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August 11, 2010

The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe


     James Moffatt
- on Dr. Holmes' early formulation of 
The Problem of God's Contracting Universe.

Author of   But I’ll Know My Song Well


'An Alien Intelligence': 
G.I.Gurdjieff, The Fourth Way & 
'The Three-Brained Beings of the Planet Earth'

"  ...  by basing his investigation of "God’s contracting universe" on mystical and esoteric teachings, Christopher was attempting to reformulate what was essentially both an ancient method of discovering God and an argument for His existence.  Of course, Carl Sagan never considered the possibility that mystical and esoteric teachings might lead to objective knowledge because, quite simply, he did not know or understand what they entail. ... Sagan, who describes this transitional period in history–as that “in which we begin in wonder and end in understanding”–never suspects that there are ancient teachings which are every bit as profound and meaningful in advancing humanity’s quest for knowledge as the most advanced ideas in contemporary science...."

 In 1976, I was a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, studying Psychology, when my friend, Chris Holmes wrote me to tell me that he had begun to read P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous.  Chris was enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Waterloo for the purposes of becoming a clinical psychologist and, as we had been friends from high school, we were continually sharing information about what we were currently reading and what new subjects had captured our interest.  Knowing nothing about P.D. Ouspensky, I paid little attention to the reference.  However, when Chris visited Ottawa, a couple of months afterwards, and presented me with the beginnings of a manuscript which would become his dissertation, I was introduced to the remarkable G.I. Gurdjieff and his extraordinary “fourth way” teaching.

      Quite simply, Gurdjieff's teaching altered my life and revolutionized my understanding of its meaning and its possibilities.  As Chris and I delved into ‘the fourth way,’ we were astounded by its utterly profound psychology and its explication of the nature of “consciousness.”  In no time at all, we came to agree that there was nothing in modern academic psychology remotely comparable to the brilliance, elegance, and sophistication of Gurdjieff's psychology and his model of human consciousness.  As such, we began a journey of discovery which continues to this day--one which has immeasurably enriched and informed each of us about the nature, meaning, and purpose of our being in this world.

     By 1979, Christopher had completed his Ph.D. and had joined the Psychology faculty of York University in Toronto.  After completing his dissertation, he had immediately begun work on a book--entitled Man's Psychological Illusions--in which he presented and commented upon the essential tenets and ideas of Gurdjieff's psychological system.  As he worked on his book, Chris regularly solicited my comments and editorial assistance--a task which, given my involvement with G.'s teaching and my own plans to write about it, I regarded as a labour of love.  Thus, when Chris was nearing completion of MPI, I was quite shocked, when he visited me in Ottawa, and presented me with the beginnings of yet another book: The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe: On Creation Myths, Fantasies and Realities.

     In his introduction, Chris described this project as a “rather unusual and provocative” investigation into the question of God's existence.  I certainly had no argument with that claim.  TPGCU was projected to be an eight-part series, comprising an impartial inquiry into the existence of God, in which Chris aimed to provide specific methods of testing the hypothesis that a divinity does exist.  This was not exactly the latest offering from The Book Of The Month Club.

    There was certainly a great deal in Chris' presentation of TPGCU to give one pause in considering exactly what one did know and did not know.  At the same time, I was somewhat taken aback by the magnitude of what he was attempting to undertake in TPGCU.  While I agreed with his claim--that esoteric teachings provided the basis on which one might formulate a critique of modern science--I was less sure that one could derive an alternative scientific paradigm which would allow one to devise a test for God's existence.  Nevertheless, despite the formidable nature of his task, Chris seemed to have determined a general outline and approach, and was most enthusiastic about pursuing this highly unusual and ambitious project.  While I did not want to dampen Chris' obvious enthusiasm for this monumental new undertaking, I was concerned that, in doing so, he was being distracted from the task of completing MPI--something which, I believed, was well within his immediate grasp.  Nevertheless, I kept my concerns to myself and decided to just sit back and see what would happen.

     What happened is the stuff of an entire book, that which I see as being a very large, wild and crazy, fantastic, unimaginable, profound and awe-inspiring book.  In fact, I believe that the tale of what happened to Chris Holmes as he pursued The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe is the stuff of several books.  As I have already written a  “spiritual autobiography,” But I'll Know My Song Well, about the formative years in which Chris and I began our study of ‘the fourth way,’ and initiated our journey of discovery as a couple of mystics cum wiseacres cum bozos cum seekers after truth, I am now beginning to work at my own version of The Problem of God's Contracting Universe.  In doing so, it is my intention to examine the essential question which Christopher Holmes posed, some twenty-six years ago: is it true that as science advances, there is less and less for God to do?  In part, my examination will involve a presentation of mystical and esoteric teachings as a means of bringing a third force to the established rigidity (what Gurdjieff would term the “formatory” quality) of the science vs. religion debate.  At the same time, I aim to recount the evolution of Christopher Holmes' thought in his attempts to formulate his mystical/esoteric perspective on this intriguing question.

     In contrast to the simplistic and ill-informed characterizations of mysticism, with which so many scientists and skeptics at once dismiss the topic and trumpet their own efforts as the epitome of intellectual rigour and honesty, Chris' intellectual journey is, to my mind, an extraordinary testament to the richness, complexity, and unfathomable depth of the mystical and esoteric traditions.  Furthermore, the process of discovery in which Chris has been engaged, for so many years, documents how demanding the task of apprehending the meaning of mystical teachings can be.  By examining Chris' efforts to come to terms with his definition of himself as a “mystic-scientist,” I hope to reveal that--in contrast to Stephen Hawking's contention--the mystic's path is neither a cop-out nor a source of self-delusion for those who simply do not possess the wherewithal to meet science's intellectual demands.  In fact, given the climate of hostility within the ranks of the learned moderns and other such dubious sources of authority regarding mysticism, declaring oneself to be a mystic and a scientist is a most courageous act.  Unfortunately, I believe that, too often, it also comprises a professional suicide note.  Although I have not always agreed with the choices that Christopher Holmes has made in pursuing his highly unusual and risky career, I am an unabashed admirer of his intellectual courage and integrity in committing himself to that which, I know, he regards as 'a path with a heart.'

     As the heated battles regarding religion's proper place in ostensibly secular societies--such as Canada and the United States--and the controversies surrounding the legitimacy of “Intelligent Design” reveal, many of the questions raised by an examination of TPGCU are of intense interest to the public.  In light of that interest, I feel very strongly that an approach to those debates, framed in terms of esoteric and mystical teachings, is especially illuminating.  As for the views that Carl Sagan presented thirty years ago, they are still very popular amongst many prominent scientists.  Thus, in By Design or By Chance, Denyse Leary quotes the eminent Francis Crick: "every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely.”  Leary writes that Crick--who, with James Watson, earned the Nobel prize for their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA--“has acknowledged that a deep hostility towards religion is a prime motivator for his work. “ In keeping with that aim, Crick produced a book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, near the end of his life, in which he forwarded a materialist conception of the nature of consciousness--a work which those who share his materialist-reductionist-mania celebrated as a brilliant achievement.  On the other hand, those of us, who are familiar with esoteric and mystical teachings on the nature of consciousness, rolled our eyes and went back to work at countering the thrust of such self-satisfied, trivial pursuits.

     Nevertheless, the aim of putting forth esoteric and mystical ideas--in order to elicit serious debate--is very much a most daunting challenge.  As evidence of the difficulties involved, one need look no further than the success of Peter Washington's Madame Blavatsky's Baboon.  Published in 1995, the book's subtitle--A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America--identifies the focus of Washington's concern.  What is missing in that description is the disclaimer that this work--ostensibly an investigation of the work of Madame Blavatsky, Rudoph Steiner, Krishnamurti, and Gurdjieff--will contain no meaningful discussion of their ideas.  Yes, Washington's book is well written and contains numerous entertaining anecdotes about its subjects--as its reviewers enthused--but it is ultimately nothing more than an ad hominem attack disguised as critical analysis.  Thus, while he seemingly poses a legitimate question--why did Madame Balavatsky and her “spiritual heirs” appeal to so many Westerners, including numerous prominent artists and intellectuals, in the first half of the twentieth century?--Washington's examination of the issue reveals that his inquiry is nothing more than a set up.  Accordingly, he puts forth the tautological explanation that these spiritual figures attracted extraordinarily desperate and gullible people because only those, who were extraordinarily desperate and gullible, could regard such misfits as legitimate teachers and find profound meaning in their bizarre ideas.

      In contrast to Mr. Washington, Christopher Holmes' examination of the writings of the “arch phony” Madame Blavatsky led him to incorporate some of the profound ideas in her works into his evolving model of consciousness—“the heart doctrine”--which featured zero point origins.  As much as Peter Washington is, in my opinion, on solid ground when reporting on Madame Blavatsky's fraudulent activities, dissembling, and plagiarism, the limits of his approach and his competence are striking when contrasted with Christopher Holmes' treatment of theosophical theory.  For despite all of Blavatsky's misconduct, the question remains: how is that, in The Secret Doctrine--a work published more than a hundred and twenty-five years ago--she anticipated many of modern physics' most intriguing concepts and theoretical perspectives?  That is, how did she describe cosmogenesis--the origins of the universe--in terms of point source singularities, the quantum vacuum, seven dimensional hyperspace, and a hierarchy of broken symmetries which generate form from formlessness and matter from nothingness?  It would be most interesting to hear how Washington would “explain” such happy coincidences, but it is precisely because he is uninterested and uniformed about the content of the mystical and esoteric traditions that he ignores them.  As such, his knowledge and understanding of the spiritual phonies he attacks is hopelessly incomplete. Madame Blavatsky's Baboon is a well-crafted hatchet job--a balm for the skeptic--but its treatment of mystical and esoteric teachings is pathetic.  Either ideas are perfunctorily dismissed as not worthy of consideration or misunderstood and misrepresented in order to be ridiculed.  In terms of its intellectual content, MBB is nothing more than a cartoon for the open-minded student of mysticism; it possesses all the weight and insight of a supermarket tabloid's latest exposé.

     In light of the current intellectual climate of entrenched positions regarding the assumed antagonism between religion and science and the enduring ignorance and antipathy regarding mysticism, I think that a re-examination of “the problem of God's contracting universe” is in order.  Although, Dr. Holmes no longer uses TPGCU as the title of any of his books, I believe that it is the appropriate label for the entire corpus of his exploration of “the secret teachings of all ages,” and the resultant, ground-breaking model of consciousness he has formulated.  The following material is an edited excerpt from But I'll Know My Song Well in which I provide a commentary inspired by Chris' original formulation of TPGCU.  While I will be updating and expanding on this material in my examination of the problem, many of the essential features of my perspective are presented in the following pages.  In future postings, I will attempt to explicate the fundamental ways in which a mystical/esoteric perspective on consciousness recasts the epistemological clash between science and religion.  In addition, I will also address: the limits of the materialist-reductionist paradigm; historical considerations in shaping modern thought's fundamental misconceptions regarding the nature of consciousness; and the significance of a mystical/esoteric paradigm in effecting a reconciliation and synthesis of science and religion.

     I would welcome any comments that zeropoint readers would like to share regarding the present posting.

-Jim Moffatt-

The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe,
an excerpt from But I'll Know My Song Well

     The title of the series was based on a statement made by the popular American scientist, Carl Sagan.  In A Sunday Sermon--a lecture reproduced in his book, Broca's Brain: Reflections On The Romance Of Science--Sagan notes that there are numerous “legitimate scientific issues relating to origins and ends”: questions about the origins and ends of everything from the human species to the universe itself.  While most of these grand questions remain unresolved, Dr. Sagan argues that it has become clear that scientific progress is rapidly overcoming human beings' ignorance about almost everything in Creation.  Whereas we once invoked a God or gods to explain the mysteries of the natural world-for example, the opening of the morning glory--we now understand that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural about such phenomena.  Scientific investigation has determined that the opening of a morning glory is nothing more than a natural phenomenon which may be explained in terms of the process of phototropism and the functioning of plant hormones.  Where once explanations of life required divine microintervention--God had to tell the morning glory to open--Dr. Sagan argues that scientific knowledge has done away with the need for any type of supernatural explanation.  Thus, he asserts:  "It is the same for the entire skein of causality back to the origin of the universe. As we learn more and more about the universe, there seems less and less for God to do." (emphasis added).

     As modern science advances, God's universe contracts--God has less and less to do.  This remarkable claim poses what Chris termed: The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe.  In fact, if one accepted Dr. Sagan's assessment, things did not look promising for God--whose divine days appear to be numbered.  In the introduction to Broca's Brain, Sagan eloquently extols the extraordinary age in which we live: a period of “stunning changes” in human knowledge, understanding, and progress.   Throughout our history, he says, human beings have always asked the most provocative and profound questions which the miracle and mystery of our very existence pose: including that which Sagan describes as the '”grandest inquiry of all--on the advent, nature, and destiny of the universe.”  Until the last few instants of human history, “philosophers and poets, shamans and theologians” have provided the answers to these questions, according to Dr. Sagan.  However, by virtue of the sheer diversity and extensive disagreement evident in those answers, he concludes that most of them have been wrong.  In contrast, science's efforts--based on experimental verification, independent corroboration, and self-correction of its speculations and hypotheses--have led to the compilation of an objective body of knowledge.  As a consequence of this intellectual rigour, Sagan asserts that we are now "on the verge of glimpsing at least preliminary answers to many of these questions."

     By the conclusion of his introduction, Carl Sagan's romantic optimism about the likelihood of science solving the fundamental mysteries, concerning "the nature of things” has reached a nearly messianic ecstasy.  With a fervour, which one would more readily associate with religious zealots than scientists, he boldly declares that, within the next few years, science will ‘pry loose from the cosmos’  the answers to many of the deepest and most awe-inspiring mysteries regarding origins and ends.  Thus, we are part of a unique and unprecedented generation of humanity: one in which science's revelations shall deliver us from the iniquities of darkness and ignorance.  Had we been born fifty years earlier, Sagan says, we might have asked these essential questions, but we would not have been able to do anything about them.  Had we been born fifty years later, he claims that we would have been too late:  the answers would have already been determined.  Thus, he concludes:

  Our children will have been taught the answers before most of them will have had an opportunity even to formulate the questions.  By far the most exciting, satisfying and exhilarating time to be alive is the time in which we pass from ignorance to knowledge on these fundamental issues; the age where we begin in wonder and end in understanding.

     While many scientists might hesitate to endorse this astounding assessment and prognosis in its entirety--as it is unlikely that there are many whose faith in science is as unequivocal as Dr. Sagan's--most would agree that the scientific enterprise represents the crowning achievement in the human race's attempts to apprehend the truths regarding our origins and ends.  Not only is Carl Sagan's statement a part of his paean celebrating science, it is also implicitly a requiem for old ideas and God's domain.  As science advances, there seems less and less reason to question or dispute God's demise.

     When it comes to solving the mysteries of the ages, Carl Sagan unabashedly places science at the pinnacle of humanity's attempts to refine and further the powers of reason and impartial inquiry--in stark contrast to religion, which has often served as the institution and instrument of the most malevolent and insidious superstitions and irrational beliefs.  Nevertheless, Sagan maintains that he has not formed any conclusive opinion regarding God's existence.  In discussing the matter of his beliefs, he points out that “God” means many things to many people, and in declaring their “belief in God,” many people do so without clearly defining what they mean.  According to Carl, “the God choices” apparently boil down to something between the anthropomorphic model--roughly, the divinity envisioned as some oversized, Great White Father, who sits around in his underwear all day keeping tabs on Creation by counting sparrows and telling flowers to open--or the “God" of Spinoza and Einstein, considered to be essentially "the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe."  Given these choices, Sagan concludes:

" I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarch controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws."

One might wonder if there are other choices in “God” or “gods”--but that kind of thinking is not exactly encouraged by Carl Sagan's writings.

     Having presented these excerpts from Broca's Brain, Chris asked: on what scientific basis--in terms of what evidence--do Dr. Sagan and other exact scientists so readily dismiss God?  Sagan takes a strangely indirect route: adducing the existence of numerous distinct and competing religious teachings as evidence of their lack of validity, and by extension, the conclusion that God does not exist.  Such “reasoning” is, however,  transparently specious.  For even the most cursory examination of the history of science reveals that no discipline or body of thought is ever free of major controversies between conflicting theories and interpretations of evidence.  Dr. Sagan would hardly conclude that this lack of agreement should lead one to conclude that all scientific theories are invalid.  And in the same way, it would seem to be an unsatisfactory basis on which the question of God's existence should be resolved.  Moreover, equating “God” with the sum total of physical laws may be a compromise with which Dr. Sagan is intellectually comfortable, but it is hardly satisfactory for those souls who believe that God is a divine intelligence, who exists independently of those worlds that are the manifestation of His will.

     Nevertheless, for those scientists, who would seek to be more exacting or imaginative than Dr. Sagan in considering the question of God's existence, there is the rather thorny problem of determining a means by which the hypothesis might be tested scientifically.  Without minimizing the very real difficulties involved, it is noteworthy that Sagan (and most exact scientists) opt for the more accommodating and reassuring course of assuming that scientific and spiritual matters comprise completely separate domains and, therefore, such a test is impossible.  In addition, such investigators make the concomitant assumption that all established religious ideas about the nature of man and his place in the universe--such as ancient spiritual teachings and cosmologies--are either incorrect, or at best, mythological.  The discoveries and theories of modern science, they reason, have dispelled or overturned any credibility that such ideas may have possessed in the past.  Finally, Sagan and his ilk make no distinction between the esoteric and mystical teachings, on the one hand, and the more orthodox tenets of established religions.  For them, all things religious and mystical are equally subjective, unobservable, and unprovable.

     These bits of intellectual legerdemain notwithstanding, there is good reason to believe that the condition of God's universe, within the fiefdom of modern reason, is rather shaky.  As science's spectacular advances establish the material causes and natural laws associated with seemingly everything in Creation, it does appear that there is serious cause to wonder if human beings have not done away with the need for a god or gods--at least in terms of accounting for or explaining the material world and its processes.  Moreover, as Carl Sagan writes:  "new arguments for the existence of God which can be understood at all are exceedingly rare."  Hence, the difficulties of arguing that God exists, independently of a simple profession of faith, are considerable.

     Into this apparently intractable breach, Chris enters as Sherlock Holmes—“Mystery Monger, Master Sleuth, & Idiot at Large”--ready and willing to undertake his most difficult case:  #1037, The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe.  In tackling this mystery, Sherlock declares that he intends to pursue a highly unusual investigative strategy.  Adopting the perspective of mystical and esoteric teachings, he will conduct his search for clues by examining the data and theories of both the Sleepwalkers and the Nightwalkers--the “exact sciences” and the “pseudosciences,” respectively.  By doing so, he will seek a more comprehensive approach: expanding his investigation to adopt methods and include evidence which modern science has either banished or dismissed.   According to Holmes, Carl Sagan and his scientific cohorts must drop their assumptions about what mysticism involves and look closely at its methods and claims.  By doing so, he argues, they may be shocked to discover that a mystical/esoteric perspective suggests that science's methods and its increasing specialization have erected significant barriers to the recognition of God's existence.  Rather than assuming that scientific advances do away with the necessity of a god or gods existing, Dr. Sagan might begin to realize that the precision and objective knowledge of the material world, which science has gained by its increasingly exacting examination of smaller and smaller parts, has been gained at the cost of losing sight of the whole.  By contrast, the mystical goal of seeking union with the universe and the gods, through self-transformation and the perfection of one's consciousness, may suggest that gaining objective knowledge is dependent upon an entirely different set of epistemological assumptions and methods than that which modern science embraces.

 *           *             * 

     Despite my reservations about Chris' change of intellectual course, his definition of "the problem of God's contracting universe,” served as a wonderful shock--provoking me to further question exactly what i did and did not know.  In part, the shock value of TPGCU arose from its recapitulation of my own history of questioning origins and ends.  During various periods of my life, i had been on each side of the fence concerning God's existence, and now passed my days perched precariously atop the divider, attempting to gain my balance, and thereby, a better vantage point.  In addition to an insatiable appetite for novel ideas and perspectives, i had developed, during my first year as an undergraduate, a fashionable and reassuring conviction that neither God nor an after-life could possibly exist.  Everything was so clear-cut to me in those days.  Belief in “God” or the “soul”  or “spirit,” i left in the good hands of religious fanatics and/or those simply too severely brain-washed or feeble-minded to question such obvious nonsense.  Fancying myself to be something of an existentialist (to the point of the obligatory denial of any such affinity), i never ceased to be baffled or gripped by a fit of patronizing smugness when encountering the so-called “religious” existentialists, who espoused their embarrassing beliefs in a deity.

     Oh, i thought that i knew.  I understood that, as Marx had said, religion was “the opiate of the masses,” and i had studied enough history to be thoroughly revolted by the senseless slaughter of millions in God's name.  I knew of the host of factual errors, logical inconsistencies, and blatant impossibilities that plague the Bible, of conflict between the tenets of major religions, and of the seemingly unlimited divisions within each.  I knew, oh ya, i knew; i was, after all--according to the conceits of my False Personality--a very clever, intelligent young man, possessed of a probing, cogent, and rigorously skeptical mind.

     However, during the same period, i had begun to experiment with psychedelic drugs-- especially LSD.  In as much as those drug experiences strongly suggested that the validity of everything, which i had assumed i knew, should now be properly regarded with grave doubt, there did appear to be some room for reconsidering the issue of God's existence.  In fact, as part of my briefing, before taking any psychedelics, had included reading numerous claims that “LSD made me see God,” the prospect of realizing such a promising turn of events had been a significant factor in my eventual decision to do the drug.

     Unhappily, i must report that, under the influence of a psychedelic drug, i have never seen and am not now seeing God.  I looked.  I looked very carefully, very thoroughly, very frequently.  At all times, i maintained an alert and expectant presence--watching for any sign of a divine manifestation--but i did not see God.  Initially, i questioned my experimental intervention: whether the drugs i was supposedly taking were in fact what i had been told.  Perhaps, i reasoned, the acid or mescaline that i was ingesting simply was not sufficiently strong or pure--an attribution to which i was to lend more credence, several years later in Vancouver, when a young man assured me, with an unnerving insouciance, that: "You haven't really done acid, man, until you're walking down the street and a triangle comes up and shakes your hand."  Okay fair enough, but that still isn't God is it?  It might be His signature, but it was hardly God.

     Nor could my failure be attributed to a lack of trials.  Suspecting that the Lord's appearance might be something more of an emergence than an immediate revelation, i adopted a strategy of patient persistence.  Thus, with clockwork regularity, i set out each weekend one summer, for Ottawa's Vincent Massey Park, accompanied by a team of semi-professional observers, on a series of theological field trips./ The divinity was not observed./  While no firm conclusion could be drawn from this negative result, i suspected that this “visions of God” business was nothing more than another psychedelic put-on, the fabrication of some weekend hippies' over-active imaginations.

     On the other hand, the impact of those experiences was such that they could neither be dismissed nor minimized.  When under the influence of LSD, i had suffered a radical breakdown of my acquired system of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs.  I had seen trees breathing and life in everything: experiencing all my senses with such intense coherence that, by comparison, i understood how--in my normal waking consciousness--i was as much as dead.  I had lost my identity; i had experienced an instance of “group mind”; i had shared the cosmic giggle; i had known directly that, in another scale of meaning, “I” was but a fiction of convenience and convention--as insubstantial and insignificant as the silhouettes cast in a child's aimless play.  New realms of order and dimensions of meaning had been revealed to me: known by faculties beyond the domain of normal knowledge and description; charted in terms betraying all the usual answers and questions.  Design and purpose were ingrained in and suffused all and everything--even doubt.

    Thus, the pendulum's return had begun.  Before commencing my years of higher education, i hadn't always been so sure that there was no God.  Immunity to the serious consideration of a Creator's existence was an acquired syndrome: contracted in my case by prolonged exposure to the Presbyterian Church.  I do not mean to be sectarian in that remark; i simply believe that the Presbyterian service was devised with the intention of expediting the congregation's ascension to Heaven by boring it to death.  The more general principle to which i am alluding was captured neatly by Gurdjieff's father when he advised:  "If you want to lose your religion, make friends with the priest."  In my case, the mission was accomplished by the time i entered high school.  In a fortuitous turn of events, my mother had returned to the work force, and as her schedule included Sunday mornings, Dougie and i were free to begin observing a ritual avoidance of church.

     By that point, i was harbouring enough resentment regarding religion to fill a decade of Sundays, and i was not about to put up with any crap about God, the Bible, or Jesus H. Christ.  It was all just a crock to me.  In response to our defection from the Church, mom explained that, while she enjoyed that form of worship, she believed that it was of secondary importance to the task of sincerely striving to observe a Christian life.  Being a good Christian was, for her, a matter of cultivating the richness of spirit necessary to love one's neighbour, to turn one's cheek, to forgive the trespasses of those who trespass against us, and to seek the light of wisdom and the Lord's compassion to guide one in the realization of those virtues.  Her dissertations on such matters were never lengthy, but always impressive in their unaffected sincerity.  My mother displayed a distinct preference to practise rather than to preach, and to her credit, i must say that i have never known anyone more earnest or successful in living in accordance with those standards.  Though skeptical to the point of questioning Jesus’ historical existence, mom never doubted the wisdom of his teachings as laws of conduct.

     I didn't have any problem going along with her on that line.  The Christian values made sense to me--i just didn't want any interference from God or Jesus.  The unfortunate consequence of that triumphant coming of age and the concomitant assumption of, what Mr. G. would term, a "certain swagger," was the quiet demise of the impartial wonder in which i sought to answer “why?”  My earliest memories are of the many nights when, at about three or four years of age, i would lie in bed, unable to sleep, wondering why i was born, what would happen when i died, what would become of “me”?  Would i simply cease to exist, the dust of my body the only remainder?  Over the next four or five years, i would repeatedly turn over those questions, unwilling to admit that the beginning and ending of my being was tied to my physical existence.  It seemed so senseless.  However, despite my desire to gain some clue, to remember that something--which i sensed i had forgotten, but would resolve this quandary--i could see no hope.  We are born, we live, we die, we are no more.  Simple.  Deep within myself, some part of me refused to believe that this was the truth.  I continued to search for an answer to these most fundamental questions until, having reached a state of sufficient sophistication, i was delivered unto the freedom of basking in the power and glory of uttering my conclusive denial of both the deity's existence and the immortality of the soul.  But despite the fruits borne of this persuasive sagacity, i was still unable to convince myself fully of my well-reasoned atheism.  Thus, even in my most formidably smug years, the vital spirit of my earliest and most essential questioning, although subdued and seemingly broken, had never been lost.

*          *          *

     As a result of my involvement with ‘the fourth way,’ and my study of esoteric and mystical ideas, my attitude towards the existence of spiritual realities and powers had been completely transformed.  Clearly, these profound teachings described and directed one toward the acknowledgement and realization of spiritual truths and insights.  Hence, i had more than enough tastes and glimpses of the spiritual realm to suggest that it existed as a higher level of consciousness and reality than that which comprised my normal waking state.  To fully know the reality of those higher dimensions, i realized, i must awaken from sleep through a process of psycho-spiritual transformation. At the same time, studying and working on myself, in terms of Gurdjieff's system, had convinced me of how little i truly knew about anything.  Thus, while i was essentially sympathetic towards claims that God and other spiritual forces and presences exist, i was also much more aware of and convinced of my essential ignorance about all and everything.  Nonetheless, i had also come to believe that, in helping one to differentiate between what one did and did not know, esoteric teachings provided a quality and degree of insight which allowed one to approach the mysteries of existence from a position of what Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth century theologian, called “learned ignorance.'”

     I was delighted, therefore, when Chris asserted that the first step we must take in considering the case of “The Problem Of God's Contracting Universe,” is to admit our essential ignorance about ourselves, the universe, and the gods.  For, as he explained, it is only by emptying ourselves of our self-importance and our false sense of our knowledge and understanding that we can honestly open our minds and undertake the special work necessary to examine this profoundly mysterious question.  At the same time, i believed that Carl Sagan was correct in arguing that many people have a very fuzzy idea about what they mean when they say that they believe in God.  Anyone can wiseacre shamelessly, with great conviction and passion, about whether or not God exists or anything else under the sun--and most people do.  But, in reality, what credence should we grant such arguments if the person forwarding them is speaking about that which he or she does not truly understand?

     In that context, i was bewildered by Carl Sagan's rather presumptuous notions about the advances of science at God's expense.  In addition, i was both astounded and annoyed by Dr. Sagan's apparent belief that somehow, because he was a scientist, he had gained some special insight into the question of God's existence.  I had been a fan of Carl Sagan's work for several years: he was one of the first popular science writers whom i had read, and i had often enjoyed his appearances on The Tonight Show.  However, with the publication of The Dragons Of Eden--his admittedly speculative foray into the evolution of human intelligence--my enthusiasm for the good doctor had begun to cool.  While often entertaining and informative, that book had struck me as being both decidedly simplistic and frequently self-serving in its selective representation of brain research.  Subscribing to a strictly materialist view, Sagan argued that “the mind” is the product of the brain's physiological properties and processes--and nothing more.  Furthermore, he evinced an unnerving faith that the reductionist approach to the study of the brain, which typifies most of contemporary neurology and psychology, would eventually penetrate and resolve all the mysteries surrounding the nature of consciousness and the mind.  Again, i regarded Dr. Sagan's optimism to be both unfounded--in terms of the state of current research--and a gross oversimplification of enormously complex and mysterious matters.  Thus, i thought that there was a rather pointed irony involved when The Dragons Of Eden earned Dr. Sagan a Pulitzer Prize.  Here was a guy, who so ardently propounded the importance of accurately informing the public about science, being honoured for a work which was certainly polemical, but never described or defined as such--other than to say that there were other views on these matters, but they were wrong.
     The same criticisms, i believed, could be levelled against Sagan's speculations about the status of God's existence—in light of modern knowledge.  I felt that, despite his earnest and reasonable tone, Dr. Sagan's Sunday Sermon comprised a duplicitous and dogmatic polemic against all spiritual, religious, and mystical world views.  And although he professed his uncertainty concerning God's existence, it seemed clear, from his discussion, that he was merely paying lip-service to the idea of being open-minded.  Carl Sagan, i believed, was quite confident that this was an answer about human origins and ends which he need not question.

     Without meaning to harp on Carl Sagan, his work is worth examining more closely because it articulates the orthodoxy of modern scientific thought.  In advancing the materialist philosophical position and the reductionist methodological approach with which it is typically linked, Dr. Sagan's arguments are grounded in the materialist paradigm--that is, the underlying set of assumptions, conventions, methods, and priorities--which guides and dominates contemporary scientific research.  Therefore, an examination of his views is most instructive in assessing the state of modern knowledge, and in questioning the supposed antagonism between scientific and spiritual world views which he posits.  Furthermore, by adopting a mystical/esoteric perspective in order to critically examine the materialist/reductionist paradigm--as Chris was proposing--seemed to me to be an especially promising undertaking.  For the more i contemplated Chris' challenge to Carl Sagan, the more i came to realize how useful this approach was in illuminating the assumptive framework on which modern science rests and, consequently, in defining the limits of the materialist position and the reductionist method.

     While it may seem that examining modern science's assumptive framework is hardly a matter of interest beyond academic circles, nothing could be further from the truth.  It is of the utmost significance in understanding what science has and has not established, and in identifying the limitations inherent in its approach.  Each of these issues becomes an especially pertinent matter of public concern and discourse when scientists speak out on those topics--such as the existence of God or the soul, or the meaning or purpose of life--which are, strictly speaking, beyond their areas of expertise.  That is not to say that, because Carl Sagan is a scientist, he should not comment on these topics--but rather to suggest that when he does so, his comments should be considered in their proper context.  By doing so, i think it becomes obvious that many of the arguments about human origins and ends, that Dr. Sagan and other exact scientists represent as being based on or derived from objective scientific knowledge, are much more subjective and unsubstantiated by fact than they suggest.

     Of course, it is entirely understandable why Carl Sagan sings the praises of this wondrous age of science, and expresses such unqualified faith in the materialist paradigm on which it has been founded.  During the past century, the breathtaking advances in virtually all areas of science have demonstrated that its methods hold humanity's quest for knowledge to a standard of what would appear to be unassailable and unparalleled objectivity.  Accordingly, most scientists are confident and eager about pursuing the seemingly unlimited promise of future progress within their respective disciplines.  There tends, then, to be little concern and less debate, within science or psychology, about the materialist paradigm's potential limitations or its possible inadequacies.

     In the same way, most scientists fail to regard science's history critically: choosing to believe their professional “creation myth,” which depicts the ascendancy of materialism and reductionism as the triumph of rationality, empiricism, and objectivity over the forces of ignorance, superstition, and dogma.  The unfettered and impartial search for truth, the story goes, led science to liberate humankind from entrenched irrationality and unsubstantiated world views by submitting Nature to verdicts determined through tests of observable facts.  However, because the focus of this heroic tale is always on what has been gained, the question--as to whether anything of value was lost--is never asked.  If, along the way, purpose, spirit, and animism were expunged from Nature, and all religious, metaphysical, and supernatural qualities and faculties of humans’ being and connections with the cosmos were systematically excised ... so be it!  Reason and rationality ruled!

     Missing from this account are the rather more complicated and revealing facts: that, contrary to popular belief, the rise of “material monism” within science owed as much to calculated and arbitrary philosophical and methodological choices as it did to open-minded inquiry; and that fiat, caveat, and authoritative denial were the means of establishing a world view which grew progressively hostile to all that which would not readily yield to the claw of empiricism's means and the quanta of its measures.  Science did not disprove mystical, religious, and animistic views of the universe; it banished them.  Nevertheless, many of its great pioneers--such as Copernicus, Bruno, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Boyle, and Swedenborg--did not disown or discount their decidedly unscientific interests and beliefs in alchemy, spirit, mysticism, religion, and God.  In fact, many of their most significant contributions to the development of science were tied to those interests and beliefs--in ways and to degrees which modern scientists are loath to acknowledge.

     Significantly, such embarrassing and inconvenient facts appear nowhere in the sanitized histories and commentaries in which science extols its virtues to the public or socializes those who enter its ranks.  And for the most part, this fiction is of little or no consequence.  Routine science proceeds independently of whether or not its practitioners are well-schooled in their paradigm's historical development.  In fact, the same can be said regarding scientists' awareness of their paradigm: for the vast majority of the work done, it is of little or no importance.

     On the other hand, the paradigm and its evolution are of the utmost importance to its adherents in determining the questions they research, weighing the significance of anomalies and enigmas within its domain, and assessing the limits of its explanatory power.  Moreover, these concerns are of critical concern when scientists venture to comment or muse upon the nature of “man & God & law,” and all those other wonders and mysteries that exist outside the realm of established scientific fact.  For, in doing so, they are given to serious lapses in identifying when they are speaking in terms of scientific evidence and when they are voicing rather more subjective opinions and beliefs.  In the same way, they are often either painfully unaware or exceedingly careless in acknowledging that their views have been shaped by an approach which makes certain critical assumptions about both the world and how we may know it.

     Thus, when Carl Sagan argues that, eventually, science will be able to reduce all questions regarding the nature of the universe to material processes and the natural laws which govern them, he does so from a materialist perspective.  His contention is based on his assumption that scientists are capable of observing or properly representing everything in Creation which plays a meaningful part in the determination of reality--or that, if they can not do so now, they shall soon  possess the capacity to do so.  Of course, even Dr. Sagan is wary of making that grandiose claim without qualification, and so he hedges his bet by affecting a certain degree of humility--waxing poetic about the awesome mysteries that human beings face as they seek to decipher Nature's laws and uncover the universe's eternal truths.  But i don't believe that he is really very serious about the reality or the significance of “the mysterious” and “the unknown'”--otherwise, how could he turn around and make his astonishing claim that science's advances are doing away with the need for a God or gods and that our children will have been taught the answers before they can formulate the questions?

     Dr. Sagan's dissembling on the question of what we know and what we do not know is nothing more than the materialist's standard ploy when voicing their faith in modern science.  They assert that science is the only reliable method of providing an objective representation of reality--because it is based on empirical data obtained by applying methods which are replicable by independent observers.  However, when the objection is raised that there are meaningful aspects of reality which may not be accessible to conventional scientific study, they readily agree, and state firmly that their interpretations of the nature of things are based solely on that which they have studied.  Yet, despite acknowledging that there are significant and meaningful aspects of reality which are beyond scientific comprehension, and which are, therefore, not included in their reckonings and pronouncements, everything about their definition of the nature of reality suggests that they do not, for one minute, believe this to be true.  Thus, they adhere strictly to a materialist perspective on all and everything: deriding or dismissing all claims about recognizing the importance of spiritual, metaphysical, psychic, or supernatural forces and properties.  Moreover, they maintain a disturbingly supercilious conviction that anyone reviewing “the evidence” in a logical, rational fashion must conclude that each of us, the planet, and in fact the entire universe is nothing more than the fortunate handiwork of a blind series of uncoordinated, unplanned, meaningless productions of that ever-popular, always-available, ultra-cosmic firm of Happenstance, Circumstance, Chance & Random Mutation.

     However, rather than providing an “exact'” description of reality, this science happens to be something more of a body of fortunate interpretations based upon and conforming to a set of assumptions, conventions, and methods which further a materialist, mechanical model of human beings and the universe.  While its practitioners trumpet and advocate its objective and descriptive aspects, such science is, in fact, undeniably selective and prescriptive in its pronouncements.  By invoking the dubious authority of “value-free” science, these '”scientists of new formation”--as Gurdjieff calls them--thereby effectively remove from consideration the ideological substance and significance of their activities, and gloss over those anomalies and enigmas that stymie, elude, or defy their investigations.  Thus, with a soulful, bounding, logical-positivist-leap-of-faith, contemporary scientists are delivered from the need to acknowledge the substance or dimensions of those murky areas which mark the outer limits of their inquiry.  Relieved of any threat from such potential sources of discomfort, they are free to apply their illustrious grey matter to the systematic objectification of “reality”--as they are willing to see it or might imagine it.

     All of these tacit aspects of scientists' knowledge and their intellectual excesses, taken together, are especially striking and telling in their considerations of the nature of consciousness.  Granted, the materialist's position--that the mind is the product of the brain's material processes-- would seem to be a most reasonable interpretation of scientific data.  There is a massive body of research documenting and detailing the various brain structures and processes associated with consciousness.  But as every first year student in every scientific discipline is repeatedly warned: “correlation does not imply causation.”  While it is one thing to say that the mind is associated with or involves the brain's activities, it is quite another to say that the brain produces the mind.  Nevertheless, this is precisely the conclusion that die-hard materialists, such as Carl Sagan, have so eagerly embraced.

     The source of the materialist's confidence in this conclusion is, however, not at all obvious.  There are many researchers and theorists--psychologists, neurologists, medical doctors, and philosophers--who strongly oppose the dogma that the brain produces the mind.  Citing the sheer weight of anomalies and incongruities which contradict that interpretation--not to mention the lack of any convincing evidence as to the causal mechanisms involved--many eminent figures in psychology, neurology,  medicine, and philosophy have repeatedly stated that the nature and origins of consciousness and the mind remain the most profound and essential mysteries confronting scientists and thinkers of all stripes.  Indeed, even within the ranks of those who subscribe to the materialist position, there are many who share this view.

     Nevertheless, despite these admissions, such dissenting voices have been strangely lacking in any substantive impact on the orthodoxy of modern science's conceptualizations of consciousness and the mind.  These challenges to mainstream thought have been greeted with a peculiar combination of denial and disdain by both colleagues and the broader scientific community.  In part, it is precisely because so many of these mavericks and iconoclasts have endorsed certain critical aspects of the materialist's assumptive framework and subscribed to the reductionism with which it is inextricably bound that they have unwittingly compromised and undermined the significance of their objections.  Having failed to articulate a coherent alternative to the materialist paradigm, they have marginalized the significance of their criticisms.  Furthermore, they have not recognized that the materialist's fundamental conviction--that consciousness and mind are reducible to the brain's material processes--is based on necessity, as much as it is evidence.  To wit: if matter is, as the materialist assumes, universally non-sentient and governed by strictly mechanical principles, he is forced to believe that consciousness emerges from or is produced by the brain's material processes.  And while he may not have all the details worked out on how this '”happens'”--or, to be more exact, he may have absolutely no clue how this miraculous transformation occurs--he will argue, with great vehemence and conviction, that it does happen.  Otherwise, there is something critically wrong with his world-view and his entire approach to the objective study of reality.  In fact, the materialist's belief that the brain produces consciousness amounts to nothing more than the deification of an informed hunch.

      These limits of modern scientists' conceptualizations of consciousness and their approaches to its study become especially salient when examined in light of mystical and esoteric teachings.  For, in stark contrast to science's fulsome bullshitting on the subject, mystical and esoteric teachings set forth a sophisticated, coherent, and comprehensive theoretical perspective which is grounded in thousands of years of exacting study of consciousness and the methods of realizing its transformation.  As such, a mystical/esoteric framework is of unparalleled utility in identifying and questioning the validity of the most integral elements of the materialist/reductionist approach.  By positing the existence of a substantive consciousness, which consists of distinct levels or gradations, it challenges the fundamental tenets of the material monism on which modern science is based.  That is, in asserting that mind is not only material, but exists in relation to a scale of gradations of materiality, it denies the validity of science's assumption that matter is universally non-sentient.  Furthermore, it also denies the validity of the materialist's claim that his view of consciousness--as being the product of the brain--is the only reasonable alternative to the dualist's unsatisfactory position that somehow an immaterial mind acts on a material body.  Finally, by claiming that human beings are capable of perfecting and transforming their level of consciousness and being--and thereby apprehending higher truths about themselves and the universe--it places the search for knowledge on a radically different epistemological and ontological footing.

     Despite its obvious relevance to the study of consciousness, the significance of the mystical/ esoteric perspective is essentially absent from modern thought; an absurdity which at once results from and attests to most modern thinkers irrational hostility towards anything which suggests or smacks of “mysticism.'”  This strange antipathy has come to be regarded as one of the definitive virtues of post-Enlightenment intellectual progress.  But what, pray tell, is the substantive, rational basis for this rejection of mysticism?  As sophisticated, learned moderns, we readily acknowledge the power of scientific methods and instruments in shaping our understanding of the '”true nature of reality,” and readily accept their reliability, because, when used by independent observers, they yield the same evidence.  On the other hand, we are strangely obtuse and petulantly opposed when the idea of applying the same criteria to the claims of mystics, adepts, holy men, and avatars is suggested.  We seem to know, a priori, that such knowledge is completely and utterly without any objective basis in reality.  We seem to know that all such knowledge is, by definition, idiosyncratic and subjective and, therefore, it can never be replicated by independent investigators.  Perhaps it is because we associate '”mysticism” with so-called, primitive peoples and the pre-industrial ages that we deny it any possible relevance to modern times and technological societies.  Perhaps it is because we cannot readily identify the disciplines and methods, with which mystics and esoteric masters have uncovered Nature's secrets, that we are so resistant to considering their claims.

     The great tragedy is, of course, that by clinging to this prejudice against mysticism--as if it were some sort of crucifix, capable of warding off the dreaded demons of irrationality--we fail to recognize or understand that the transformation of consciousness, through the systematic study of oneself, is an instrument of unimaginable power and subtlety.  If science has shown us that the ocean of energy, contained within a cubic centimetre of '”empty space,” harbours unfathomable destructive power once it is transformed and unleashed, mystical and esoteric teachings have revealed that human consciousness, rather than being a “ghost in the machine,” consists of an energy/matter possessing an equally awesome potential to be transformed in an unimaginable realization of creation and perfection.  Moreover, like science, esotericism and mysticism provide specific methods which independent seekers after truth may use to verify their contentions about   the nature of consciousness, the self, and the universe.

     The methods of self-study represent esotericism's alternative to science's exclusive preoccupation with empiricism and measurement.  Whereas science's focus is on abstracting laws from verifiable observations of the external world, mysticism and esotericism make the study of the inner world--through the transformation of consciousness, being, and will--their primary concern.  We have, then, two essentially distinct methods of knowing, based on entirely different epistemological and ontological premises.  In science, knowledge is based on adherence to a methodology which seeks objectivity incrementally through verification, replication, and self-correction of disprovable hypotheses.  Mysticism aims to escape the subjectivity, imposed by and inherent in the normal waking state, through the perfection and transformation of one's consciousness, being, and self, and thereby to realize union with the higher, more objective knowledge and being of superior dimensions of consciousness.  Science's faith is that the nature of reality will yield to its inductive accumulation, compilation, and construction of knowledge; esotericism's claim is that acquiring objective knowledge demands self-transformation, and the direct apprehension and experience of union with the universe which it ultimately engenders.

     Regardless of the differences in their aims and emphases, mystical and esoteric teachings agree that, in order to overcome the ignorance and illusion of the normal waking state, it is necessary to submit to long and demanding training and discipline. Perfecting and transforming one's level of consciousness and being leads one to experiences of higher dimensions of reality and the direct realization of objective knowledge.  Thus, mystics and esoteric masters assert that, in order to know, one must be.  As to the nature of the methods involved, certain elements recur in numerous teachings: breathing exercises, meditation, movement training, fasting, visualization, prayer, and ritual observances.  To undertake esoteric self-study is, therefore, a matter of extraordinary commitment and unforgiving, arduous discipline.  Ironically, this is the very opposite of what those who dismiss mysticism--as being nothing more than the self-indulgent bleating of the solipsist, who is too lazy or intellectually inferior to pursue or grasp science--believe it to be.

     Thus, while Carl Sagan was certainly correct in asserting that it is difficult to put forward new arguments for the existence of God, i believed that he was wrong in assuming that all “old arguments” had been effectively refuted or progressively weakened by modern science's ascent.  Most scientists routinely voice their belief that they know of no approach to the acquisition of objective knowledge which is even remotely comparable to the scientific method.  Yet, to anyone with any real knowledge or understanding of the mystical/esoteric tradition, that claim is nonsensical.  To Chris and me, the amazing thing is just that: modern thinkers of all sorts are ignorant of and/or ignore the existence and significance of mysticism and the esoteric tradition.  And yet, these same learned beings seem peculiarly untroubled by the perfunctory manner in which they make authoritative pronouncements about how mysticism is meaningless, or deride and ridicule all allusions to the existence of esoteric knowledge--even though they have never bothered to study these ideas or examine them with an open mind.  But, in shunting aside these teachings--as if impatiently dispatching an especially bothersome or querulous child--they sweep aside a great tradition of profound courage, integrity, intelligence, compassion, sacrifice, dignity, and desire to know.  In doing so, they reveal their fundamental ignorance about the history of human beings' efforts to know themselves and the cosmos, and the arrogance of their convictions about the unquestionable superiority of their methods of seeking truth.  "May God keep us from single vision and Newton's sleep," William Blake wrote; a prophetic statement, given modern science's hubris and belief in its monopoly on objective knowledge of reality.

     Thus, by basing his investigation of 'God's contracting universe' on mystical and esoteric teachings, Chris was attempting to reformulate what was essentially both an ancient method of discovering God and an argument for His existence.  Of course, Carl Sagan never considered the possibility that mystical and esoteric teachings might lead to objective knowledge because, quite simply, he did not know or understand what they entail.  Dr. Sagan, who so eloquently celebrates his science as the means by which we, in this special age, shall pass from ignorance to knowledge, is himself ignorant of the ancient practices of self-study.  Sagan, who describes this transitional period in history--as that ‘in which we begin in wonder and end in understanding’--never suspects that there are ancient teachings which are every bit as profound and meaningful in advancing humanity's quest for knowledge as the most advanced ideas in contemporary science.  Sagan, who entertains no wonder about understanding himself--as anything other than a wonderful biochemical accident--does not realize that to know himself fully and objectively, he must submit to the methods and disciplines whereby he could perfect his consciousness and transform his being.  Sagan, who will admit to the possibility of knowing God--only insofar as He is equated with the sum total of the universe's natural and physical laws--is unable to understand that, in light of esoteric and mystical disciplines, his assessment is hopelessly subjective, superstitious, primitive, irrational, and childish.


G.I.Gurdjieff, The Fourth Way 
& 'The Three-Brained Beings of the Planet Earth'

ALSO:  James A Moffatt
on Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A history of the
Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America


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