Science in Christian Perspective



Revolutionizing Our Worldview
Douglas Groothuis
McKenzie Study Center
Eugene, Oregon

From: JASA 35 December 1983): 235-237
This article is reprinted from The Reformed journal, November 1982, pp. 20-23.

The Western philosophical paradigm is in radical decay; but out of the rubble springs a new philosophy of civilization beyond Christian theism and beyond materialism. We now face a turning point that we cannot afford to avoid. So argues a powerful new book by Fritjof Capra entitled The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).

Capra sets the stage for his theses by quoting from the ancient Chinese book of changes, The I Ching.

After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns.... The old is discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with time; therefore no harm results.

In his earlier popular work The Tao, of Physics (1975), Capra attempted to synthesize modern physics with Eastern mysticism and in so doing hinted at the profundity and radicalness of this turning point. Now Professor Capra, a physicist at UC Berkeley, has outlined a comprehensive application of a worldview whose time he believes has come.

For Capra, Western civilization faces a "crisis of ideas"-the modern mind is muddled by a rationalistic and materialistic Weltanschuuang which is both woefully inadequate to meet modern problems and obviously incongruous with modern scientific discoveries. Descartes and Newton are the central philosophical villains, having helped to establish an atomistic, linear, and mechanical view of nature. Capra maintains that "reality can no longer be understood in terms of these concepts" (p. 16). The modern Western paradigm is collapsing. The strange discoveries of quantum physics, along with the intuitions of the mystics, reveal a different world: a universe intimately interconnected, interpenetrating, interdependent, and unified-more an organism than a mechanism. And for Capra it is precisely the perpetuation of this outmoded worldview that is behind the major economic, ecological, political, military, health, and spiritual crises of our age. This cognitive catastrophe threatens to trigger a cultural catastrophe unless this worldview is revolutionized.

Capra applies this thesis to a broad range of affairs, calling for conceptual reform and renewal across the board. But how did the now disintegrating worldview develop in the first place, and what is to replace it?

The genius of Descartes, Newton, Bacon, and others unlocked the mysteries of creation through mathematics: physical laws could be discovered and applied. Forces such as gravity could be understood and natural law could be harnessed through technology. By the Enlightenment, many likened the world to a giant clock whose mechanical intricacies awaited the analysis and manipulation of the new breed of scientific and technological watchsmiths.

The Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm permeated all of subsequent culture. In the West, medicine broke up the human organism into isolated bits and pieces; psychology, through the influence of both Freud and the behaviorists, siphoned the spirit from the psyche and reduced man to the material and mechanical; modern economics, stemming from Adam Smith and others, saw the cosmic mechanism as self-replenishing and boundless in blessing. The ecological entailment was that humanity was ripped from its environmental continuity with nature, leaving nature to be exploited as a disconnected other. Furthermore, Capra indicts the Christian God as being an overbearing male ruler who impels an exploitive and sexist ethic. The awful upshot of all this is that we encounter a time of unprecedented upheaval and crisis.

Having made his case that "the old must be discarded," Capra sees to it that "the new is introduced."

The new physics jolts our conceptual complacencies and catapults us into a new age. Capra, himself a physicist, chronicles the unnerving discoveries made in high-energy physics early in this century by men such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Planck. These men were bedeviled by enigmas at the very heart of matter.

Heisenberg discovered that an observer necessarily affects what is observed. Because of this, the exact location of subatomic particles at any given time is indeterminate. This led him to the "indeterminacy principle." Bohr formulated the notion of "complementarity" in response to his paradoxical findings that light was both a wave and a particle. Things weren't as mechanically simple as we thought. Einstein further complicated the cosmos with the theory of relativity.

The world could not be reduced to atomistic individuations isolated from the larger, unified context. Capra says:

Subatomic particles ... are not "things" but are interconnections between "things," and these "things," in turn, are interconnections between other "things," and so on. in quantum theory you never end with "things": you always deal with the interconnection. This is how modern physics reveals the basic oneness of the universe. (pp. 81, 82)

Observer and observed, as shown by Heisenberg, are "one"; "complementarity," as shown by Bohr, demonstrates the "unity" of opposites. Capra is arguing for a scientifically supported version of monism-all is one. To this end he also enlists the speculations of more modern physicists like David Bohm and others. He summarizes by saying,

In modern physics, the image of the universe as a machine has been transcended by a view of it as one of indivisible whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process. (p. 92)

Capra further elaborates on and attempts to establish his view through a discussion of general systems theory. Moving from the microscopic world of energy particles to the macroscopic landscape, systems theory views nature as an interlocking system of various subsystems made up of cyclical feedback loops. It sees the linear and mechanistic picture of sequential cause and effect as too narrow. The full holistic mosaic must be held in view. From this perspective the earth itself becomes a living being: "Mother Earth." The various subsystems are self-organizing" and imbued with an immanent consciousness of their own. Capra draws on Jantsch, Bateson, and other systems thinkers in arguing for a panoramic, paripsychic worldview in which all is one (monism) and all is alive (panpsychism).

The systems view is a sophisticated cosmology that finds the whole greater than the parts without ignoring the parts; rather, they are placed into a more comprehensive picture. Consciousness itself is not strictly localized or individuated in living beings; it extends, in varying degrees of intensity, across the universe.

Given this holistic metaphysic, Capra endorses a "transpersonal" psychology, in which normal and paranormal consciousness both fit into the total spectrum of human experience. Capra follows the human potential movement (Maslow, Rogers, et.) in asserting "the farther limits of human nature" (Maslow) as ever evolving toward higher consciousness. Here, in one grand synthesis, systems theory, mystical experience, modern physics, and adventuresome psychology all synergistically fuse into a "rising culture" whose time has finally come. A transformation is imperative. The evidence is in; civilization must turn from its error.

To grasp the significance of this turning toward a rising culture we must penetrate to the heart of what is prompting this alluring worldview.

The Turning Point is no less than a comprehensive credo for a widespread cultural movement called by many "the new consciousness movement" or the "new age movement," whose roots are in the 60s.

The counter-culture of the 60s produced more than short-lived communes, love beads, acid rock, and peace demonstrations. It persuasively challenged a host of moribund elements in Western society. Theodore Roszak, in particular, charted the counterculture's rejection of the materialist or secular humanist worldview that demystifies both humanity and nature by reducing them to material components. Poet William Blake called this the "single vision": the material eclipses the spiritual as the empiricalreductionist hammer nails shut the windows of the soul.

But no culture will long tolerate such suffocating presuppositions; the conceptual straitjacket will not hold. The 60s saw an explosion of the spiritual (in the Jesus movement), the pseudo-spiritual, and the occult. Myriads were gasping for spiritual refreshment of any kind.

The counter-cultural rejection of this sterile world-view went far beyond chanting Krishnas, eschatologically intoxicated sects, and psychedelic experimentation. It meant to offer a serious alternative to a bankrupt philosophy. Though obviously not a completely homogeneous movement, a "new consciousness" developed in this receptive period. The spirituality of the East Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) was imported and adjusted to the West, following the lead of the Beat generation in the 50s. The world was pantheistically "resacralized" (Roszak) and reanimated with mystic fervor. One New Consciousness intellectual, William Irwin Thompson, went so far as to call for a return to animism: better to have spirits, nymphs, and fairies than lifeless molecules in random collision. To reject mechanistic materialism also meant to search for a new unifying metaphysic. Many looked backwards to premodern, pre-industrialized societies and even to pagan mysteries in addition to Eastern disciplines. Now, ironically, many are looking toward the frontiers of science to break up the old scientism (reductionism) and to legitimize its mysticism (see Capra's The Tao of Physics). The seed of the counter-culture's rejection of materialism has now matured into the systematic metaphysical expression of The Turning Point. The "rising culture" replaces the "counter-culture."

While much of Capra's historical analysis of Western society should be challenged (especially his discussion of Marx as an ecological thinker!), The Turning Point is a compelling plea for renewal. In many ways, the New Consciousness has never looked better.

Those in the Reformed tradition will agree with Capra that one's world-and-life view necessarily shapes the thoughts and actions of individuals and entire cultures. Christians also uniformly agree that materialism is both bankrupt and poisonous, no matter what the Asimovs and Sagans may do to try to revive it.

Capra is on target in exposing the limitations of the "Cartesian-Newtonian world-machine." Though sown in Christian soil, modern science gradually severed its roots and built its impressive edifice on the sands of materialism. Yet Capra never seriously considers Christianity as capable of integrating modern discoveries or of answering modern needs.

How then must Christians meet Capra's pressing challenge? We need to proclaim a Christian alternative vision that both adequately integrates the findings of science and remains biblically faithful.

The contribution of modern physics must not be ignored. Although much of Capra's thought on the unity of the cosmos (monism) is speculative, and despite the fact that the data of modern physics are capable of diverse interpretation, it seems that a profound interconnectedness has been discovered. Atomistic cosmologies don't seem to fit.

A Scriptural cosmology does little to encourage the "CartesianNewtonian world-machine." The God of biblical faith is not a Deistic clockmaker isolated from his creation; neither is creation mere clockwork totally comprehended by a narrow rationalism. Rather the universe is created and unified by the Logos (Word) of God who personally directs and coordinates the multifaceted richness of the cosmic plenum (John 1: 1; Heb. 1: 3; Col. 1: 15-20; etc.). The Word made flesh is also the Word or logic of creation. The mechanistic model, though valid in certain spheres, often suffers from a conceptual squint that loses sight of the larger picture and mystery. The enigmas of modem science reopen the world of mystery and throw us back upon the inescapable reality of our finitude in knowing God's creation. Just as God is incomprehensible in his essential being, so, analogously, God's creation resists our complete comprehension. Finite minds, though enlightened by the Logos, are barred from the infinite understanding needed to untie every epistemological knot- We see in a mirror dimly, and the glory of God manifested in his works stubbornly wrestles out from under our scientific saddles.

We should thank Capra for prodding us in this direction. Yet his formulations are impaled on the sword of his own presuppositions. The same conceptual criticism that dissected the inadequacies of an outmoded paradigm turn back on the New Consciousness itself.

Unlike Christianity, Capra is not concerned with any Creator-creature distinction. Nature, Humanity, and "God" arc all basically continuous and interchangeable. God is but "the self-organizing dynamics of the entire cosmos" (p. 292). Therefore, Capra's metaphysic provides little support for comprehensible ontological categories. Without a personal, sovereign Creator-God, meaningful distinctions between created particulars tend to dissolve in the cosmic flux. Without a genuinely transcendent and personal God, an immanentist metaphysic will eventually collapse into a rubble of relativism and scepticism because it is without a valid transcendent and absolute reference point. The denial of the Creator is the worship of the creature (Romans 1:18ff). Capra leaves us with an ambiguous combination of chance and necessity laboring overtime to uphold an indeterminate eschatology which invests hope only in an undefined "evolution of consciousness."

From this dizzying metaphysic come also distressing ethical ramifications. Although Capra ignores the problem, monistic worldviews tend to blur the distinction between good and evil. If unity and oneness are ultimate, then all ethical dichotomies dissolve. As the (monist) Zen-master Yun-man said, "The conflict between right and wrong is sickness of the mind," And even if ethics is salvageable, Capra is left with the dilemma of relativism: since we have no unchanging source of truth or special revelation, morality is not based on absolutes. The bothersome questions then become these: What ethics are applicable at what time? How could we ever know this if our only revelation is from the ever-changing theories of science and the varying reports of the mystics? A general holistic worldview alone will not ground us in a livable ethic.

For Capra our present problem is rooted in a false worldview. Change the worldview and you begin to solve the problem. Proper moral action (whatever that may be) will follow proper understanding. Here Capra echoes the human-potential movement's optimism for a self-actualized humanity. The New Consciousness in this sense is not so new; it is repeating the Socratic notion of sin-wrongdoing is basically ignorance, not willful rebelliousness.

But this just doesn't square with reality. Even if we agree with Capra's basic outlook, we must insist that right knowledge does not guarantee right action, As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 7, the good we know we don't do. A holistic worldview will not regenerate a hellish heart. A new paradigm may be necessary for personal and societal rebuilding, but it is not sufficient. As one reviewer put it: "Human ingenuity in creating untold misery did not wait for the development of a mechanical world-view." And neither will it vanish with a holistic one.

Yet, Capra seeks redemption in consciousness; an enlightened understanding of the unity and harmony of all things and of our participation in the cosmic drama will quicken our minds and engage our wills. Consciousness itself can be our savior if resurrected from the mechanistic tomb. Then we may fully experience not only our oneness with nature, but our participation with deity itself, our democracy with God. But just as Capra's worldview is ontologically and ethically insecure, so is his mysticism without life-it is bloodless, apart from the cross.

Capra's New Consciousness mysticism also permits, even encourages, a variety of occult and paranormal experiences while remaining intolerant of the Christian God. Although Capra is far less explicitly occult than many New Consciousness prophets, it is precisely his rejection of Christian spiritual discernment that opens the doors to the occult.

The Western mechanistic paradigm may have tended to suppress the spiritual entirely, but it also, along with powerful Christian influences, fumigated much of the pagan superstition, animism, spiritism, and general religious barbarism that infested the preChristian West. Capra would have us pry open a Pandora's box of paranormal poisons once sealed off by Christian caution. We should remember that the sophisticated panpsycbism of systems theory is a close cousin to (if not identical twin of) animism-and how demons love semantic respectability! The shaman returns in scientific guise. What is touted as New Consciounsess is better seen as the attempted return of a vanquished pagan orthodoxy.

Biblical orthodoxy calls us to subdue the earth as God's stewards, not to exploit it or view it as mere stuff separate from ourselves. As G. K. Chesterton said, nature is our sister, though not our mother. The interrelated unity of creation is upheld by the Logos of God and is to be respected as God's redeemable property. In light of this, any view such as Capra's that confuses God with creation, denies the written revelation of God, neglects the awful reality of human sinfulness, and rejects the saving work of the Word made flesh, will never meet the need of the age nor turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

Still Capra should deeply challenge the Christian community in several areas.

First, the New Consciousness movement cannot be dismissed as warmed over esotericism or eccentric mysticism. It is taking root as it taps into America's long latent pantheistic-monistic subculture (as seen in the Transcendentalists, the Mind-science sects, and through to the Beat movement and counter-culturc). It is gaining a momentum of respectability and influence.

Second, Christian thinkers need to develop an informed ecological theology and cosmology that is conversant with modern physics and systems theory but which compromises neither the immanence nor the transcendence of God.

Third, Christians must explore the area of consciousness research in order to develop a biblical perspective on the spectrum of human consciousness and the meaning of biblical mysticism in relation to its counterfeits.

However strongly we may disagree with Capra, Christians should be gripped by his sheer ambition. The Turning Point is over 400 pages of encyclopedic effort. We need nothing less than a Christian philosophy of civilization effectively to counter his venture, After all, as Abraham Kuyper said, there is not one inch of creation of which Christ doesn't say "Mine." We do face a crisis of ideas, and Christian answers are desperately needed. If Christians are silent, others will not be, This is a clear summons for Christian critics to compassionately and intelligently respond, so that another "rising culture" may more fully permeate a fallen world.