Fr Bede believes that up until the sixteenth century a universal philosophy prevailed in the civilised world, from China to the West. Sometimes referred to as the 'perennial philosophy', it assumed that 'the material world was pervaded by, and would find its explanation, in a transcendent reality', the Tao, the Void, the Sunyata, the Brahman, al Haqq, the Reality, the Godhead or Supreme Being. 'In this there is to be found a universal philosophy which is the inheritance of all humankind'. Mind and matter were somehow inextricably intertwined in life.
This general world view was broken by the rise of modern science, on two linked fronts. Mind began to be seen as separate from matter, and this was formalised in the philosophy of Rene Descartes as he searched for something in life he could be completely certain about; namely that he existed as a thinking being; if nothing else he was mind. Mind was now over and against matter as something separate. At the same time, Francis Bacon and others began to apply a new method in learning about the external world of nature, an experimental method that came to be known as science. This gave knowledge about the world that was completely objective; in fact it was crucial to remove everything subjective from such knowledge. In other words science could give a form of knowledge in which mind was removed; the human being as a thinking, feeling subject was removed from the quest for objective knowledge. Science gave objective knowledge that was true for everyone, and did not rely for its truth on subjective experience. The paradox in all this is that the very thing Descartes was certain of, that he existed as a subject, as mind, was not to be included in knowledge that was deemed truly scientific. In fact subjectivity had to be excluded. But it was the duality between mind and matter that he formalised that enabled matter to become the prime focus of the modern world.
The world in the West began increasingly to be seen as material only, matter, and this matter was organised mechanically. Although many of the early scientists saw God behind all this, God eventually became unnecessary in explaining how the world works. Matter was investigated using the scientific method of experimentally testing hypotheses and theories. It began with physics and chemistry and spread to the biological world and then the social. In the end mind was reduced to brain function. The goal was to reduce all explanation to mathematical formulae, or at least tightly argued rational argument, that in principle could be verified by observation at least, if not by experiment.
At the time of writing his book, in the 90's, Fr Bede was hopeful that the discovery of the quantum world and the so called new physics would challenge the materialistic, mechanical world view that had come to prevail in the West. Great figures like Einstein, Schrodinger, and other early quantum scientists glimpsed reality in a way that matched the great mystics of the past. Most assumptions about matter are simply not true at a quantum level. The mystery of life is much deeper than a simple materialistic, mechanical view allows. Whether Fr Bede would still be so optimistic is a good question to discuss. He also had his doubts at the time mind you, and I suspect he would agree that scientism has overtaken science in many ways. Scientific knowledge in the end is only one form of knowledge. When science claims to be the only valid form of knowledge it becomes scientism, and is a delusion.
Philosophically our culture has reacted to materialism and the negating of the subjective. Over and against materialistic science there have been the ideas of truly great thinkers, such as Kant, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, to name a few, who have shown that a true understanding of reality cannot exclude subjectivity. It is the subject that knows. But materialistic science has largely prevailed in the culture, no doubt because of the technology it has spawned. We are now a culture trapped in our technology, and technology feeds on a mechanical, material world.
Some psychologists have also mounted a reaction, predominantly Freud and Jung. They both claimed that they worked scientifically, but this has never been accepted in the mainstream, and to this day there is great ambivalence in the scientific world about their central concept of the unconscious. Although Fr Bede does not discuss this, the psychology that is most prized in our world is experimental psychology that works with the brain rather than the mind. Concepts like the unconscious are mind concepts. They focus on the human as subject rather than the brain as object.
However Fr Bede is keenly interested in the psyche, particularly in the evolution of consciousness. In many ways this is the basis of his spirituality. As it happens the nature of consciousness is one of the last great frontiers of science. Materialistic science thinks of consciousness as an outcome of the order of complexity of the brain, an epiphenomenon arising out of the mechanical and chemical machinations of the brain. Others say it is something more; it is an outcome of mind and mind is present in the universe apart from human brains. Bede is certainly in this camp. He writes:
Although in human persons the mind of the universe becomes conscious, our present conscious mind is still very limited and beneath our conscious mind are all the manifold levels of what is called the unconscious.
In effect he adopts Jung's conception of the collective unconscious, the evolutionary development of psyche, as complex internally as our bodies are externally. And the beginning of all this is the beginning of the Universe.
The explosion of matter in the universe fifteen million years ago is present to all of us. Each one of us is part of the effect of that one original explosion such that, in our unconscious, we are linked up with the very beginning of the universe …… In that sense the universe is within us. We habitually think of the universe as being outside and apart from us but that is because we have become accustomed to projecting it outside.
We are in effect microcosms of the macrocosm. More than that as Bede notes 'The world is of course outside my body; but it is not outside my mind'.
Our present conscious mind is limited for Bede, but not so potentially. And here Bede is indebted to the ideas of the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber, the great modern theorist of mysticism. Our everyday consciousness is built on a whole series of unconscious levels, the structure of our psyches. But above our everyday consciousness there is 'another whole range of levels of consciousness up to the supreme consciousness to which we are aspiring'.
For Wilber and others, the means to ascend to higher levels of consciousness is meditation and spiritual practice. 'In meditation, the aim is always to go beyond this subtle psychic world, the world of ideas, of gods and angels, and to enter dharmakaya, the realm of ultimate reality, which is beyond duality'.
The sort of knowledge that science cannot embrace, except perhaps through brain physiology, is the sort of knowledge we think and feel, for instance, when we really encounter another human being intersubjectively. There is a sense of encounter and oneness with the other. There is the sense that we are both subjects interacting with each other, and not objects to each other. Something similar can happen in mystical and spiritual experience. Some mothers after giving birth have a unitive experience; they feel totally one with the whole of creation. They are no longer a subject over and against an object. The two are one. This is thought to be a baby's experience also, oceanic and blissful oneness. Mystics experience such knowledge. For Wilber, and Bede, and for that matter most eastern spiritual philosophies, as well as Western figures such as Plotinus, the overcoming of the dualities of life is the goal of spirituality. Bede finishes the chapter with these words:
….(this) is the ultimate goal of life, to reach that total unity where we experience the whole creation and the whole of humanity reintegrated in the supreme consciousness, in the One, which is pure being, pure knowledge and pure bliss, saccidananda.
How Bede ties this into his own tradition of Catholic Christianity unfolds in further chapters.
Apart from any general discussion, we could focus on the following:
1. How trapped have we really become in our technology, particularly now with the very wide use of artificial intelligence?
2. If science is not the only form of valid knowledge, what are others?
3. Our health care system seems to be captive nowadays to the slogan 'evidence based medicine'. Is this an inevitable outcome of a materialistic, mechanistic world view?
4. How interested really are people in Bede's belief about the ultimate goal of life, as he writes in the last quote.
5. What about mystical oneness through drugs? How valid is this?
You may have other questions and thoughts.
David Oliphant February 2018.