Humanistic Science and Trancendent Experiences

Brandeis University


This talk is not an argument within orthodox science; it is a critique (a la Godel) of orthodox science and of the ground on which it rests, of its unproven articles of faith, and of its taken-for- granted definitions, axioms, and concepts. It is an examination of science-as-one-philosophy-of- knowledge-among-other-philosophies. It rejects at the very beginning the traditional but unexamined conviction that orthodox science is the path to knowledge; or even the only reliable path. I consider this conventional view to be philosophically, historically, psychologically, and sociologically naive. As a philosophical doctrine it is ethnocentric, being Western rather than universal. It is unaware that it is a product of the time and the place, passing rather than eternal, unchangeable, inexorably progressing truth. Not only is it relative to time, place, and local culture, but it is also characterologically relative, for I believe it to be far more narrowly a reflection of the cautious, safety-need-centered, obsessional Weltanschauung than of a more mature, general-human view of life.

In spite of the fact that many of the great scientists have escaped these mistakes, and in spite of the fact that they have written much to support their larger view of science (as nearly synonymous with all knowledge, rather than merely as knowledge-respectably-attained), yet they have not prevailed. As Kuhn has shown, the temper, the style, the atmosphere of “normal science” has been established not by the great ones, the paradigm-makers, the discoverers, the revolution-makers, but rather by the great majority of “normal scientists,” who must be likened to coral-reek makers rather than to eagles. And so it has come about that science has come to mean primarily patience, caution, carefulness, slowness, and the art of not making mistakes, rather than courage, daring, taking big chances, gambling everything on a single throw, “going for broke.” Or to say this in another way: Our orthodox conception of science (as mechanistic and ahuman) seems to me one local part-manifestation or expression of the larger, more inclusive Weltanschauung of mechanization and dehumanization of which it is a part. (An excellent exposition of this development can be found in the first three chapters of Floyd Matson’s Broken Image.)

But in this century, and especially in the last decade or two, a counter-philosophy has been developing very rapidly among some intellectuals, along with a very considerable revolt against the mechanistic-dehumanized view of man and the world. It might be called a rediscovery of man, of human capacities, and of needs-aspirations. These humanly-based values are being restored to politics, to industry, to religion, and also to the psychological and social sciences. This is true also for the non-human and impersonal sciences which have been going through a convulsion of what might be called rehumanization. At first, they began by rejecting teleology (human purpose) from the physical universe, which was reasonable enough. But then they wound up by rejecting human purposes in human beings. Now this begins to change.

This change in science reflects, expresses, and is a part of a larger and more inclusive, total Weltanschauung that we might call “humanistic.”

These two great life-philosophies, which for present purposes we may call mechanistic and humanistic, both exist simultaneously like some species-wide, two-party system.

I consider that my effort to rehumanize science and knowledge (but most particularly the field of psychology) is part of this larger social and intellectual development. It is definitely of the Zeitgeist, as Bertalanffy pointed out in 1949:

The evolution of science is not a movement in an intellectual vacuum; rather it is both an expression and a driving force of the historical process. We have seen how the mechanistic view projected itself through all fields of cultural activity. Its basic conceptions of strict causality, of the summative and random character of natural events, of the aloofness of the ultimate elements of reality, governed not only physical theory but also the analytic, summative, and machine-theoretical viewpoints of biology, the atomism of classical psychology and the sociological bellum omnium contra omnes. The acceptance of living beings as machines, the domination of the modern world by technology, and the mechanization of mankind are but the extension and practical application of the mechanistic conception of physics. The recent evolution in science signifies a general change in the intellectual structure which may well be set beside the great revolution in human thought.

Or if I may quote myself (1943) saying this in another way:

. . . the search for a fundamental datum [in psychology] is itself a reflection of a whole world view, a scientific philosophy which assumes an atomistic world- a world in which complex things are built up out of simple elements. The first task of such a scientist, then, is to reduce the so-called complex to the so-called simple. This is to be done by analysis, by finer and finer separating until we come to the irreducible.

This task has succeeded well enough elsewhere in science, for a time at least. In psychology it has not.
This conclusion exposes the essentially theoretical nature of the entire reductive effort. It must be understood that this effort is not of the essential nature of science in general. It is simply a reflection or implication in science of an atomistic, mechanical world view that we now have good reason to doubt. Attacking such reductive efforts is then not an attack on science in general, but rather on one of the possible attitudes toward science.

And further on in the same paper:

This artificial habit of abstraction, or working with reductive elements, has worked so well and has become so ingrained a habit that the abstractors and reducers are apt to be amazed at anyone who denies the empirical or phenomenal validity of these habits. By smooth stages they convince themselves that this is the way in which the world is actually constructed, and they find it easy to forget that even though it is useful it is still artificial, conventionalized, hypothetical- in a word, that it is a man-made system that is imposed upon an interconnected world in flux. These peculiar hypotheses about the world have the right to fly in the face of common sense but only for the sake of demonstrated convenience. When they are no longer convenient, or when they become hindrances, they must be dropped. It is dangerous to see in the world what we have put into it rather than what is actually there. Let us say that this flatly atomistic mathematics or logic is, in a certain sense, a theory about the world; and any description of it in terms of this theory may be rejected by the psychologist as unsuited to his purposes. It is clearly necessary for methodological thinkers to proceed to the creation of logical and mathematical systems that are more closely in accord with the nature of the world of modern science.

It was the study of more highly evolved or developed individuals- that is, the study of psychologically healthy people- that taught me about the “higher” human possibilities. That phrase is not the most vigorous in the world, and it is hard to specify its meanings in any succinct and non-normative way. It can be operationally and pragmatically defined and I have done so, but it would be too big a job at this point. For our purposes, it is sufficient to say that self- actualizing people have taught us to redefine many of our words into several levels, or stages, of higher and lower meanings. They have taught us to see that several levels of meanings are inherent in such words as knowledge, determinism, science, truth, control, prediction, understanding. If I may say it in this fuzzy way, there are higher and lower meanings for each of these words.

Perhaps another way of getting this across is to make the parallels with the finding that at different motivation levels there are generated different philosophies of love, of women, of life; different conceptions of society, of happiness, and of Heaven, and even different Utopias. It should not surprise us, then, that being at a higher level of living generates a higher, more inclusive, more powerful conception of science, with far wider jurisdictions and with far greater power. The taller the person, the greater the conception that he can grasp. Only a big man can grasp big ideas or generate big ideas. You have to be worthy of a great thought. You have to deserve it. Great thoughts don’t come to small people.

Not only does the study of healthier and stronger people generate conceptions of a stronger and healthier science, but it also teaches us that scientific work can itself be a good path to self- actualization if science is done correctly. I think the textbook view of orthodox science is not such a conception. It is clearly not necessarily true that scientific work must be a path toward self-actualization. It can also be a flight from the world, a defense against human emotions and impulses, a monastic renunciation of basic aspects of humanness. It can serve as a kind of bomb-shelter against the vicissitudes of living among people. It can be either primarily safe or primarily self-actualizing.

Science can be a path to the greatest fulfillment and self-actualization of man. It can test his highest powers, bring him to his greatest heights, and bring out everything most admirable in him. The true scientist can be a model of the fullest human development, and the life of science can be a path to the greatest joys and satisfactions.

But it can also serve as a retreat from life and from humanness. It can be a flight from a world seen as messy, unpredictable, and uncontrollable, a sort of high IQ return to the womb. The scientist can be running away to it, hiding in the laboratory, fleeing from his tired wife and noisy children, and from messy human contacts in general. Or the scientist can go to his laboratory as to a sacred place, going eagerly and with a sense of privilege and gratitude. He can go in courage and boldness, with zest and anticipation, as to a kind of Olympian wrestling match, where he takes a chance, pits his best powers against a worthy rival, quite aware that he might fail, and yet quite willing to gamble and to commit himself.

The Young Scientist as Monk

This is why so many brilliant students drop out of science. They are asked to give up too much of their human nature, too many of the rewards of living, and even some of the main values that led them to think of science in the first place. In effect, they are asked, like monks, to renounce some very precious aspects of “the world.” And this is doubly true of just those students who are most likely to be the creative ones, the innovators. To a certain extent, science education is a training in the obsessional Weltanschauung. The young man is rewarded only for being patient, cautious, stubborn, controlled, meticulous, suspicious, orderly, neat, and the like. Some effort is made to train out of him his wildness, his unconventionality, his rebelliousness against his elders, his poetic and esthetic qualities, his gaiety, his B-humor, his craziness, his impulsiveness, his “feminine” qualities, his mystical impulses, and much more besides.

In a word, he is asked to become a military policeman rather than a commando raider. But the truth seems to be that few young men dream of being M.P.s.

The Need to Desacralize- Desacralizing as a Defense- The Fear of Awe

The non-scientists, the poets, the religious, the artists, and ordinary people in general, may have a point in their fear, and even hatred, of what they see as science. They often feel it to be a threat to everything that they hold marvelous and sacred, to everything beautiful, valuable, and awe-inspiring. They see it sometimes as a contaminator, a spoiler, a reducer, an exsanguinator; making life bleak, cold, and mechanical; robbing it of color, fun, and joy. Look into the mind of the average high school student and this is the picture you see. The girls will often shudder at the thought of marrying a scientist, as if he were some sort of respectable monster. Even when we resolve some of the confusions and misinterpretations in the lay mind- for instance between the scientist and the technologist, between the “revolution scientist” and the “normal scientist” and between the physical and the social sciences- some real and justified complaint is left. This complaint which I shall call the “need to desacralize as a defense” has, so far as I know, not been discussed by the scientists themselves at all.

Briefly put, it appears to me that science and everything scientific can be and often is used as a tool in the service of a distorted, narrowed, and de-emotionalized Weltanschauung. To use the Freudian language, desacralization can be used as a defense against being flooded by emotion, especially the emotions of humility, wonder, and awe.

I think I can best make my meaning clear by an example from my experiences in medical school (thirty years ago). I didn’t consciously realize it then, but in retrospect it seems quite clear that our professors were almost deliberately trying to harden us, to “blood” us, to teach us to confront death, pain, and disease in a cool, objective, unemotional manner. The first operation I ever saw was almost paradigmatic in its effort to desacralize, i.e., to remove the sense of awe, of privacy, of fear, of shyness before the sacred, and of humility before the tremendous. A woman’s breast was to be amputated with an electrical scalpel which cut by burning through. as a delicious aroma of grilling steak filled the air, the surgeon made carelessly cool and casual remarks about the pattern of his cutting, paying no attention to the freshman students rushing out in distress, and finally tossing this object through the air onto the counter where it landed with a plop. It had changed from a sacred object to a lump of fat. There were, of course, no prayers, rituals, or ceremonies of any kind as there would certainly have been in most preliterate societies (Eliade). This was handled in a purely technological fashion, emotionless, cool, calm, even with a slight tinge of swagger.

The atmosphere was about the same when I was introduced- or rather not introduced- to the dead man I was to dissect. I had to find out for myself what his name was, and that he had been a lumber man and was killed in a fight. And I had to learn to treat him as everyone else did, not as a dead person, but as a “cadaver.”

So also for the several dogs I had to kill in my physiology classes, when we had finished with our demonstrations and experiments.

The new medics themselves tried to make their deep feelings manageable and controllable, not only by suppressing their fears, their compassion, their tender feelings, their tears as they all identified with the patients and their diseases, their awe before stark life and death. Since they were young men, they did it in adolescent ways, e.g., getting photographed eating a sandwich while seated on a cadaver, casually pulling a human hand out of a briefcase at the restaurant table, making standard medic jokes about the private recesses of the body, etc.

This counter-phobic toughness, casualness, unemotionality (covering over their opposites) was thought to be necessary, since tender emotions might interfere with the objectivity and fearlessness of the physician. (I myself have often wondered if this desacralizing was really altogether necessary. It is at least possible that a more priestly and less engineering-like attitude might improve medical training or at least not drive out the “softer” candidates.)

This latter is of course a debatable guess. But there are other situations in which desacralizing can be seen more clearly as a defense.

We are all acquainted with people who can’t stand intimacy, nakedness, honesty, defenselessness, those who get uneasy with close friendship, who can’t love or be loved. Running away from this disturbing intimacy or beauty is a usual solution, or it can be “distanced,” i.e., held at arm’s length. Or, finally, it can be degutted, deprived of its disturbing quality, denatured- that is to say, desacralized. For instance, innocence can be redefined as stupidity, honesty can be called gullibility, candor becomes lack of common sense, and generosity is labeled softheadedness. The former disturbs; the latter does not and can be dealt with. (Remember that there really is no way of “dealing with” great beauty or blinding truth or perfection, or with any of the ultimate values; all we can do is to contemplate and to “adore.”)

In an ongoing investigation of what I am calling “counter-values” (the fear or hatred of truth, goodness, beauty, perfection, order, aliveness, uniqueness, and the other B-values) I am finding, in general, that these highest values tend to make the person more conscious of everything in himself that is the opposite of these values. Many young men feel more comfortable with a girl who isn’t too pretty. The beautiful girl is apt to make him feel abashed, sloppy, gawky, stupid, ugly, unworthy.

Desacralization can be a defense against this battering of self-esteem in those in whom it is so shaky that it needs to be defended.

Just as obvious and just as well known to the clinician is the inability of some men to have sexual intercourse with a good or beautiful woman unless they degrade her first. It is difficult for the man who identifies his sex with a dirty act of intrusion or of domination to do this to a goddess, to a madonna, to a priestess- in a word, to a sacred, awesome mother. So he must drag her off her pedestal above the world, down into the world of dirty human beings, by making himself master, perhaps, in a gratuitously sadistic way, or be reminding himself that she defecates and sweats and urinates, or that she can be bought, or the like. Then he need no longer respect her; he is freed from feeling awed, tender, worshipful, profane, or unworthy; from feeling clumsy and inadequate like a little, frightened boy.

Less studied by the dynamic psychologists but probably as frequent a phenomenon is the symbolic castration of the male by his female. Certainly this is known to occur very widely- in our society at least- but it is usually given either a straight sociological or else a straight Freudian explanation. Quite as probably, I think, is the possibility that “castration” may also be for the sake of desacralization of the male, and the Xantippe is also fighting against being flooded and overwhelmed by her great respect and awe for her Socrates.

I feel also that, frequently, what passes for “explanation” is not so much an effort to understand or to communicate understanding or to enrich it, as it is an effort to abort awe and wonder. The child who is thrilled by a rainbow, may be told in a slightly scornful and debunking way, “Oh, that’s only the scattering of white light into colors by droplets acting like prisms.” This can be a devaluation of the experience in a sort of one-up-manship that laughs at the child and his silly naivete. And it can have the effect of aborting the experience so that it is less likely to come again or to be openly expressed, or to be taken seriously. It has the effect of taking the awe and wonder out of life. I have found this to be true for peak-experiences. They are very easily and very often “explained away” rather than really explained. One friend of mine during post-surgical relief and contemplation had a great illumination in the classical style, very profound, very shaking. When I got over being impressed with the revelation, I bethought myself of the wonderful research possibilities that this opened up. I asked the surgeon if other patients had such visions after surgery. He said casually, “Oh, yes! Demerol, you know.”

Of course, such “explanations” explain nothing about the content of the experience itself, no more than a trigger explains the effects of an explosion. And, then, these explanations that achieve nothing have themselves to be understood and explained and psychoanalyzed.

So also for the reductive effort and the “nothing-but” attitude, e.g., “A human being is really nothing but $24 worth of chemicals.” “A kiss is the juxtaposing of the upper ends of two gastrointestinal tracts.” “A man is what he eats.” “Love is the overestimation of the differences between your girl and all other girls.” (I’ve chosen these adolescent boy examples deliberately because this is where I believe the use of desacralization as a defense is at its height. These boys trying to tough or cool or “grownup” typically have to fight their awe, humility, love, tenderness, and compassion. They do this by dragging the “high” down to the “low,” where they are.)

The general atomistic techniques of dissection, etc., may also be used for this same purpose, e.g., of making it unnecessary to feel like prostrating oneself, of making it unnecessary to feel small, humble, unworthy, etc. One can avoid feeling stunned or ignorant before, let us say, a beautiful flower or insect or poem, simply by taking it apart. So also for classifying, taxonomizing, rubricizing, categorizing, in general. These too are ways of making awesome things mundane, secular, manageable, everyday. Any form of abstracting that avoids confronting a comprehensive wholeness may serve this same purpose.

I wish to stress the word “may.” Desacralization may be a primary gain, or an unconscious purpose of the behavior. But it may also be an epiphenomenon, an unsought-for by-product, a secondary gain. Or it may even be simply expressive and without gain at all. These cautions are especially true in the realm of science. We must remember that, for most people, there is only the one kind of science. Identifying with science means then “buying” every aspect of it, everything about it, in a kind of package deal, where you take the bad with the good, for the sake of the whole, as in a marriage or a friendship.

So, the question must be asked: Is it in the intrinsic nature of science or of knowledge that it must desacralize? Or is it possible to include in the realm of the actual and existing reality, the mysterious, the awe-inspiring, the emotionally shaking, the beautiful, the sacred? And if they be conceded to exist, how can we get to know and to understand them?

We should point out that laymen are often quite wrong when they feel that the scientist is necessarily desacralizing life. Quite simply, they misunderstand the attitude with which the best scientists approach their work. The “unitive” aspect of their attitude (perceiving simultaneously the sacred and the profane) is too easily overlooked, especially since most such scientists are quite shy about expressing it.

The truth is that the really good scientist often does approach his work with love, devotion, and self-abnegation, as if he were entering into a holy of holies. His self-forgetfulness can certainly be called a transcendence of the ego. His absolute morality of honesty and total truth can certainly be called a semi-religious attitude, and his occasional thrill or peak-experience, the occasional shudder of awe, and of humility and smallness before the great mysteries he deals with, all these can be called sacral. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, and sometimes under circumstances that are difficult for the layman to identify with. He can’t understand that a rectal examination may be a pious, even reverent act, that it can be approached in about the same spirit as a priest approaching an altar.

It is quite easy to elicit such secret attitudes from some scientist, if only you assume that they exist, take them seriously, and don’t laugh at them. If science could only get rid of this quite unnecessary “taboo on tenderness,” it would be less misunderstood by the layman, and, within its own precincts, would find less need for desacralizing.

We have learned much from self- actualizing, highly healthy people. They have higher ceilings. They can see further. And they can see in a more inclusive and more integrating way. They seem to find it less necessary to dichotomize things into either-ors. So far as science is concerned, they teach us that there is no real opposition between caution and courage, between vigor and speculation, between toughminded and tenderminded. These are all human qualities, and they are all useful in science. Nor is there any need in these people to deny reality to experiences of transcendence, or to regard such experiences as in any way “unscientific,” that is, they are under no necessity to desacralize.


(This paper has been presented as it appeared in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1965, pp. 219 – 227.)

~ by revolutionwithin on May 4, 2009.

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