level of care provided throughout the
country so that everyone would have the security of knowing
that their taxes were being well spent to provide them with
whatever care they need when they needed it. This philosophy
encourages people to look after their bodies and at a lower
cost to the health service because complementary treatments
are often significantly cheaper than allopathic drugs or treatments,
often just as effective and without the unpleasant side-effects
that so often accompany allopathic medication.
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Many people offer the argument that complementary therapies
take longer to have effect — and this is true, because
they are gentler. However, if we are already encouraging people
to look after their bodies, there is a greater likelihood
that imbalances will be identified earlier because of patients’
greater awareness, allowing complementary treatments to be
offered as an initial response. Currently, many people pursue
complementary therapies only after they have exhausted everything
the orthodox medical profession has to offer, having experienced
little or no success in resolving their health issues. Frequently
they are at a point in their illness where nothing more can
be done other than to make them comfortable enough to be able
to live with their condition for as long as they can —
and this may be the case for many years. Complementary treatments
can be very effective in this scenario. However, using complementary
therapies when more aggressive orthodox treatment has failed
is asking for a higher level of success than can reasonably
be expected. To denigrate complementary therapies on the basis
of this type of experience is irrational. A new philosophy
of maintaining health rather than only treating diseases that
develop as a result of neglect or abuse of the body would
incorporate the idea that a gentler but deeper treatment requires
more time to have effect and this could become acceptable
as a regime for improvement. The success of complementary
therapies needs to be statistically assessed, without preconceived
notions that they are without scientific basis.
The medical profession and complementary therapists are aware
that their respective treatments are not panaceas. Many of
both types of treatments have not been tested sufficiently
extensively in every case to say whether or not they are effective
or appropriate: for example, in the investigation of the synergistic
action of two or more drugs, or in using standard scientific
investigative methods to allow meaningful assessment of therapies
whose mode of action is not yet fully understood. However,
the most important criterion in assessing a treatment must
be whether patients find it helpful.
We are not astute or aware enough yet as a species to know
everything about the human body and how it works, or how we
can resolve or treat every single condition. We have to have
the humility and integrity to admit this so that we can take
some issues on trust. For example, acupuncture is not understood
by many in the orthodox medical profession but it is becoming
acceptable as a valid treatment in some medical facilities.
The suggestion that teaching patients how to relax when they
were suffering from stress-related emotional illnesses was
viewed with scepticism some years ago, but now it is being
offered in many areas of the healthcare system. If we see
that a particular treatment is helpful to patients and can
resolve or relieve their health imbalances, this is truly
evidence-based medicine. Subjecting it to analysis and ‘scientific’
testing will not make it any more or less valid as a treatment.
We have to use our intelligence and the traditional skill
that the training for doctors prizes most highly — that
of observation — whether the treatment is complementary
Doctors and complementary therapists have a common goal in
trying to help patients as best they can to either resolve
their health challenges or, if this is not possible, to help
them to experience as good a quality of life as they can.
The two groups of practitioners are close in many ways —
and yet there is a massive divide that is based largely on
perceptions and egos. We need to become aware of and emphasize
the similarities rather than fight about the differences if
we truly have the health of the population at the heart of
We need to educate each individual in our society, starting
in primary schools, to take responsibility for their bodies
— and to enjoy that responsibility. This philosophy
is likely to have an effect in every aspect of our lives as
we grow and develop. Once the majority of people understand
and relish the opportunity to take responsibility generally,
the demands on all our public services would be reduced dramatically.
Many common diseases such as asthma, obesity, diabetes, heart
disease, stroke and cancer have strong environmental and life-style
elements of causation. Research has shown that, with will,
we can use mind to guide our bodies to health.
There are so many areas where individuals are clearly not
taking responsibility for their behaviour and the way they
choose to live. Many complain about a ‘nanny state’,
where the government has too much control over our individual
lives; but that is how it has to be if we are not prepared
to look after ourselves as individuals so that we place burdens
on others. Those giving dietary advice have even been described
as ‘food Nazis’. Freedom lies in becoming as self-sufficient
and supportive of our fellow travellers in this life as possible
so that we accept and practise what is the reality ? that
we are all linked and we are all one, spiritually and practically.
We have tried the ‘business’ approach to resolving
the issues within the healthcare system and this has been
only partially successful. We now need to draw on a spiritual
dimension to work alongside the business model in a compassionate
and balanced approach to healthcare if the health service
is to survive into the end of the 21st century.
Benson, Herbert (1997), Timeless Healing: The power and biology
of belief, Simon
& Schuster, New York.
DiStefano, Vincent (2006) Holism and Complementary Medicine,
Allen and Unwin
Ernst, E., Pittler, M.H., Wider, B. and Boddy, K. (2008) Handbook
Medicine, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hackshaw, A.K. (1998) Lung cancer and passive smoking, Stat.
Methods Med. Res.
Janson, C. (2004) The effect of passive smoking on respiratory
health in children and adults,
Int. J. Tuberculosis Lung Dis. 8(5), 510-516.
McTaggart, Lynne (1996; 2nd edn. 2005) What Doctors Don’t
Tell You, Thorsons
Matthews, Sian, Brasnett, Laura, and Smith, Jonathan (2006)
Underage drinking, Home
Office Findings 277
Morrison, Judith H. (2001) The Book of Ayurveda, Gaia Books
Prousky, Jonathan (2008), Principles and Practices of Naturopathic
Clinical Nutrition, CCNM Press, Toronto, Canada.
Smith, M.J. and Logan, A.C. (2002) Naturopathy, Med. Clin.
North Amer. 86(1), 173-184.
Vork, K.L., Broadwin, R.C. and Blaisdell, R.T. (2007) Developing
asthma in childhood fromexposure to second-hand tobacco smoke,
Envir. Health Perspect. 115(10), 1394-1400.
Published on the Scientific & Medical Network website
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Spirituality and Religion
The twilight of religion
||Church attendance in Britain
and North America is steadily in decline – relevant
data are easily accessible on the Internet. The number
of those who regularly attended church in the USA in 1968
stood at 1.6 million but by 2006 this figure had fallen
to less than 900,000. In Britain, the situation is even
more marked where between 1980 and 2009, church attendance
has fallen from 12% to 6% of the population. There are
several factors that might have contributed to this.
Over the past quarter century or so, many more activities
have become available on Sundays, the traditional day
for church attendance in a predominantly Christian society.
In Britain, shops and public houses are open and there
are a variety of sporting events that people can attend
or participate in. With continually increasing commercial
pressure for greater productivity and profitability, if
people are not actually working on Sunday, it gives them
a day to catch up on chores that they have had little
time or energy to do during the week.
In the West, people have traditionally looked to their God
as a protector or, to put it in Freudian terms, a father figure.
However, the protector image has worn a little thin for many
people as the world has developed overwhelming problems, like
family breakdown and social unrest resulting from a decline
in moral values, global warming and other pending environmental
catastrophes and, most recently, the collapse in the economic
framework of western capitalism. Many people can see that
these challenges are of our own making – exacerbated
by weak and ineffectual government, perhaps – and realize
that they cannot turn to some mythical sky-god to solve these
But I suspect that the main reason for lower church attendance
has more to do with emotional disenchantment with organized
dogmatic religion. We live in a rational technological age
and, ever since the scientific discoveries of the 17th to
19th centuries, our world-view has been shaped by these discoveries.
Science has come to be regarded as the source of truth about
the natural world; and moral values are not stressed either
in the home or in school as they were a century ago. There
is a certain cynicism about the moral impact that religion
could possibly have in a society so committed to materialist
values. Too many religions and churches are more concerned
with ritual and dogma than the spirituality that was claimed
as the basis for the faiths.
Perhaps religion only has a future if those at the head of
the faiths show integrity and honesty in their leadership
by acknowledging that all religion and scripture is man-made!
The scriptures may well have an extra-corporeal source of
inspiration, like all creative art, but the words on the page
were all written down, transmitted and translated by human
hands. Religions are bureaucratic power structures that were
set up for propaganda to give a base for the indoctrination
of the people. Many people have lost respect for religion
because it is no longer regarded as representing truth but
simply one particular point of view as to how we should lead
our lives, and it is irrelevant in resolving the major world
Our mistrust of politicians is partly because of their extensive
use of ‘spin’, a euphemism for lies, deceit and
distorted truth. The distrust of dogmatic religion is another
expression of the same psychological condition. As with Humpty
Dumpty in his confrontation with Alice, there are many for
whom the word ‘truth’ means whatever they want
it to mean. Thus, religious fundamentalists believe in the
truth of their scriptures and the words of their respective
prophets; but adherents of other religions will almost inevitably
disagree. This does not imply however that there are no fundamental
truths underlying the mythical fabric of scripture. While
the symbolism and formulations of mathematics, like the theorems
of Euclid, Pythagoras or Fermat, are man-made, the relationships
themselves are eternal truths. There may well be similar eternal
moral truths (like some of the Ten Commandments) behind the
myths woven around the stories of scripture, which certainly
contain many historical truths. The incompatibilities between
the scriptures of the various religions of the world make
adherence to any one of them as ‘Truth’ logically
Psychologists define denial as ‘a primitive form of
repression in which anxiety-filled external events are barred
from awareness.’ Sigmund Freud recognised that an attitude
of denial in his patients was one of their psychological defence
mechanisms when ideas or sense impressions conflicted disturbingly
with the established psyche. Denial is an expression of fear
to face reality, and fear is an undesirable psychological
trait. The refusal to accept the true nature of scripture
and religion is such an attitude, like those who deny being
alcoholics, or warnings of the dangers of smoking, or the
threat of global warming. Many people effect their denial
through compartmentalization. They use their telephones and
computers, undergo surgery, fly off to their exotic holidays
quite happy to trust the validity of science, medicine and
technology. But in their religious beliefs, they reject science
and rationalism and choose instead to believe in scriptural
myths as truth. In a scientific age, denial of the realities
of science and belief in scripture as truth become more difficult.
But a life lived in denial is a twilight world, for sooner
or later for the wellbeing of the individual and others, those
in denial must face the truth of the situation. The alcoholic
must confront his or her demons if they are not to die prematurely
having lived a less than fulfilling life. Those who participate
in activities heedless of global warming will contribute to
eventual disaster for us all. Similarly, those who believe
that their scripture represents irrefutable divine truth close
their minds to the common ideals they share with adherents
of other faiths and rob the world of the potential to resolve
some of the conflicts that continually plague our planet.
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Religion and faith
Disenchantment with the role of religion does not mean that
there has to be a decline in spiritual faith. Although many
equate faith and religion, there is a clear distinction. While
religion is an external, man-made expression of beliefs that
are shared socially through ritual and prayer, faith is an
internalized belief system that governs our attitude to the
world and increasingly finds no need to have expression through
authoritarian orthodox religious systems. Dogmatic religion
is intrinsically divisive for it is based on the scriptures
that prescribe how humankind should live; but these ideals
were allegedly revealed to various prophets for a particular
people at a specific time and place in human history. There
is no reason why such proscriptions should be relevant to
people world-wide two millennia and more later.
The essential difference between religion as we know it in
the West and the spirituality associated with eastern belief
systems is that western religion is authoritarian: instructions
for behaviour are passed down from a supposed God, to a number
of prophets in the Bible or the Koran and thence to the people
through clerics, rabbis, priests and imams. In the East, the
words of the prophet are to be taken only as a guide. How
they are interpreted and enacted is up to each individual,
though guidance is available if required from the sages of
each faith. In the West, our morality is determined for us
by the external authority of the Church or Mosque, by the
Bible or Koran. In the East, works like the Pali Canon of
Buddhism and the Tao Te Ching of Taoism are texts to be read
and meditated on, but not to be regarded as any kind of instruction
The inspiration behind the life-styles recommended in the
East is a universal and all-embracing spirituality not an
anthropomorphic father figure or his supposed incarnation
on Earth. The earthly incarnation of a sky-god that believers
often regard as uniquely Christian was in fact a common belief
in Hinduism and in ancient Egypt, long before the lifetime
of Jesus. The ‘chi-rho’ symbol Christians have
taken as their own is found on the tombs of Mesopotamia. The
view of Jesus as divine was set up by the Church Fathers at
the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and is peculiar to Christians.
The fact that this interpretation is unacceptable to Jews
and Muslims immediately sets up a barrier to meaningful cohesion
between the different western religions. Jesus was in fact
simply a healer, prophet, shaman and sage like many others.
In those cultures that westerners often regard as pagan, simply
because they reject this anthropomorphic sky-god and the divine
incarnation, there is a great sense of cohesion within the
cultural group and a close affinity with and respect for the
natural world, ahimsa. In the West, following the recommendations
of Francis Bacon to exploit nature for the betterment of humankind,
the natural world is viewed primarily as a purely material
entity, and this attitude has produced the profligacy we have
seen in the West since the Industrial Revolution. In Cartesian
dualism, which underpins science, there is mind or soul, and
there is the material world of the body. In eastern monism,
all is one. This is a crucial difference between the world-views
of East and West, between spiritual faith in the unity of
the world and dogmatic religion with its divisions between
God and Man and Nature.
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The idea of a cosmic spirituality
Spirituality is a concept that should find resonances with
people of any religion, or even atheists and humanists. In
Christianity, we have the idea of God interacting with humankind
through the Holy Spirit. In Islam, particularly Sufism, there
is Dhat, the spiritual essence of the world from which all
has sprung and into which all will eventually merge. In Judaism
we find the spirit of God described in Exodus as ruach elohim,
the cloud of the Lord that filled the tabernacle. The western
God, although described with anthropomorphic qualities, is
conceived as pure spirit in all three major religions.
In Spiritualism, adherents seek guidance from their cosmic
spirit through communication with discarnate souls. Pagans
and adherents of Shinto have numerous male or female gods
whose spirits are distributed throughout the natural world.
In Hinduism we find Atman, the breath or spirit of Brahman,
which is the ultimate spiritual reality from which the created
universe has emerged. In some other eastern religions, where
there is no God as understood in the West, Buddhists and Taoists
acknowledge a Universal Mind that holds a record of the karma
of each individual from one incarnation to the next until
nirvana is achieved through samsara or cycle of successive
reincarnations. Here, consciousness is all: the material world
is only maya, often translated as ‘illusion’ though
it really means that the only reality is human consciousness
— all we can say of the world is what we perceive. Although
he was a bishop of the Christian Church, philosopher George
Berkeley (1685-1753) was so close to eastern mystical philosophy
when he contended that ‘esse ist percipi’ —
to exist is to be perceived. Some contemporary physicists
regard this consciousness as primary to material creation.
In the secular domain, some other philosophers have suggested
a very similar concept: an unknowable spiritual base to the
material world. John Locke called it the real essence of the
world that gave rise to the nominal essence – the material
properties that we are aware of with our senses which we use
to give objects their names. Immanuel Kant had a similar idea
calling these two realms the noumenal and the phenomenal,
respectively. Arthur Schopenhauer, very much influenced by
eastern religion, described the world as will and idea or
representation: there is our will or self (mind, consciousness),
the subject of experience, and that which is perceived —
the ideas or representations of the material world.
Carl Gustav Jung, one of the most influential of psychologists
of the twentieth century postulated the existence of a ‘collective
unconscious’, a pooling of human unconscious minds through
space and time. It is through our access to this spiritual
domain that certain important icons and metaphors recur in
unconnected social groups. These ubiquitous symbols Jung called
‘archetypes’. The archetypes are the realities
that the human mind creates out of this universal spiritual
field, described by contemporary Cambridge biologist, Rupert
Sheldrake, as the morphic field.
Scientists are divided about the whole concept of spirituality.
Some, especially the life scientists like Jacques Monod and
Richard Dawkins, are thoroughgoing materialists. They believe
that any suggestion of a spiritual agency acting to affect
in any way the creation, design or operation of the universe
represents a return to the concept of animism. This idea was
quite popular with some thinkers like biologist Hans Driesch
and philosopher Henri Bergson in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The idea of animism or hylozoism was that there is an indefinable
spiritual essence within all living things that cannot be
expressed using just materialistic terminology and concepts.
Human creativity in music, art and literature; morality and
ethics in social interaction; law-making; and the economic
interaction of nations, to quote just a few examples, are
holistic and certainly cannot be reduced to explanations in
classical physics in any meaningful way. Quantum theory has
shown us that the world is not entirely deterministic, for
if it were there would be no human creativity or free will.
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Today, life scientists talk in terms of the emergence of complexity
in higher organisms arising spontaneously through purely physical
forces of interaction between molecules — the natural
propensity of the fundamental particles and energies comprising
matter to turn chaos into order, components of the primordial
soup into polymers of proteins, carbohydrates and nucleic
acids. There are systems even in the world of inorganic chemistry,
which the Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine described
as dissipative systems, that are capable of some degree of
self-organization. We are faced with the unacceptable premise
(to materialist scientists) that there is indeed an external
agency capable of providing the necessary energy in closed
systems (those without external energy input) to seemingly
defy the laws of entropy. This propensity for spontaneous
self-organization is one of the functions envisaged by some
scientists for the wholly inter-penetrating cosmic spiritual
energy known as the quantum field energy.
Since the development of quantum mechanics in the first decades
of the twentieth century, many physicists have become more
amenable to the idea of an essentially spiritual universe.
In his Gifford Lectures of 1927, physicist Arthur Eddington
saw human consciousness, as expressed by mind, as the intermediate
between the unknowable world of quantum interactions and the
material world of the senses: ‘The stuff of the world
is mind stuff’. Thus, mind, consciousness and spirit
become the fount of material creation: Creation stories are
the bedrock of religion, and spirituality is the epitome of
In The Tao of Physics, physicist Fritjof Capra drew parallels
between the quantum world-view of the cosmic dance of fundamental
particles and energy described in the West and the religious
philosophy of the East with its view of human existence as
one of universal interaction between the individuals of humankind
and the natural world that surrounds us. The 14th Dalai Lama
has endorsed this relation between Buddhism and modern physics
in that both stress the interconnectedness of all that is.
Every event in the universe on the micro and thence the macro
scale is an example of the cosmic spiritual interaction. For
religious adherents, this would be like saying that God is
always and everywhere immanent in the world.
In 1980, in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, American-born
quantum physicist David Bohm elaborated on the holographic
metaphor of the human mind that had been created by Karl Pribram.
In Pribram’s model, each unit of the brain (that Wilder
Penfield had called an engram) encodes within it the information
contained in the whole organ, rather like a hologram. Bohm
extended this idea to suggest that the whole universe ‘is
not to be understood solely in terms of a regular arrangement
of objects (e.g. in rows) or as a regular arrangement of events
(e.g in a series). Rather, a total order is contained in some
implicit sense, in each region of space and time . . . the
classical idea of the separability of the world into distinct
but interacting parts is no longer valid or relevant.’
This is an even more fundamental concept of a holistic world
interacting at the subatomic level. Cosmic spirit represents
the implicate order; the material world is the explicate.
What more graphic portrayal of spiritual deity could there
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Cosmic spirituality and human interaction
Over the past quarter-century, psychologist Charles T. Tart
has shown how the phenomena described as psi, such as telepathy
and spiritual healing, have given us clear experimental evidence
of the existence of a means of human communication that cannot
be scientifically explained by materialist Newtonian and Cartesian
models. Once again we are introduced to the concept of cosmic
spirituality. This is a hypothetical concept as valid as any
other scientific notion proposed to explain experimental observations
— like quarks and superstrings, which have never been
observed. It is important that this should not be regarded
as the ‘God of the Gaps’ — an idea, regarded
with such disdain by many materialist scientists, that ‘God’
is dragged in as explanation when all rational argument has
failed to provide an explanation. The concept of a universal
spiritual energy is in fact entirely compatible with twentieth-century
quantum physics. It is the potential energy of the universe
with which all matter continually interacts at the sub-atomic
level in every moment of its existence — the quantum
field energy or zero point field. It is the energy of consciousness.
Physicist Amit Goswami, the psychologists Trish Pfeiffer and
John Mack, and many mystics like Swami Abhayananda see the
material world as having developed from a primordial cosmic
consciousness. Goswami also sees the development of cosmic
consciousness as part of the process of evolution. This is
an extension of the ideas expressed by Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin that evolution has progressed through the stages of
geogenesis (creation of the material of the universe), biogenesis
(of life), psychogenesis (of mind and consciousness), and
now noogenesis (of osmic soul) in which there is a global
empathy between all peoples of the planet, cf. Jung’s
The polymath Dean Radin has argued that there is ample evidence
for ‘interaction at a distance’ between human
minds to explain psychic interaction. This is comparable to
gravitational and e.m. fields on the macro scale and, on the
micro scale, to the inter-particle action at a distance proposed
by Einstein and his colleagues in the EPR experiment. In 1872,
the English polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911) was one of
the first to investigate the power of prayer. Over the past
couple of decades, American physician Larry Dossey has investigated
this subject extensively from a clinical viewpoint and again
the evidence is persuasive of the existence of human interaction
that is not confined to our usual concepts of space and time.
There are also clear indications that prayer and psi effects
like telepathy do not always work, but instead of dismissing
their existence completely it would be a worthwhile enterprise
for scientists to investigate the necessary conditions for
success. Rupert Sheldrake has done precisely that, as elaborated
in some of his books. The idea of an eternal and infinite
consciousness also suggests a possible resolution to the problem
of what could exist before the Big Bang, and what our expanding
universe expands into if all of space is here.
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Many have expressed the view that if we dispense with religion
or God, the world will be left without a basis for morality.
But the morality of human interactions depends on what is
within our hearts, or within our souls if that is a concept
to which people can relate. The cosmic spirit at the human
level may be regarded as a Communal Soul, a community of the
souls, the spiritual essences, of the living and discarnate.
There is no need to dispense with scripture or religion, as
long as scripture is seen for what it is – the inspired
sayings of one or more men (or occasionally, a woman) interwoven
with traditional rituals and, in the Bible, historical events.
A ‘religion’ based on spirituality does not then
need a hierarchy of officials to enforce these subjective
views of the prophets as if they necessarily represented some
kind of eternal and divine truth. I hesitate to use the word
‘religion’ in this context because that is inevitably
associated with scripture and dogma. Spirituality is a religion
only insofar as it is shared communally. The concept of cosmic
spirit, as described by philosophers, psychologists and scientists,
is a far more rational basis for belief and religion than
the subjective views expressed by the myths and fables of
In process theology, A.N. Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne
saw a divinity not forever unchanging and remote from humankind,
as envisaged in most western religions, but one that evolved
by interaction with and within humanity. Biologists wedded
to materialism say that our lifelong behaviour is determined
at conception by the structure of our DNA. But recent research
by Bruce Lipton and others involved in epigenetics research
have shown that while the structure of DNA does not usually
change, its biochemical action is constantly affected by our
environment through interaction with RNA, and this, it is
suggested, is where cosmic consciousness comes in. Mind or
individual consciousness, a component of the collective unconscious,
and thus also a part of cosmic spirituality, influences the
RNA in the body and thereby is capable of producing physical
changes — through meditation, prayer and spiritual healing,
for example, and also by attitudes of love for our fellow
Man. This may well be how interaction between people separated
in space or time occurs through the morphic field described
by Sheldrake, and how prayer becomes effective. More immediately,
it is thought to be the way that spiritual healing is effective,
and how spontaneous remission of potentially lethal diseases
is achieved through meditation and positive thought. Thus,
nurture as well as nature both play a part in shaping our
behaviour and world-view. In this way, cosmic spirit, regarded
as divine by theists, evolves with human spiritual evolution,
as suggested by Teilhard de Chardin and in process theology.
We have seen how the idea of some form of all-embracing cosmic
spirit is consistent with the views of scientists, philosophers
and psychologists and is, at root, a concept fundamental to
a number of theistic and atheistic beliefs. It is found in
the belief systems of indigenous peoples and in the sophisticated
paradigms of contemporary physics. There is surely no more
cohesive concept than this to serve as a basis for inter-faith
discussions. This is a fundamental idea which has the potential
also to forge a link between science and religion, so often
held to be incompatible as bases of world-views. The evidence
for the existence of an effective and interactive spirituality
or cosmic energy is overwhelming. While the cosmic spirit
concept may not be compatible with orthodox dogmatic religion,
nor with Newtonian science, it is time for acceptance and
promotion of spirituality rather than scriptural religion
to provide some unity to our increasingly fragmented and socially
Abhayananda, Swami (2007) Mysticism and Science, O Books,
Winchester, UK. (2008) The Divine Universe, iUniverse, Bloomington,
Capra, Fritjof (1975). The Tao of Physics, Wildwood House,
Dossey, Larry (1993). Healing Words, HarperCollins, San Francisco.
(2009). Healing Beyond the Body, Piatkus, London.
Goswami, Amit (1993). The Self-aware Universe: How consciousness
creates the material
world, Putnam, New York. (2008). Creative Evolution, Quest,
Hartshorne. Charles (1948). The Divine Relativity: A social
concept of God, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
Lipton, Bruce (2005). The Biology of Belief, Elite Books,
Santa Rosa, California;
Cygnus Books, Llandeilo, Wales, UK.
Pfeiffer, Trish and Mack, John (2007) Mind Before Matter:
Visions of a new science of consciousness, O Books, Winchester,
Radin, Dean (1997). The Conscious Universe, HarperCollins,
New York. (2006). Entangled Minds, Simon and Schuster, New
Rossi, Ernest (2002). The Psychobiology of Gene Expression,
W.W. Norton, New York.
Tart, Charles T. (1997). Body, Mind, Spirit, Hampton Roads,
Charlottesville, Virginia. (2009). The End of Materialism,
New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1955). Le Phenoméne Humain,
Editions du Seuil, Paris; Engl. transl. (1959). The Phenomenon
of Man, William Collins, London.
Whitehead, A.N. (1929). Process and Reality, Macmillan, London.
Published on the Scientific & Medical Network website
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The Fifth Dimension or God Without Religion
The science of today recognises four dimensions accessible
to human consciousness – three dimensions of space and
one of time. Science also describes four forces in the natural
world – gravity, the electromagnetic (e.m.) or Coulombic
force, and the strong and weak forces found within an atom.
Three of these are forces of attraction and only the e.m.
force may create attraction or repulsion. Every force has
its region of space in which it is active called its field:
so we also have four types of field. This is the world according
to conventional science – also known as Newtonian-Cartesian
science – which, as yet, has hardly begun to embrace
the notions of spirituality, soul or parapsychology.
But many scientists – mostly physicists, a few biologists
and physicians, and some psychologists – have been actively
investigating the nature of psychic experiences using, where
possible, the methodology of science. The spiritual field
which gives rise to phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance,
pre-and post-cognition and mediumship generally has been described
by futurist Ervin Laszlo as the fifth field of nature. Laszlo
also calls this spiritual energy the akashic field, borrowing
a Sanskrit term from the Ayurveda philosophy of India. The
theologian John Hick has described the psychic realm as the
The information we have about the earliest pagan civilizations
suggests that veneration of natural objects – trees,
rocks, rivers, or other locations on Earth, or sun and moon
– was of great significance in their lives. Earthly
objects were, in some sense, symbols of the greater spiritual
force that controlled the seasons, night and day, the wind
and the rain. But as Karen Armstrong says in her book A Short
History of Myth: ‘Trees, stones and heavenly bodies
were never objects of worship in themselves but were revered
because they were epiphanies of a hidden force that could
be seen powerfully at work in all natural phenomena, giving
people intimations of another, more potent reality’.
Myths, rituals and traditions from these early civilizations
link each generation with its past history and with the ancestors
whose practices and beliefs gave rise to the society of the
present generation. Myths put individuals and their society
in the larger context of social evolution and give us a deeper
insight into the meaning of life. The tales of scripture serve
this purpose in religion, and stories such as those of C.S.
Lewis and of J.R.R. Tolkien provide modern myths and fantasies
for us today.
As suggested by Plato in his Theory of Forms, every natural
object is the image of its heavenly counterpart. Trees, and
even more so rocks, are venerated partly because they are
so much more long-lived than humans and therefore are believed
to hold a spiritual record of the past – the akashic
field. The rocks out of which pagan temples were constructed
were formed in the earliest eras of Earth’s history
and even trees have been on Earth for more than 300 million
years. The old Scandinavian word ‘vid’ means wood
or forest but it has given us a number of words associated
with knowledge or wisdom: witan (Old English: to know), wissen
(German: to know), ‘wits’, ‘wise’
and ‘wisdom’, and there are other examples of
the association of trees and knowledge.
Long before the lives of Euclid (fl. ca. 300 BCE) or Pythagoras
(fl. ca. 500 BCE), ancient civilizations had extensive knowledge
of geometry and astronomy and what we would now describe as
civil engineering. Without this information they would never
have been able, nor had the incentive, to build their megalithic
temples to honour their gods, for the manpower required to
raise these monuments was enormous and such as to demand huge
motivation and skill. The construction of such structures
is a clear indication that these peoples believed that there
existed a numinous realm beyond the physical – a realm
inhabited by the ancestors, whose lives they wished to honour:
it was also the domain of the gods. The psychologists tell
us that most of humankind needs to believe in such a transcendent
and holistic reality for both emotional and intellectual satisfaction.
Many pagan nations lived with this kind of spiritual ethos
before they were invaded and exploited by the expansion of
western materialism and western religious beliefs. This world-view
represented a deity without religion as we know it today.
However, this kind of nature worship was totally unacceptable
to early Christianity and the Church did all it could to eliminate
animism from people’s beliefs – though it took
over many pagan rituals as its own and built its churches
at pagan sacred places, just in case there was some effective
spiritual energy concentrated there.
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Modern determination to raise the living standards of such
‘primitive’ people has meant that we have influenced
them politically, economically, theologically and ideologically,
so that many ancient traditions have been lost in the process.
Keith Critchlow, a professor of art and architecture whose
studies equally embrace anthropology and archaeology, believes
that ‘the greatest threat our modern industrial culture
poses for mankind is the denial of its spiritual heritage’.
The native culture of the inhabitants of the Australian outback
that has been destroyed by the imposition of western values
are recalled nostalgically by the elders amongst the aborigines
as The Great Forgetting. The citizens of Ladakh in the Himalayas
led a hard and primitive but peaceful life until the imposition
of western ideas of ‘progress’; this has seen
animosity, corruption and materialism arise in a society where
formerly there was cooperation, fellowship and spirituality.
Spirituality is the core of religion, although it tends to
be acknowledged as such mainly by the more mystical sects
in each faith. The feature that unites all interpretations
of spirituality, and which characterizes deity in east and
west, is the oneness of existence. We find this spirituality
and unity emphasized more in eastern rather than western faiths,
which focus more on scripture and dogma.
Although Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, with one Supreme
Being, Brahman, as a deity who created the universe, it gave
rise in the so-called Axial Age of the 1st millennium BCE
to several other faiths that are either nominally atheistic
(Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism) or polytheistic
(Shinto). Significantly, Brahman is often worshipped as light,
one of the forms of energy, or as universal soul, Atman. Where
Christianity accepts only one incarnation of its God as Jesus,
Hinduism has many forms or avatars of Brahman. It is something
of a contradiction that it is the spirituality of these often
atheistic eastern faiths that is closest to the notion of
a cosmic spiritual energy that is emerging from contemporary
science. It is the (often unacknowledged) fundamental basis
of all western religion – a deity as Holy Spirit –
and of the eastern religious philosophies as formative Universal
It was the French Jesuit palaeontologist, Father Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin (1881-1955), who envisaged the evolution of the
world as proceeding through four stages. In his book The Phenomenon
of Man, he described this series of stages as a progression
in the evolution of consciousness. First there was geogenesis,
the creation of the land and the sea; then came biogenesis,
the creation of life forms; this was followed by psychogenesis,
the development of thinking beings. Now we are in the stage
of noogenesis, the evolution of mind into what may be identified
as Universal Mind, Communal Soul or an all-pervading deity
as Holy Spirit. This theistic interpretation is equally capable
of a secular interpretation as the all-pervading interactive
potential energy field associated with matter. The noosphere
is made up of loving souls in harmony with one another without
the strife between nations or religions that we see presently
on Earth – a point in evolution that Teilhard described
as the Omega Point. The increasing acceptance of continuing
discarnate existence is part of this spiritual transformation.
One of the great social changes that demonstrated the evolution
of human consciousness began around the 12th century, flourishing
from the 14th century onwards. A new cultural revolution in
the arts began in Florence and spread to other Italian city
states and thence to the rest of Europe over the next few
centuries. Since the 19th century this rebirth of learning
has been known as the Renaissance. Because it placed human
needs and interests at the centre of social activities it
is also known as humanism – not quite the same thing
but another philosophy that concentrated on human experience
and human freedom of will rather than considering ourselves
as puppets of deity. In the 18th century, realization of the
primacy of human emotions in shaping our thoughts and deeds
gave rise to Romanticism; then in the 19th century, a new
variant of humanism appeared in existentialism.
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Humanists and existentialists may be either religious or
secular. One of the most significant of the atheistic existentialists
was Edmund Husserl. Husserl based his philosophy on first-person
experience – the phenomena that were accessible to human
consciousness. The foundation of an experience is its intentionality
– it has to be directed at some thing or idea. Schopenhauer
called this process Will and William James described it as
Volition. For an experience to become imprinted on memory,
or even to be actively processed by the mind, intention must
be accompanied by attention – directed concentration
on the object of consciousness. Edmund Husserl regarded intentionality
as ‘the fundamental property of consciousness’.
Contemporary writers such as Wayne Dyer, Herbert Benson, Lynne
McTaggart, Louise Hay and others describe it simply as ‘intention’.
It is this same attention or focussed intention that produces
the benefits of spiritual healing or prayer, directs our individual
biochemistry towards health or sickness, and allows psychic
communication through telepathy, clairvoyance and mediumship.
One result of this focus on the primacy of human consciousness
is that many have abandoned orthodox religion.
If we dispense with formal religion, does this give rise
necessarily to an atheistic world-view? It depends on how
we define God. The New Age world-view of deity does not portray
the God of the Old Testament, who in the Pentateuch is portrayed
as a vengeful and unforgiving God, inhuman enough to demand
that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his devotion.
It does not represent the God of the New Testament who is
uniquely incarnated in Jesus Christ, for this would exclude
most of humankind, past and present, as believers. Nor is
it the God of Islam described as Allah, who again is restrictively
but uniquely defined by the qualities and practices elaborated
in the Qur’an.
The mind and soul of all humankind can commune with this
cosmic spirit through the phenomena we describe as psi or
psychic events. For the religious adherent, it is the deity
described by the process theology of A.N. Whitehead and Charles
Hartshorne. However, it can be thought of equally as the secular
and impersonal quantum energy field or fifth dimension of
the natural world.
The deity of New Age spirituality is conceived as a genderless
but creative cosmic energy, infinite and eternal. It contributed
to the evolution of the universe and continues to contribute
to the evolution of human consciousness through prayer and
meditation. It is close in spirit to the Tao of eastern philosophy:
The Tao is like a well: used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I do not know who gave it birth.
It is older than God.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 4; trans. Stephen Mitchell
The Tao is the entelechy envisaged by Aristotle – the
force that turns possibility or potential into actuality.
These worlds of possibility give us the (virtual) many worlds
of contemporary science.
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As Teilhard predicted, the consciousness of humankind is
slowly evolving towards a greater realization that this spirituality
not only provides the reason for existence in our everyday
lives on Earth but continues for us as individuals in the
afterlife, where it and we can continue to evolve. There have
been a number of recent books that have described the evidence
for the existence of the afterlife from communications with
mediums, such as those by Michael Tymn, Roy Stemman and Victor
Zammit. The pictures of the afterlife that mediums convey
has much in common with the visions of people who experience
near-death or out-of-body experiences, or the even more startling
shared body experiences. Eminent scientists like Richard Dawkins,
Michael Marsh or Rodney Cotterill who deny the existence of
the spiritual realm for lack of ‘scientific proof’
are simply in denial. Quite apart from the huge mass of anecdotal
evidence of our continued discarnate existence, there is as
much sensory and rational evidence of the existence of the
psychic realm as any scientist could reasonably expect for
a phenomenon involving human subjects.
How many creative artists have claimed that their inspiration
came from a source beyond themselves. Before we dismiss this
as a romantic illusion, we do well to think about the phenomenon
of spiritual healing or energy therapy. It has been known
for many years in orthodox medicine that a patient’s
attitude of mind or belief has a remarkable effect on their
physical health, an effect that could be either positive or
But healing effects can also be brought about by another
person. Some sensitives seem to be able to channel what they
describe as cosmic energy or chi (qi) through their minds
or hands to produce distant or contact healing of patients.
There are mediums without any medical knowledge, like George
Chapman or Leah Doctors, who commune with discarnate medical
practitioners to produce healing effects of physical conditions,
such as blindness, or potentially terminal diseases like diabetes.
Cases such as these have been described in a couple of books
by journalist J. Bernard Hutton. It is impossible for sceptics
to dismiss healing of serious maladies such as these as ‘psychosomatic’
healings or ‘spontaneous remission’, and ‘misdiagnosis’
of such conditions is hardly feasible: nor does dismissal
of any such cures as ‘placebo effects’ explain
This fifth field of cosmic spiritual energy is not the ‘God-of-the-gaps’
so derided by materialist scientists. An agency such as that
elaborated here is as plausible an explanation of psychic
phenomena as the quarks and strings invoked as explanations
of quantum science. We live in an essentially rational world;
so to have an interpretation of numinous and psychic phenomena
that is compatible with modern science should provide additional
confidence to those who still find ideas of psi, soul and
the afterlife quite astonishing. For those whose beliefs entail
deity, there could be no more rational candidate than this
creative and eternal Infinite Mind.
Armstrong, Karen, A Short History of Myth, Canongate Books,
Critchlow, Keith, Time Stands Still: New light on megalithic
science, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2007.
Hutton, J. Bernard, Healing Hands, W.H. Allen, 1966; Virgin
Publishing, 1995; The Healing Power, Leslie Frewin, London,
Stemman, Roy, Spirit Communication: A comprehensive guide
to the extraordinary world of mediums, psychics and the afterlife,
Piatkus, London, 2005.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, The Phenomenon of Man, Collins,
1959; (Engl. trans.by Bernard Wall of ‘Le Phenoméne
Humain’, Editions de Seuil, 1955).
Tymn, Michael, The Articulate Dead, Galde Press, Lakeville,
Minnesota, 2008; The Afterlife
Revealed, White Crow Books, Guildford, UK, 2010; The Afterlife
Explorers, Vol.1, White Crow Books, 2010.
Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality, Macmillan, New
Zammit, Victor, A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife,
Ganmell, Sydney, 1996.
Published in The Journal of Spirituality and Consciousness
Studies, Connecticut, USA, January 2013
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The Science of Psi
I was particularly interested in the article by Chris Carter,
The Fall of the House of Skeptics, in a recent issue of Mind
Body Spirit magazine (No.32). The article shows how the rejection
of the phenomena of parapsychology by sceptics, on the grounds
that they cannot be explained scientifically, is unfounded.
This rejection is based on the premise that all psi phenomena
are outside explanation by – and indeed actually contradict
– established scientific principles. The explanation
given here by Carter is necessarily brief but is laid out
in full in one of Carter’s books. In essence, Carter
says that conventional Newtonian-Cartesian science is simply
not appropriate as a theoretical basis for the interpretation
of psi phenomena. The sceptics are deliberately using a false
basis for their denial of psi because they fear the consequences
for established science if it were to be accepted.
Newtonian science is entirely appropriate in providing explanations
of phenomena in the everyday physical macro world. But in
seeking explanations or interpretations of phenomena in the
mental or spiritual world, we must look beyond the materialism
and determinism of Newtonian mechanics to explore the fundamental
nature of things at a molecular or even subatomic level.
As Carter says, echoing physicists like David Bohm, Brian
Josephson, Henry Margenau and Olivier Costra de Beauregard,
‘nothing in quantum mechanics forbids psi phenomena’.
In fact we can go further than that to say that the quantum
field, or zero point field as it is sometimes called, actually
provides a medium for just such communication as telepathy,
clairvoyance, pre- and post-cognition and spiritual healing.
Not only do psi events not contradict the laws of quantum
physics: this relatively new branch of physics actually provides
a theoretical foundation for uniting physical and mental phenomena,
which has been a goal of scientists and philosophers for centuries.
It is surely a truism to state that the materialistic philosophy
of physical science is not entirely appropriate when we seek
an explanation of the workings of mind or the meaning of soul.
While the operation of the rational mind can be described
in terms of brain function in interpreting the input of the
five senses, we must probe more deeply into how that mind
function comes about at the molecular level when we consider
such human qualities as beliefs, feelings, passions, and emotions
– and numinous interactions. Here we are dealing with
the spiritual mind: we are exploring the world of non-materialism
Our material world is made up of fields of energy created
by interactions between its fundamental constituents. The
algebraic equations we meet in school are extremely useful
in describing and thence predicting or determining events
in our macro world. But at the molecular, atomic and subatomic
level, we need a new kind of mathematics to account for the
behaviour of things. The indeterminism of the entities at
this level can only be described through statistics or probabilities.
Their properties lie somewhere in a phantom world between
mass and energy, or between particle and wave. There is a
complementarity between these two interpretations of the properties
of matter. The Cartesian dualism of mind and matter becomes
a monistic world of energy interactions. The reductionism
at the heart of scientific investigation – exploring
complex systems in small pieces at a time – gives way
to a unified, holistic outlook that extends from the objects
of the world to humankind itself.
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The usual outlook of scientists and philosophers would assert
that we have two primary sources of our knowledge of the world
– the five senses (empiricism) and the use of reason
to interpret the data from those experiences (rationalism).
There are also secondary ways of acquiring information in
the moment – by recall from our memory or by reading
or hearing information gathered by other people. These are
secondary sources of knowledge in that they must have originated
from reason or the senses in the first place. But this is
the materialistic approach again: it takes no account of a
third and extremely influential claim to knowledge –
Intuitive insight has shaped the scriptures used as a basis
for religion since Man lived in organized communities. We
see evidence of the psychic dimension continually at work
in our relationship with the natural world, whether it be
the mutual affection between pets and their owners or the
numinous presence that many sensitive people feel in certain
locations on Earth, like Ayers Rock or the Red Rocks of Sedona.
How many people derive their spiritual uplift from visiting
similar tranquil natural surroundings, or by enjoying the
output of creative artists, painters, composers or poets?
To deny the influence of such experiences would be to deny
So what is it about one symphony, one poem, one natural location
that is able to interact so positively (or negatively) with
us? Here, the material world interacts with the human spirit
or soul. If, as the quantum physicists now suggest, the whole
world is permeated with this quantum field of energy –
every rock, tree and river and every human being – then
it should not be surprising if we can also use this numinous
medium to communicate with each other through art or through
the techniques of psi.
The whole nervous system of the body operates by the passage
of electrons and photons – subatomic particles that
display the same quantum effects whether they are in test
tubes or in us. Those qualities of indeterminism or non-locality
(that we cannot define a specific location for these subatomic
components), and complementarity (we cannot even say whether
these entities are particles of matter or waves of energy)
apply equally when they function as messengers within our
nervous system. The whole of our nervous system is an intercommunicating
sea of energy that permeates the whole universe.
According to physicist David Bohm there are two levels of
reality: there is the explicate order of the material world
around us and, behind this, there is the implicate order of
the subatomic world. This concept exactly parallels the idea
of nominal and real essences suggested by the English Enlightenment
philosopher John Locke and subsequently described by Immanuel
Kant as the corresponding worlds of the phenomenal and the
noumenal. In the material domain, objects are measured in
terms of space and time; in the spiritual domain, and in the
quantum world, space and time are continuous, which allows
psychics to experience events at remote times and places and
enables discarnate spirits departed from earthly life to communicate
with us, the living, still. We do not need to reject the world-view
of Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes, which continues to serve
us well for almost all scientific experimentation. We simply
need to extend our paradigms to make room for quantum phenomena
in the micro and spiritual worlds.
So now we have not only a mass of empirical evidence of the
validity of psychic experiences, we also have an underlying
theoretical framework. This last criterion is most important
in convincing scientists and philosophers that such phenomena
really exist. It has been suggested by quantum physicists
like Amit Goswami and Henry Stapp that thought or consciousness
is simply the quality that emerges when these subatomic entities
function in animate creatures. It is an intrinsic quality
of aggregates of atoms in plants and animals; humans are just
fortunate enough to have developed a more sophisticated brain
that allows the quality of self awareness.
Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has written about dogs
that know when their owners are coming home. The experiences
of Dian Fossey with the mountain gorillas of Ruanda, of Jane
Goodall with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park
in Tanzania, and of the Adamsons with their baby lioness indicate
clearly that humans are capable of bonding emotionally even
with wild animals. Cleve Backster and qigong master Zhao Puti
have demonstrated the effects of human intention on plants.
Many spiritual practitioners claim that mineral crystals also
possess the power to interact with the human mind.
It is clear that those who are wedded to a materialist world-view
need to embrace the scientific views of the 20th century to
provide a holistic outlook that has the potential to unite
the realms of body, mind and spirit.
This article appeared in Mind Body Spirit magazine, Issue
35, Winter 2013-2014.
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Science and Spiritism
Science and spiritism are two complementary world views,
both of which are essential for human existence.
Science as we know it today began in the west only in the
period we call the Enlightenment, when the cloak of obscurantism
imposed on society by western religion was lifted. Now science
is essentially the collection of data about the world using
the five senses and then using the rational mind to try to
find patterns among the events described. Scientists then
construct models for such events to predict the future –
to tell us what they think will happen the next time a similar
What science describes is regarded as contemporary truth,
but it is not absolute truth. When new data emerge, the scientists
have to go back and revise their models, or build completely
new ones. Newly fashioned theories often draw their inspiration
from concepts that are already established. Generally, their
theories are close enough to the truth that they need only
fine tuning. But once in a while, a completely new frame of
thought, or paradigm as scientists call it, is needed to encompass
new facts about the world and to interpret them coherently
so that the new idea is compatible with the body of other
ideas that have been constructed. Momentous scientific revolutions
are relatively rare.
As examples of such revolutionary ideas we have John Dalton’s
early 19th century theory of matter being constructed out
of atoms, though he was only amplifying an idea created by
the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus more than
two thousand years earlier. Similarly, Nicolaus Copernicus’s
model of our solar system with planets revolving around the
sun elaborated an idea from the Greek philosopher Aristarchus.
Jean Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin’s theory of
evolution in the early 19th century, and then that of Charles
Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace fifty years later, built
on the classification of living species set out by Aristotle
in ancient Greece and elaborated by the 18th century Swedish
biologist, Carl Linné.
Surely the most significant ideas to arise in science within
the last century are those that are encompassed by the quantum
theory of matter. Here we have to look back to the founders
of the great spiritual systems of the east to find comparable
ideas, though there they were derived purely from mystical
intuition. These ideas provide us with the most exciting possibilities
yet of linking together the two great thought systems of science
and spirit, of rationalism and intuition. All the eastern
religions envisage a unified cosmos of living and inanimate
matter; quantum theory tells us that our material world is
a unified field of cosmic energy that coheres at certain points
to give us the material objects of our observations with which
we can work in our daily lives. The fundamental particles
of matter have the puzzling property of being in two or more
places at the same time and have the ability to move from
one point in space or time to another without passing through
the intervening divide.
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What applies to the material world at the most fundamental
level also applies to the world of spirit. Some of those who
are embedded in the materialist world marvel at or dismiss
the existence of spiritual souls who are able to communicate
with the souls of the discarnate. But if communication through
space and time is a property of our material world at its
most basic level, why should such communication in the spiritual
world be considered such an impossibility?
The nerve centre of the human body is the brain, the function
of which is to interpret the sensations received by the five
senses through consciousness of the rational mind. However,
the human individual also carries around with them in their
physical body during mortal existence a spiritual or unconscious
mind or soul. This provides the faculty of the human being
to interact through psychic experiences, like telepathy, clairvoyance,
and pre- or post-cognition where information, like quantum
energy, is transmitted through space and time. The cosmic
spiritual energy provides the medium through which the souls
of the living can experience something of the spiritual continuum.
In spiritual healing, practitioners with no medical training
are able to draw healing energy or chi from the cosmos and
transmit it effectively to their patients.
In recent decades we have had increasing accounts of out-of-body
experiences (OBEs), near-death experiences (NDEs) and the
even more remarkable shared death experiences (SDEs). Materialist
scientists and philosophers, especially, feel a need to dismiss
the very existence of all kinds of spiritual event out of
fear that their established mind-set would have to be disrupted
and expanded with a completely new world view. But psychic
events have been observed and recorded for millennia and are
no less credible than the observations of science. Setting
aside scriptural accounts, which are often only supported
by adherents of the respective religions, one of the earliest
written accounts of an OBE is to be found in Plato’s
dialogue Republic, where he recounts the story of Er. Er was
described as having risen from the dead to recount his experiences
of the afterlife. In the Middle Ages, the whole of Dante’s
Divine Comedy is an account of a real or imagined near-death
experience. There are many more recent books that add numerous
accounts to those we already have.
Spiritism, rather than spiritualism, which is a formal religion,
implies belief in an interactive cosmic spiritual field of
energy that encapsulates and embraces the wisdom of the ancestors;
this is a fundamental belief of all recorded indigenous people.
Plato’s world of Forms or Ideas, which provides numinous
templates that shape human concepts, is just one of the earlier
manifestations of the universal cosmic spirit. Contemporary
mathematician Roger Penrose sees his mathematics as an example
of just such a Platonic Form. Carl Jung’s collective
unconscious and Rupert Sheldrake’s morphic field are
other examples of essentially the same concept, and Ervin
Laszlo has used the ancient idea of an akashic field to describe
the same idea – that of a numinous cosmic spiritual
energy that holds the information transmitted by humankind
through the ages. The evolution of humankind has involved
not only development of the physical body and brain but also
an increasing sophistication of our spiritual mind and aesthetic
awareness and it is this which has placed us at the head of
what early philosophers called the Great Chain of Being.
The creation of great works of art, music, or literature,
or revolutionary scientific or mathematical theories that
emerge without obvious precursors we ascribe to inspiration.
Medical science describes the breathing-in of fresh air using
the same term, which is entirely appropriate, as artistic
creativity demands a breathing-in of thoughts from cosmic
spirit that will move viewers, readers or listeners emotionally.
Twentieth century science has enabled us to view the world
more holistically. It allows us to see that the rational observations
and theories of science are not really that far removed from
the inspirational and uplifting ideas of creative artists
so that the phenomena of science and those of spirit can be
viewed as originating from the same source. To view our world
in this way provides an important step in our journey towards
This article appeared in the e-magazine, Spiritual Lounge,
Vol. 30, December 2013.
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The Timeless Consciousness of Nature
Images of the divine are as many and as varied as there have
been civilizations on Earth. Whatever image people have of
their deity, the notion still persists amongst a majority
of humankind that there is a purpose to human life and that
there is a designing force or spirit behind our very existence.
One aspect of this belief is the idea that the whole of the
natural world is imbued with this sacred spirit. As Ralph
Waldo Emerson said in examining this problem of the nature
of deity: ‘He builded better than he knew / The conscious
stone to beauty grew’.
Indigenous people still venerate the trees and animals on
which they depend for their very survival. Trees have been
on Earth for more than 300 million years. Throughout human
civilization they have been associated with magic and ritual
because it was believed that they were imbued with spirituality,
and spirituality was associated with wisdom. Because trees
were usually much longer-living than humans it was believed
that they retained knowledge from one generation to the next
and, as a result, that they were home to the spirits of past
generations with the wisdom they possessed. As Karen Armstrong
says in her book A Short History of Myth: ‘Trees, stones
and heavenly bodies were never objects of worship in themselves
but were revered because they were epiphanies of a hidden
force that could be seen powerfully at work in all natural
phenomena, giving people intimations of another, more potent
reality’. The old Scandinavian word ‘vid’
means wood or forest but it has given us a number of words
associated with knowledge or wisdom: witan (Old English: to
know), wissen (German: to know), ‘wits’, ‘wise’
With our modern materialistic philosophy of life, animals
are reared and slaughtered to sustain us with little or no
thought of any possible consciousness that those animals might
possess. Cats and dogs are commonly kept as pets because they
have a sentience that allows a special bonding with us. Rupert
Sheldrake’s study of dogs who know when their owners
are coming home is well known. But as several people have
shown in recent decades, even wild animals are capable of
bonding with humans.
The American zoologist Dian Fossey studied the mountain gorillas
of Ruanda for eighteen years and lived amongst them, again
forming a relationship with them. At the time, in the 1960s,
the gorillas were hunted by the local tribesmen and Fossey’s
work undoubtedly saved them from extinction. This story was
told in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, directed by Michael
Apted, which characterized the relationship between Fossey
and the primates. The English anthropologist Jane Goodall
established a similar relationship with chimpanzees in the
Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
In 1863, Lieutenant John Dunbar, a Unionist soldier was injured
in the American Civil War. He requested a posting to the northern
frontier which, at that time, was in Dakota. There, Dunbar
befriended not only the native Sioux Indians but also a wolf:
the Sioux called Dunbar ‘Dances with wolves’.
His story was told in the 1988 book of that name by Michael
Blake, which was made into a film of the same name two years
later. The story of British conservationists George and Joy
Adamson, who raised a baby lioness called Elsa and subsequently
released it into the wild, was told in the 1960 book Born
Free by Joy Adamson and the 1966 film again with the same
In 1969 Australian John Rendall with his friend Ace Bourke
bought a baby lion cub they called Christian from the pet
department of the Kensington store Harrods in London. They
raised it in their Chelsea flat and released it into its natural
home in Kenya in 1971 after it had become too big for domestication.
The lion recognised them when they met up with it again the
following year. An even more remarkable relationship is that
between a fisherman called Chito living at Barron River, near
Cairns in Queensland, Australia, and a young mortally wounded
crocodile that he found and named Pocho. This was thirty years
ago now. The reptile had been shot and was close to death.
Chito cared for the crocodile for more than a decade and nursed
it back to health. When he took the animal to a nearby lake
to release it back into the wild, it crawled out and followed
him home. The two have had a close relationship ever since.
Then message here for us humans is that we should keep at
the forefront of our minds the consciousness that lies within
the plants and animals of the natural world. If we regard
the divine as an all-pervading cosmic spirit, then this energy
lies within the rocks of the Earth too and comprises their
sacredness. If we are to flourish we need to be ever conscious
of the sentience of the natural world of which we are an integral
part of the natural world. We abuse our trusteeship of Nature
at our peril.
This article appeared in The Searchlight, magazine for The
Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Florida,
USA, in June 2013.
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Exploring the Nonlocality of Consciousness
The concept of consciousness
When we talk of ‘consciousness’, we tend to think
first of human consciousness. Even dictionary definitions
of the word imply a human connection, with no suggestions
of other interpretations. But very soon we realize we must
also consider the consciousness of other animate beings. The
ancient philosophers had a hierarchy of degrees of consciousness
that they called the Great Chain of Being which, in its simplest
form, had four material divisions with the deity at the top.
At the lowest level there were the insentient rocks and minerals:
their unique character was their durability through eons of
time. Above them in this hierarchy was the plant kingdom.
We have always known that plants respond to climatic conditions
and to their environment but, more recently, scientific experiments
by Cleve Backster and others have shown that they also respond
to human intent.
The next highest level of Being was that of the animal kingdom.
While humankind has kept domesticated animals since the early
civilizations, again it is only recently that we have acknowledged
their level of consciousness and shown concern for the stress
and pain they might feel. It is obvious to any pet owner that
animals can feel and show emotions of pleasure and fear, but
Rupert Sheldrake has shown the much greater extent to which
animals can empathize with humans, even through telepathic
communication. The relationships that Dian Fossey developed
with the mountain gorillas of Ruanda, that Jane Goodall established
with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania,
that George and Joy Adamson formed with a baby lioness they
called Elsa, and that the Unionist soldier, Lieutenant John
Dunbar, forged not only with the native Sioux Indians of Dakota
but also with a wolf have become the legends of books and
films. These stories suggest that even animals in the wild
have a consciousness beyond that of basic biological instincts
Definition of the concept of human consciousness is attributed
to the English philosopher John Locke in the 17th century.
There have been various elaborations on this idea since then.
According to the Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud, in addition
to the consciousness of mind, which describes everything that
registers on one of our five senses, our minds have an unconscious
function that suppresses unwanted thoughts and fears, and
a preconscious that holds memories for recall when needed.
C.G. Jung went further in suggesting that the unconscious
mind had two components – an individual or personal
unconscious and a communal or collective unconscious that
existed outside the body of the individual. This spiritual
collective unconscious gave rise to certain patterns of behaviour
that he called archetypes, which were repeated through time
and space by different cultures.
The English-born Canadian psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke,
distinguished three realms of consciousness – simple
consciousness (that of the animal kingdom), self consciousness
(of humans) and cosmic consciousness (an awareness of the
order of the universe). At the time he was writing at the
beginning of the 20th century, the idea of any semblance of
consciousness in plants had not been investigated. He maintained
that ‘our descendants will sooner or later reach, as
a race, the condition of cosmic consciousness, just as, long
ago, our ancestors passed from simple to self consciousness’.
This is similar to the vision of the French philosopher-priest
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that humankind is evolving towards
a state of noogenesis that is characterized by a spirituality
that will fill every moment of our lives and such that each
soul will ‘feel and know itself to be immortal’,
and at one with the universe. According to Bucke, the Saviour
of Man is not so much a human figure as Cosmic Consciousness.
But cosmic consciousness ‘must not be looked upon as
being in any sense supernatural or supranormal [or] as anything
more or less than a natural growth’ of the human condition.
Bucke and de Chardin regard it as part of the natural process
of (biological and sociological) evolution that we should
all come to realize the part we play in cosmic consciousness,
both in our earthly life and in the afterlife.
The concept of the cosmic or collective unconscious closely
resembles Plato’s suggestion that the concepts we use
in our everyday lives are reflections of similar Ideas or
Forms that exist eternally in the numinous realm. The archetypes
or Ideas may give rise to stories woven around them conveying
moral messages to each tribe or people. These collections
of stories, which may be orally transmitted or written down,
comprise the myths or folklore of the community. The term
‘folklore’ was coined by W.J. Thoms in 1846 to
describe remnants of ancient mythologies with world-wide distributions,
or perpetuations of stories and rituals of local tribes and
communities. As described by Gillian Bennett, the sources
of these stories lie outside the consciousness of the individuals
to whom they apply and represent personifications of universal
human emotions, fears and feelings – archetypes in fact.
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Apart from the moral messages they contain, the purpose of
myths is to remind us of our past in order to make it more
meaningful to the present generation. Part of religious scripture
serves this purpose – to keep alive the traditions of
the past. The other function of scripture is to suggest the
way forward, as envisaged by the prophets. Myths have a timeless
quality and suggest belief in a realm beyond our material
You always are and you always will be
There is no time when you were not
And there will be no time when you are not.
According to Paul Devereux, to our ancestors, Earth was ‘reborn
every moment in some new incarnation of the life force.’
Indigenous cultures, like those of the Amerindians or Inuit
in North America, all have their equivalents of the Alcheringa
or Dreamtime of the Australian aborigines in which the present
generation communes through Spirit with the past through ceremonies
at sacred sites. There are geographical sites throughout the
world that are believed to hold something of this cosmic spirit
through time. Sometimes there are natural rock formations
that mark the site – like the Red Rocks of Sedona in
Arizona or Uluru in Australia. In other cases, menhirs or
dolmens are erected to mark the site, which is then often
used for burials or religious rituals. Some of the best examples
are to be found at Stonehenge and Avebury in Southern England,
at Carnac in north-west France and at Callanish on the Isle
of Lewes in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.
Humankind has shown an awareness of an over-arching transcendent
power beyond the material world since Man first walked the
Earth, as far as we know. In this respect, the reductionist
and materialist view of science has led to increasing fragmentation
in our world view. We cannot hope to describe this underlying
fundamental unity in any detail. This cosmic spirit is ineffable
– but holistic.
The Tao that can be told
is not the universal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the universal name.
In the infancy of the universe,
There were no names.
Naming fragments the mysteries of life
Into ten thousand things and their manifestations.
Tao Te Ching. 1
Belief in the continuity of the individual soul between the
living and the discarnate was demonstrated by many early peoples.
To aid in the comfort of the discarnate, bodies were often
buried with tools, weapons, utensils or jewellery that they
used in earthly life. The ancient Egyptians buried their dead
with little figurines called shabti made out of faience to
act as their servants in the afterlife, and they wrote letters
to the discarnate. As symbols of continual rebirth, Palaeolithic
figurines of pregnant women have been discovered in Dolni
Vestonici in the Czech Republic and at Willendorf in Austria,
dating back to 29,000 BCE. Some of the oldest rock paintings
in Australia, dated at up to 40,000 years ago, are to be found
at Watarrka (Kings Canyon), Kakadu (Arnhem Land) and Uluru
(Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory of Australia. Some
of this art-work seems to have been done for creative pleasure,
like the hand impressions or geometrical designs. Other paintings
and carvings seem to have a ritualistic significance.
Day-to-day, we live our lives on two levels: first, and most
immediately, we have to attend to those things that will enable
us and those we care for to survive, like food and shelter.
These needs will usually demand that we find meaningful work
for which we will be rewarded financially. Then, if we are
fortunate enough to have these things accessible to us, we
can begin to think about those activities that will give pleasure,
joy and meaning to our lives. Thus, what we describe as mind
really has two functions. There is the rational mind, located
during our lives in the brain, which records and interprets
the impressions of our senses. These senses enable us to find
our way around in the world. Then there is also the spiritual
mind that many describe as soul which, as humankind has envisaged
since the beginning of recorded history, is not confined to
the physical body but which has an existence outside of the
body before and after our incarnation in human form. It is
the subconscious mind that interacts with the cosmic spirit.
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The creativity of artisans and the spiritual insight of sages
and prophets derive from this cosmic consciousness. Painting,
sculpture, poetry and other literature, and music are creations
of the soul as much as of the mind. We need the technical
skill to produce creative artwork, but it becomes meaningful
to others only if it is imbued with a numinous quality that
transcends physical descriptions or images. Art stimulates
our emotions by giving us a new way of seeing a tiny corner
of the world and, through this, to allow our soul to commune
with that of the creative artist and beyond.
Deryck Cooke described music as ‘the most articulate
language of the unconscious ... the expression of man’s
deepest self’. Cooke believed that music had this depth
of emotional power because it reflected some of the qualities
of other arts – of architecture in its formal pseudo-mathematical
structure, of literature in its expression of emotion and,
in what is described as ‘program music’, could
evoke the imagery of painting in the representation of physical
There are many composers who regard their craft as inspired
by a consciousness beyond that of the material brain. Austrian
composer Gustav Mahler saw the process of composition as part
of this mystical interaction. When speaking of his Second
Symphony, popularly known as The Resurrection, he said:
‘Creative activity and the genesis of a work are mystical
from start to finish, since one acts unconsciously, as if
prompted from outside, and then one can hardly conceive how
the result has come into being’ and ‘For me, the
conception of the work never involved the laying down of a
process, but at the most of a feeling ...The parallelism between
life and music may be deeper and wider than we are yet in
a position to understand’. [Blaukopf]
The Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky said this of his composition
‘Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition
comes suddenly and unexpectedly . . . It takes root with extraordinary
force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth
branches and leaves, and finally blossoms. I cannot define
the creative process in any way than by this simile.’
Johannes Brahms said of his compositions:
‘I have to be in a semitrance condition to get such
results – a condition when the conscious mind is in
temporary abeyance, and the subconscious mind is in control’.
Thus we have ample evidence that belief in an extracorporeal
spiritual agency communing with the human mind and the reality
of continuing discarnate existence has been geographically
widespread through time since the beginnings of human civilization.
Despite the advances in science, these beliefs are just as
prevalent today. This can be attributed partly to the human
desire to find explanations for natural phenomena that seem
to be beyond our control, but also to our wish that our existence
does not terminate with mortal death. If human beings are
able to communicate effectively in any way with this cosmic
spirit, this implies that some degree of consciousness is
associated with this non-material spiritual realm. But however
many people may wish to believe that such a cosmic spirit
exists, and however many believe they can commune with this
spirit through the sixth sense or intuition, this does not
make it so: only evidence that we can accumulate with the
five senses and rational argument can be regarded as valid
support for the concept of a nonlocal cosmic consciousness.
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The evidence for an extracorporeal consciousness
With increasingly sophisticated medical technology, many
people who would have died from accident, disease or surgery
a century ago can now be resuscitated and survive to recount
their experiences. In the past few decades there have been
many accounts published of out-of-body experiences, near-death
experiences and even shared death experiences. While some
of the characteristics of these events may be explainable
as physiological responses to extreme stress, many physicians,
psychologists and neurophysiologists accept that, at the very
least, they demonstrate the common accessibility of an altered
state of consciousness. That these states should include impressions
of religious figures or deceased family members is suggestive
of access to a realm of communal souls, but it is not conclusive.
What is however much more persuasive are the accounts from
patients of events occurring around them while they are in
a state of clinical dormancy. For patients to be able to recall
in detail events that took place around them while they were
unconscious is remarkable enough; but in many cases they can
relate events that that did not even occur in their immediate
environment but some distance away that they could not possibly
see or hear – events they could know nothing of even
in a fully conscious state. In SDEs, those attending the dying
patient are even able to access events from the life of the
patient, which sometimes include events of which they had
no previous knowledge or other events that they know to have
occurred but which they had forgotten. Those experiencing
SDEs are fully conscious and alert, so their experiences cannot
be dismissed as illusory or ‘merely’ physiological.
No orthodox scientific explanation has even been able to
account for the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, pre-
or post-cognition or psychokinesis, as psychologist Charles
T. Tart has recounted. There have been enough instances of
these events now, many investigated under as rigorous scientific
conditions as is possible with human subjects, that the reports
of such events cannot be dismissed as fraud or fantasy. Many
such events reported by those with psychic powers have been
confirmed by subsequent documentary research. The books by
Michael Tymn and Stafford Betty give many examples of instances
of this kind. Clearly there are mediums of communication that
lie beyond those of the five senses but involving nonlocal
consciousness. Similarly, messages that mediums receive that
it is claimed originated with discarnate souls convey information
that the medium could not possibly have access to through
Another strand of convincing evidence for the existence of
nonlocal consciousness is that of spiritual healing. Eastern
medicine and spiritual philosophy have long contended that
there is a type of spiritual energy that courses through the
human body that is not detectable by standard scientific instrumentation.
This type of energy is called chi or qi. It is said to run
through the human body along paths called meridians or nadis
and be concentrated in energy vortices, principally along
the midline, in centres called chakras. Those who have verifiable
spiritual healing powers make use of this energy field. Clinicians
use the meridians to produce effective treatments through
It is quite possible to heal relatively minor conditions
in the body by training the patient’s mind: this is
a technique called the ‘placebo effect’. It has
been used quite successfully in a number of cases described
by Herbert Benson. He says that ‘beliefs have physical
repercussions [and] that the human spirit [is] influential
in the treatment and prevention of illnesses.’ Psychiatrist
Jeffrey Schwartz has had similar success in treating patients
with obsessive-compulsive disorder and physician Larry Dossey
has described the success that he and others have had with
many patients with various conditions through the techniques
of positive visualization and prayer. Modern complementary
therapists usually call this attitude of mind ‘intention’.
But these are treatments that involve retraining the mind
and a purely physiological interpretation for the clinician’s
success is often possible here.
But there are other cases on record of healer mediums with
no medical training whatsoever calling on those who they claim
are discarnate souls trained in medicine to treat or even
cure such debilitating or potentially terminal illnesses like
blindness, diabetes or cancer. Bernard Hutton describes two
such healers in his books. Here, no orthodox medical explanation
can explain how these cures are achieved – but interaction
with the curative nonlocal consciousness of discarnate souls
would. While DNA sets up the structure of our bodies, studies
in epigenetics have shown that the environment continually
modifies the actions of DNA through the RNAs. This is where
our thoughts, our consciousness, our attitude of mind get
involved. With a positive attitude engendered by self-discipline
or though the prayers of others, or through the channelling
of cosmic energy by a spiritual healer we influence the RNA
and thence the DNA and our day-to-day health. Bruce Lipton
has been prominent in exploring this idea.
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So we have massive empirical evidence of the existence of
a nonlocal consciousness associated with the spiritual realm.
Although such a notion is not compatible with Newtonian-Cartesian
science, the new quantum science of the 20th century does
furnish a possible theoretical interpretation of these phenomena.
Underlying interactions of all subatomic particles is an energy
field called the quantum field or zero-point field. This is
an energy field with which the masses of particles constantly
interchange and transform according to the mass-energy relation
derived by Einstein and the wave-particle theory of de Broglie.
The zero-point field is responsible for the nonlocality properties
of the quantum world, that is, they are independent of space
This quantum energy is an appropriate candidate as representative
of the cosmic spiritual energy. It provides a possible medium
for telepathic communication. The lack of restrictions on
time or space provides a mechanism for communication in retro-
or pre-cognition and clairvoyance, respectively, and mediumistic
communication with the community of discarnate souls that
comprise the ‘afterlife’. This cosmic energy field
is indistinguishable from the spiritual deity of religion.
Human consciousness represents an integral part of this cosmic
field of living and discarnate souls.
The non-local consciousness of this non-material spiritual
energy field is held by an increasing number of scientists
and philosophers to be primary to the material world of our
senses. In his Gifford Lectures of 1927 physicist Sir Arthur
Eddington said: ‘The stuff of the world is mind stuff’.
Sri Aurobindo maintains that ‘This universe is a gradation
of planes of consciousness’. Physicist Amit Goswami
sees consciousness as the ground of all being. Consciousness
has come to be regarded as primary, without ‘cause’,
and simply as an intrinsic property of the nerve cells of
the body working coherently together and therefore powered,
at a fundamental level, by the quantum field that embraces
all subatomic particles.
An important book on this theme in the early 21st century,
edited by psychologists Trish Pfeiffer and John Mack, gathers
together the viewpoints of many different scientists, psychologists
and clerics. The idea of an eternal cosmic energy suggests
a possible resolution of the issue of the source of the material
for the creation of the universe. It also provides a medium
for our expanding universe to expand into! This spiritual
realm is the domain of Plato’s Forms, of Jung’s
collective unconscious, of Sheldrake’s morphic or morphogenetic
field, and of the fifth field or akashic field described by
Ervin Laszlo. It is where the souls of both the living and
the discarnate reside, for this energy field penetrates everything,
animate and inanimate – every rock, tree and stream,
and the very air we breathe, as well as ourselves.
To feel we are a part of this unity of consciousness, within
and outside the human frame, is spiritually uplifting. Whenever
we gaze in awe at the beauty of the countryside or the grandeur
of the heavens we are reassured that we, as individuals, comprise
a meaningful part of that universe in every thought and action.
The realization that each of us is a part of this realm of
nonlocal cosmic consciousness described by Bucke – de
Chardin’s noosphere – is the true meaning of enlightenment.
References and Bibliography
Abell, A. Talks with the Great Composers, Schröder Verlag,
Armstrong, K. A Short History of Myth, Canongate, Edinburgh,
Backster, C. Evidence of a primary perception in plant life,
Intern. J. of Parapsychology, Vol. 10(4), pp. 329-348, 1968;
Primary Perception – Biocommunication with Plants, Living
Foods, and Human Cells, White Rose Millenium Press, Anza,
Bennett, G. Traditions of Belief, Penguin, 1987.
Benson, H. Timeless Healing: The power and biology of belief,
Fireside, New York, 1997.
Betty, S. The Afterlife Unveiled, O Books, Winchester, UK,
Blaukopf, K. Mahler, Thames and Hudson, 1976.
de Broglie, L. Recherches sur la théorie des quanta,
Thesis (Paris), 1924; Ann. Phys. (Paris) 1925; 3, 22.
Bucke, R.M. (ed.) Cosmic Consciousness: A study in the evolution
of the human mind, Innes and Sons, Philadelphia, 1905; 1st
Cooke, D. The Language of Music, Oxford University Press,
Critchlow, K. Time Stands Still: New light on megalithic science,
Devereux, P. with Steele, J. and Kubrin, D. Earthmind: Communicating
with the living world of Gaia, Harper and Row, New York, 1992.
Dossey, L. Healing Words: The power of prayer and the practice
of medicine, HarperCollins, New
York, 1993; Healing Beyond the Body: Medicine and the infinite
reach of the mind, Time Warner 2001; Piatkus, London, 2009.
Einstein, A. Elementary derivation of the equivalence of mass
and energy,” Am. Math. Soc. Bull.
1935, 41, 223–230.
Gardiner, A.H. and Sethe, K. Egyptian Letters to the Dead,
Goswami, A. The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates
the material world, Jeremy Tarcher, New York, 1993; Physics
of the Soul, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA, 2001.
Hutton, J.B. Healing Hands by W.H. Allen, 1966; Virgin Publishing,
1995; The Healing Power, Leslie Frewin, London, 1975.
Lancaster, B.L. Approaches to Consciousness: The marriage
of science and mysticism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Lane, J. Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, 1906.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans.Ralph Alan Dale, Watkins, London,
Laszlo, E. The Creative Cosmos, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 1993;
Science and the Akashic Field, Inner Traditions, Rochester,
Lipton, B. The Biology of Belief, Elite Books, Santa Rosa,
CA; Cygnus Books, Llandeilo, Wales, 2005.
Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689; Collins,
Moody, R. Life After Life, Rider, 1975.
Moody, R. with Perry, P. Glimpses of Eternity: An investigation
into shared death experiences, Rider, 2010.
Pfeiffer, T. and Mack, J.E. (eds.), Mind Before Matter, O
Playfair, G.L. Twin Telepathy, Vega, London, 2002.
Schwartz, J.M. and Begley, S. The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity
and the power of mental force, Harper Perennial, 2002.
Sheldrake, R. Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming
Home, Arrow, 2000.
Stemman, R. Spirit Communication, Piatkus, London, 2005.
Tart, C.T. The End of Materialism, New Harbinger Publications,
Tymn, M. The Articulate Dead, Galde Press, Lakeville, Minnesota,
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near-death experience, HarperCollins, New York, 2010.
This article appeared in The Journal for Spiritual and Consciousness
Studies, Florida, USA, in Vol. 37, No. 1, January 2014.
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The (Un)provable Hypothesis
The discussion goes on – and will no doubt continue
yet for many years – as to whether psychic events in
general are genuinely what they claim to be or are they simply
combinations of fraud, fantasy, and delusion. The critical
factor, the rationalists maintain, is whether or not the claims
are testable and is there a supporting, preferably mathematical,
Science is a collection of models that interpret and explain
how bits of the universe work. These models are constantly
changing and are refined for greater accuracy and wider application.
Scientific theories do not represent some grand, incontrovertible
universal truth. A scientific theory is most useful if it
can explain or interpret a large number of observed facts
and predict what will happen under similar practical conditions
in the future. The theory is expected to link up with other
theories to produce a coherent world-view. Occasionally, a
completely new idea will be suggested that takes investigators
along a new line of enquiry.
Theories are considered as proven if they can be substantiated
by mathematical relationships – usually algebraic equations,
as Newton achieved with his Law of Gravitation and Second
Law of Motion. The mathematics must also be verified by repeated
This concept of veridicality is particularly important in
the realm of subatomic physics, where properties of the fundamental
entities of the material world can be established only by
observation of their effects and by underpinning their behaviour
with mathematical theory. So it is with ‘strings’
and ‘quarks’, for example: these are hypothetical
entities that emerge from underlying mathematical theory and,
because mathematics relies on the fundamental logic of the
human mind, its conclusions are accepted as representing ‘truth’.
There are other theories in science where ‘proof’
by an underlying mathematical logic is not available to us.
Such is the case of the Theory of Evolution proposed by Darwin
and Wallace. This biological theory has essentially replaced
that of the ‘inheritance of characteristics acquired
during the lifetime of adult organisms’ suggested by
Jean Baptiste Lamarck in the previous century. In both these
cases, acceptance of the theory relies on, first, the number
of examples that seem to conform to the theory as explanation
and, secondly, that there is an explanation for the ideas
at a more fundamental, scientific level.
Let’s get back to our psychic events. By their very
nature, they inherently involve some form of communication
(a sixth sense) that lies beyond those events that rely on
the five senses of the rational world. An Austro-American
philosopher of the 1930s, Kurt Gödel, showed mathematically
that if you have a system of logic built upon rules, you cannot
use these rules to reach conclusions concerning events outside
of that system. The same principle applies to psychic events:
they cannot be dismissed simply because they do not involve
communication through the five senses and the rules of scientific
experimentation. Because of this inherent property of psychic
communications, the processes themselves are not directly
observable by others not involved in the process itself. They
are observable however to ‘third parties’ by evidence
of the effects they produce and they are validated by underlying
theory – just like strings and quarks.
So let’s consider these aspects of psychic events:
first, the evidence. It is more than a century now since events
occurred in the material world – events observed with
the five senses – that no theory based on 19th century
science could account for. When two people communicate telepathically,
the communication itself may not be observable by others not
involved in the process: but the information transmitted can
be independently verified. This same logic applies to clairvoyance
and pre- and post-cognition. In the same vein, when subjects
claim to have been reincarnated, they know of events that
they could not possibly know through the five senses.
When subjects experience OBEs, NDEs or SDEs they often interact
with souls they may not have even known in earthly life. In
spiritual healing, a healer without any medical training often
claims to have a spirit guide from the afterlife, and the
guide may have acquired medical knowledge – even ayurvedic
medical knowledge – during his (or her) earthly life.
Such healers often successfully treat or even cure conditions
beyond the abilities of conventional medicine – conditions
as serious as diabetes or blindness. It is too facile for
scientists to simply dismiss these events as fraud or delusion,
or illnesses as ‘psychosomatic’.
So, on to the underlying rational explanation or interpretation.
Since the early part of the 20th century, science has known
of a (quantum) energy field that penetrates and interacts
with the constituents of matter. Since mind or consciousness
arises from the flow of fundamental particles (electrons and
photons) within the brain, it is a quite tenable hypothesis
that this same quantum field could transmit the messages of
the sixth sense. The existence of this field has itself been
validated both by mathematics and by experiment.
This article appeared in The Searchlight, magazine for The
Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Florida,
USA, in September 2013.
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In Two Minds: The Value of Intuition
Anyone with any kind of spiritual sensibility cannot fail
to be aware that a profound change is underway, very, very
slowly, in the attitude that an increasing number of people
have to one another and to our earthly environment. We have
to look back to the 1960s and 1970s for the start of the cultural
revolution. Before this, the world was recovering from the
second of two world wars in half a century; few people expressed
any interest in the welfare of the environment or knew anything
much about the mystical faiths of the east. This change in
attitude has formed part of the general acknowledgement that
the spiritual domain is of profound importance in our everyday
We have all used – and heard others use – the
expression of being ‘in two minds’. As with many
other long-established sayings, there is much wisdom in this
phrase. For several centuries now, science has held that the
mind is simply the name we give to the workings of the brain.
However, over the past century, scientists have come to realize
that this is only part of the truth. It is true that the brain
interprets the input of our five senses – an operation
that we can still regard as a function of the rational or
conscious mind. But, as Sigmund Freud realized, humankind
also possesses a preconscious or unconscious mind that holds
the data we accumulate about the world until we need to use
it and also gives expression to our emotions.
There are many philosophers and physiologists who regard
this unconscious or spiritual mind as primary, determining
what we absorb of the numerous images that impact daily on
our senses and shaping our course of action. When we talk
about being ‘in two minds’, what we are saying
is that we are experiencing an internal conflict between what
the reasoning of the rational mind tells us we should do and
what the emotional mind – our ‘gut feelings’
– tell us what would be the better option. This crucially
important emotional mind is an expression of our intuition.
The intuitive sense also comes into play for scientists or
mathematicians struggling with a difficult problem: often
the solution comes to us ‘in a flash’, often and
perhaps usually when we are not focussing the rational mind
on the topic. How many creative artists have attributed to
inspiration for their work arising within them from a spiritual
source they believe to be outside the body. When speaking
of his Second Symphony, popularly known as The Resurrection,
the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler said: ‘Creative
activity and the genesis of a work are mystical from start
to finish, since one acts unconsciously, as if prompted from
outside, and then one can hardly conceive how the result has
come into being’ and ‘For me, the conception of
the work never involved the laying down of a process, but
at the most of a feeling ...The parallelism between life and
music may be deeper and wider than we are yet in a position
to understand’. What Mahler said in respect of his musical
composition could equally well apply to great creative works
of poetry or fiction.
This intuitive sense is often described as the ‘sixth
sense’. It comes into play also in our experience of
psychic phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition.
The rational mind functions through a process called ‘upward
causation’ – the senses, stimulated by the material
world, provoke neural processes within the brain. But the
spiritual mind is believed to work through a process of ‘downward
causation’ in which a numinous cosmic energy interacts
with mind to provoke intuition or inspiration. Put another
way, the behaviour of individual human minds is influenced
by a holistic and universal spiritual energy, which C.G. Jung
described as the collective unconscious; the English-born
Canadian psychotherapist, Richard Bucke, referred to this
numinous realm as the cosmic consciousness. In modern scientific
terminology, the Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake described
it as the morphic field.
For rationalists it is reassuring that science over the past
century has developed concepts that accord perfectly with
this concept of the importance of recognising our intuitive
self. Even at the fundamental level of molecules, atoms and
bits of atoms, scientists have found that there is an interactive
field of energy that integrates and unifies the whole subatomic
material world. This is not only a useful analogy to the kind
of integration we seek within humankind. It provides a theoretical
explanation of the processes of intuition within the human
brain and explains how we can communicate with other minds
through telepathy and through the aesthetics of artistic creativity.
Modern science is surely right to suggest the primacy of the
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The Concept of the Divine
We use the word ‘divine’ adjectivally to describe
the most uplifting of our earthly experiences but also to
describe the highest spiritual source of which we can conceive
– that which there is none greater, to paraphrase Anselm.
To describe such a source as ‘God’ or ‘Allah’
immediately associates the concept with specific western religions.
In an age when organized religion is in decline in various
parts of the world and being replaced by a much less explicit
spirituality, it is perhaps more inclusive to talk of ‘the
It was German theologian Rudolf Otto who, in his book Das
Heilige, coined the term ‘numinous’ to describe
those aspects of the spiritual domain that inspire human feelings
of awe, reverence and exaltation. Alister Hardy, founder of
the Religious Experience Research Centre at an Oxford college,
included psychic events as well as overtly religious experiences
in his survey of The Spiritual Nature of Man. Now Hardy (1896-1985)
was a scientist, a marine biologist, and increasingly we are
finding scientists who accept and explore psychic phenomena
as part of the natural world. Indeed, there are many lay people
who believe that psychic events, and particularly séances
involving mediums who claim to communicate with the discarnate,
provide us with the best evidence that there is a real spiritual
domain that plays an important part in our earthly existence.
The scientists who have entered into meaningful debate about
mind, soul and the afterlife are usually physicists. However,
in addition, there are some contemporary biologists who see
the realm of the numinous as contributing to the ‘nurture’
component that shapes the behaviour of the human individual,
in tune with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s and Hardy’s
view of human evolution.
Communing with the universal spiritual energy field defined
by the quantum physicists is held by some modern biologists
to shape our personality to build upon the genetic program
inherited through our DNA, and this allows for the inheritance
of characteristics from our peers and our relatives. These
investigations have given rise to a new field of biology called
epigenetics – influences on our development that modify
or supplement those characteristics that we derive through
DNA from our parents.
Since the earliest recorded times, pagan tribes and indigenous
societies have felt a spiritual essence within the natural
world that they regarded as divine. Although fundamentalist
religious adherents have regarded this philosophy of pantheism
or animism as heretical, it is a concept most in tune with
modern science – and with eastern religious beliefs
that are some of the earliest recorded spiritual philosophies
amongst humankind. It was for this reason that indigenous
peoples venerated trees and certain rock formations. If there
were no appropriate natural rock formations available, they
erected menhirs to create a sacred site as temple or burial
ground. Trees and rocks were so much more long-lived than
humans that they believed that these natural objects contained
the spiritual wisdom of their elders.
The main scientific advance in acceptance of psychic phenomena
as part of a Sacred Science has been through the realm of
physics. Since quantum physics was developed in the early
20th century, physicists have come to realize that there is
a numinous potential energy underlying the fundamental structure
of the material universe. The concept of such an all-encompassing
spiritual field itself is not new, only its scientific interpretation.
Most recently, Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake introduced
the notion of morphic fields that exert their influence on
the material world through what Sheldrake calls ‘causative
formation’, and he has conducted experiments to support
this concept. Events in the material world today are imprinted
on the morphic field and would be accessed subconsciously
by others when travelling the same experimental path elsewhere
or in the future. Sheldrake calls our ability to be aware
of events beyond those that impinge on our five senses interpreted
by the brain as our seventh sense, leaving the term ‘sixth
sense’ to describe an animal’s awareness of electromagnetic
fields. These morphic fields functioned like the akashic field
of eastern mysticism, and Ervin Laszlo actually used this
description of the field in one of his recent books and physicists
describe it as the quantum field. Bruce Lipton has demonstrated
how the field acts on living organisms through the function
of RNA. This idea has given rise to the science of epigenetics
– a study of influences on behaviour beyond those from
Thus, while terms like ‘God’ or ‘Allah’
are exclusive and appropriate as descriptions of the divine
only to those who follow specific dogmatic religions, talking
instead about ‘the divine’, and about ‘spirituality’
instead of ‘religion’ provides a much more inclusive
and holistic concept that can embrace not only the principal
religions of the west but also those of the east, together
with pagan beliefs. This description of Spirit as ‘the
divine’ also provides the possibility of breaking down
what is often regarded as a long-standing and intractable
division between religion and science.
This article appeared in The Searchlight, magazine for The
Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Florida,
USA, in December 2013.
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The Vision of Sir Alister Hardy
Scientists and philosophers have been interested in mediumship
and other psychic events for more than a century now; almost
since the Fox family heard mysterious rappings in their Hydesville
home in New York State in 1848 – an event that led to
the inception of spiritualism. Physicist William Crookes started
investigating psychic phenomena in 1870, and another physicist,
Oliver Lodge, began his study of psychic events, particularly
telepathy, a decade later. It was also in this decade that
philosopher-psychiatrist William James helped found the American
Society for Psychical Research. So there were eminent men
who were rationalists by profession who thought that psychic
phenomena formed a subject worthy of scientific investigation
– and were ultimately persuaded of its validity.
The biologists were somewhat slower to get into this field
of study, though turn-of-the-century German biologist and
philosopher Hans Driesch was a believer and became President
of the Society for Psychical Research in 1926-27. However
a notable contribution to spiritual research was made in England
in the second half of the twentieth century by Sir Alister
Alister Clavering Hardy was born in Nottingham in 1896, the
son of a successful architect. Hardy’s birth was less
than forty years after the publication of Darwin's The Origin
of Species (1859) and the subsequent scientific and religious
controversy that surrounded the theory of evolution would
have been a subject of discussion amongst most educated people.
Hardy’s parents also had a keen interest in natural
history and this must surely have influenced the direction
of Hardy’s professional life. To get an idea of the
Nottingham of Hardy’s early years we have only to read
the novels of D.H. Lawrence who was born in the Eastwood district
of Nottingham a decade earlier (1885). When Hardy’s
father died in 1904, the family moved to Harrogate in Yorkshire.
Hardy’s immersion in the social culture of northern
England continued through his schooldays, first at Bramcote
preparatory school in Scarborough and then at the Oundle School
in Northamptonshire, where Richard Dawkins was subsequently
a pupil from 1954 to 1959. As with Hardy, Dawkins’s
family were also interested in natural history where the germ
of Dawkins’s future career was probably planted.
From Oundle, Hardy went to Oxford University but his student
days were interrupted by the war and it was to be another
three years after the end of the war before he had the opportunity
to graduate. Throughout school and college Hardy was torn
between science and art as possible future careers as, from
an early age, he was an excellent water-colour artist. Many
of his paintings can be seen in the University of Wales Trinity
Saint David in Lampeter, Wales, and at the marine research
station in Plymouth, in Devon, England.
After graduation, Alister started his scientific career as
a marine biologist in Lowestoft, Suffolk, studying herring
fishing. Then in 1925 he embarked on a two-year oceanographic
expedition to the Antarctic on the ship Discovery. It was
during this trip that he designed a prototype Continuous Plankton
Recorder for the expedition to sample krill, and it is this
invention that is one of the key achievements of his career.
On his return Hardy taught successively at the Universities
of Hull, Aberdeen and Oxford.
In the early 1930s Hardy read Man's Place among the Mammals
by anatomist and Lamarckian naturalist Frederick Wood Jones:
this led Hardy to conceive the idea that Man might have had
a more aquatic evolutionary history than previously thought.
Although he was not the first to suggest what became known
as the Aquatic Ape hypothesis it is his name that is usually
associated with the idea. Its accredited creator was the German
pathologist Max Westernhöfer in 1942.
Before leaving Oxford Hardy made a solemn vow that he would
devote the rest of his life to attempting a reconciliation
between evolutionary theory and the spiritual nature of man.
Already in 1925 he took a cutting from a local newspaper about
an individual’s religious experience and engaged an
agency in London to collect similar material for him while
he was at sea. Hardy maintained that there was a biological
basis for humankind’s belief in an external supreme
power with which we could communicate and which could in some
way influence our lives. Such an innate belief featured prominently
in the world-view of Aldous Huxley in his Perennial Philosophy
and this had a great influence on Hardy. He wanted to study
human spiritual consciousness quantitatively and statistically
with the aim of forging a link between science and spirituality
using the approach adopted by other social sciences.
Sir Alister’s passionate interest in human spirituality
did not wane and in 1963, when he retired from his post at
Oxford to become Emeritus Professor of Zoology, he was also
appointed Gifford Lecturer at Aberdeen University. The Gifford
Lectures are a series on natural theology that were set up
in the nineteenth century by a Scottish judge, Adam, Lord
Gifford, at the four oldest Scottish universities –
Aberdeen, St. Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Hardy’s
Gifford lectures in 1963 and 1965, published in two volumes
as The Living Stream and The Divine Flame, expressed clearly
his conviction that religious awareness is a naturally evolving
biological attribute which is of the greatest importance for
human survival. For theologian Rudolf Otto and Hardy, the
numinous has an objective reality.
In 1969, with Sir Alister already in his 70s, he founded
the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College,
Oxford. The purpose of the Unit was to begin a scientific
study of religious experience by collecting and classifying
accounts of experience, much as the Victorian naturalists
collected specimens and classified them to form the basis
of modern biology. In The Living Stream, in a chapter called
‘Biology and Telepathy’ he suggested that ‘something
akin to telepathy might influence the process of evolution’
and discussed how this might happen. He also suggested that
some animals share a ‘group mind’ which he described
as ‘a sort of psychic blueprint between members of a
These views echoed those expressed earlier in the century
by the American entomologist William Morton Wheeler. In this
century, Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has carried
out experiments that suggest that animals – particularly
dogs – have what he calls ‘a seventh sense’
beyond the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing and
sight and the sixth sense of awareness of electromagnetic
fields. In these Gifford lectures Hardy also speculated that
all species might be linked to a ‘cosmic mind’
capable of carrying evolutionary information through space
and time. How close is this to Richard Bucke’s ‘cosmic
consciousness’ and Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’.
The ‘morphogenetic fields’ suggested by a number
of researchers in the 1920s might be closer to the truth of
evolutionary development than any materialist scientist would
In criticism of his more materialist colleagues Hardy said:
‘No wonder that those who spend more time on analysis
in the laboratory than in the study of living animals in nature
are apt to come to the conclusion that in their physical and
chemical discoveries they are explaining life.’ However
he also commented: ‘Perhaps the greatest question from
the psychology of religion is whether the power that may be
called God is entirely within the individual – deep
in the subconscious – or is it, at least in part, transcendent’.
The idea that it is not so much God that has created Man in
His own image but rather that Man has created God in his own
image is a view that has been stated even by eminent men of
Hardy endorsed the view of Rudolf Otto that the numinous
– a term that Otto himself created – should imply
not merely Man’s sense of the presence of the Divine
but also participation in the expressions of that presence
through art, poetry and music in the humanities.
In recognition of his pioneering work in a rational exploration
of the social significance of religion and spirituality, Sir
Alister was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion
just before he died in May 1985.
This article appeared in The Searchlight, magazine for The
Academy for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Florida,
USA, in March 2014.
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