Mystical Scientists

Many people have grown up with the notions that Science is only based on fact, that Religion or Mysticism are only based on beliefs, and they are quite separate from Science. Similarly, many mainstream media writers and social commentators happily reinforces a binary distinction between the two areas. But the very scientists who are most widely acknowledged as the greatest of their eras, and held up as examples of the “scientific” approach (divorced from religious beliefs) did not make this distinction.

The available evidence suggests the reality is quite the opposite. That these were visionaries, deeply passionate about their subject, and inspirational individuals.

Almost lost in the commentators' partial view of the world is how powerfully motivated these great scientists were to use Science to understanding their very personal experiences, and to shine light on a mystical appreciation of the wonders of the world. To illustrate this, I will start with the personal lives of some of the key people who have become cornerstones of our “modern scientific” view of the world.

Without characters such as Michael Faraday (a devout Sandemanian Christian who dreamed his way to understanding magnetic fields and electromagnetic force), James Clark Maxwell (???), and Nicoli Tesla, who experienced a mystical vision while out walking with friends, we might not have the modern “Scientific” world, or one much delayed if & when someone else made those discoveries.

Science has its own sets of “beliefs” as well, these are just not so well portrayed in the mainstream media, or are confusingly described as “facts”. The greatest of all scientists have never been believers in upholding a “consensus” view of science (or science by committee). Rather, they chose the lonelier paths. While perhaps not heretical, it was not following the established norm.

Michael Faraday

Faraday was a Sandemanian Christian who dreamed his way to understanding magnetic fields and electromagnetic force).

Faraday was a devout Christian; his Sandemanian denomination was an offshoot of the Church of Scotland. Well after his marriage, he served as deacon and for two terms as an elder in the meeting house of his youth. His church was located at Paul's Alley in the Barbican. This meeting house relocated in 1862 to Barnsbury Grove, Islington; this North London location was where Faraday served the final two years of his second term as elder prior to his resignation from that post. Biographers have noted that "a strong sense of the unity of God and nature pervaded Faraday's life and work. ... During his lifetime, he was offered a knighthood in recognition for his services to science, which he turned down on religious grounds, believing that it was against the word of the Bible to accumulate riches and pursue worldly reward, and stating that he preferred to remain "plain Mr Faraday to the end"

James Clerk Maxwell - what's the go o' that?

Even to this day, mainstream astrophysicists still invoke Newton as the God that explains everything before Einstein. What is almost completely (and strangely) ignored is anything to do with electromagnetic energy. In his study in Princeton, Einstein had pictures of three scientists on the wall: Newton, Faraday and Maxwell. The latter two of these three Gods of Physics dealt in electromagnetic energy.

To a friend who had given him a book about Faraday, Einstein (with a poignancy worthy of a poet) wrote:

“You have given me great joy with the little book about Faraday. This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved. In his day, there did not yet exist the dull specialization that stares with self-conceit through horn rimmed glasses and destroys poetry. . . .”

In October 1850, Maxwell left Scotland and went to study at Cambridge (first at Peterhouse, then at Trinity) where he joined the Cambridge Apostles where "through his essays he sought to work out this understanding".

Now my great plan, which was conceived of old, ... is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up and a regular system of rotation followed. ... Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. ... Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground which any man has set apart. ... Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. ... I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, the Pantheist, the Quietist, Formalist, Dogmatist, Sensualist, and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed. ..."

Maxwell is less well-known as a poet, but it is in his poems that we find the most open declaration of his view of the world:

But listen, what harmony holy
Is mingling its notes with our own!
The discord is vanishing slowly,
And melts in that dominant tone.
And they that have heard it can never
Return to confusion again,
Their voices are music for ever,
And join in the mystical strain.
Ref : Part III Poems, To the Air of "Lörelei." (January, 1858)

Ivan Tolstoy, in his biography of Maxwell, wrote:

“Maxwell's importance in the history of scientific thought is comparable to Einstein’s (whom he inspired) and to Newton’s (whose influence he curtailed)”

Albert Einstein was fulsome in his praise of Maxwell.

If the idea of physical reality had ceased to be purely atomic, it still remained for the time being purely mechanistic; people still tried to explain all events as the motion of inert masses; indeed no other way of looking at things seemed conceivable. Then came the great change, which will be associated for all time with the names of Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, and Hertz. The lion's share in this revolution fell to Clerk Maxwell. He showed that the whole of what was then known about light and electro-magnetic phenomena was expressed in his well known double system of differential equations, in which the electric and magnetic fields appear as the dependent variables.
Ref : "Clerk Maxwell's Influence on the Evolution of the Idea of Physical Reality" in Essays in Science (1934)
As was Richard Feynman:
"From a long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics"

Friedrich August Kekulé

In 1890, at the 25th anniversary of the benzene structure discovery, Friedrich August Kekulé, a German chemist, reminisced about his major accomplishments and told of two dreams that he had at key moments of his work. In his first dream, in 1865, he saw atoms dance around and link to one another. He awakened and immediately began to sketch what he saw in his dream. Later, Kekulé had another dream, in which he saw atoms dance around, then form themselves into strings, moving about in a snake-like fashion. This vision continued until the snake of atoms formed itself into an image of a snake eating its own tail. This dream gave Kekulé the idea of the cyclic structure of benzene.

Nikola Tesla

Nicoli Tesla ("the man who invented the 20th Century") experienced a mystical vision while out walking with friends and feeding pigeons. He had a vision of a vast electrical universe made of oscillating frequencies of energies (and thus invented what we now know as Alternating Current electricity).

“The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence. To understand the true nature of the universe, one must think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”

Electromagnetic energy is far more powerful than gravity. Yet our explanations for how the Sun works are still locked in Newtonian realms (of gravity, mechanical and chemical energy). There is an anomaly here.

Tesla had a warm relationship with Swami Vivekananda, the Indian sage who came to the United States to speak at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. Vivekananda believed Tesla had the potential to help bring about harmony between the ideas of religion and science; Tesla adopted the Vedic words “prana” and “akasha” in his writings to denote “energy” and “matter.”
Ref : The Mystical Side of Nikola Tesla

Max Planck

“Science advances one funeral at a time”

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.
Quoted in The Observer (25 January 1931)

Again and again the imaginary plan on which one attempts to build up that order breaks down and then we must try another. This imaginative vision and faith in the ultimate success are indispensable. The pure rationalist has no place here. ... Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.
Ref : Where is Science Going? (1932)

New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.

Under these conditions it is no wonder, that the movement of atheists, which declares religion to be just a deliberate illusion, invented by power-seeking priests, and which has for the pious belief in a higher Power nothing but words of mockery, eagerly makes use of progressive scientific knowledge and in a presumed unity with it, expands in an ever faster pace its disintegrating action on all nations of the earth and on all social levels. I do not need to explain in any more detail that after its victory not only all the most precious treasures of our culture would vanish, but — which is even worse — also any prospects at a better future.
Ref : Religion und Naturwissenschaft (1958)

Richard Feynman

So many people have written great books about his great work. I just want to share a few snippets I've found on his personal beliefs and approach to life.

"I take it all back ...

I've talked to good man in other fields. There's certain kinds of men in every field that I can talk to as well as I can talk to a good scientist. I met a historian, or writer of history, from France once, and I had a marvellous conversation with him, Andre Morwar(?) his name was. And then I met an artist, Robert Erwin .. and I could talk to him with the same depth of excitement. So I take it all back. If you give me the right man, in any field, I can talk to him.

I know what the condition is, it's that he did whatever he did, as FAR as he can go, that he studied every aspect of it as far as he has stretched himself to the end. He's not a dilettante in any kind of way, so he's talked deep, as far as he can go. Therefore he's up against mysteries, all around the edge. And awe! We can talk about mystery and awe, that's what we have in common."

This is in the same Yorkshire TV programme where we see him wandering in Yorkshire with Sir Fred Hoyle the astronomer (while he was on holiday visiting his wife's Yorkshire home). It's quite beautiful seeing world-class minds wandering down Yorkshire streets (bar t'at), and into the pub, and supping some Tetleys(?). Feynman talking about the importance of three reminds me of Tesla saying the same, but nobody understood what Tesla was saying.
Ref : Richard Feynman - The World from another point of view
See also : The Fantastic Mr Feynman

The most beautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. - Albert Einstein

False distinctions

As observed by Sylvia McLean:

Seeing science as Science is further exacerbated by some science pundits, such as Richard Dawkins, who hold up Science as an opposing force to religion, rendering the scientific endeavour mystical to the general world: Science as God's "rational" opponent. But this doesn't really work. It's like saying oranges are an opponent of Obama or that that you can oppose "hate" with logic.
Dr Danny Penman* interviewed Richard Dawkins, and asked Dawkins what purpose he saw to his life, Dawkins's eyes filled with tears and he terminated the interveiw and left the room.

* Dr Danny Penman = the Biochemist who writes the 'Science' feature for several national newspapers.

It raises a few interesting questions.
Does a “rational” point of view mean your life is meaningless?
What is a “meaningful” life?
How close is a meaningful life to a mystic understanding?

Or did the interviewer just catch Dawkins on a bad day? Many of us have had jobs that feel meaningless. Likewise, it's quite normal for many of us to find more meaningful activity in our private lives. We have to be careful around this topic. Some might agree with Dawkins, and some might wish to oppose Dawkins' opposition to Religion, but that's not really my point.

There are some suptle distinctions here.

But in terms of an understanding of the universe, are there also some suptleties to Dawkins view? In a debate in Oxford in 2008 titled "Has Science Buried God?":

... in which Dawkins said that, although he would not accept it, a reasonably respectable case could be made for "a deistic god, a sort of god of the physicist, a god of somebody like Paul Davies, who devised the laws of physics, god the mathematician, god who put together the cosmos in the first place and then sat back and watched everything happen" but not for a theistic god

To me, it seems significant that Dawkins leans towards Paul Davies. Or perhaps towards The Great Architect of the Universe? Dawkins himself says

‘modern physics teaches us that there is more to truth than meets the eye, than meets the all too limited human mind’

Which makes Dawkins’ highly sceptical attitude to ‘paranormal’ phenomena all the more strange?

Rupert Sheldrake

While orthodox biologists were busy trying to trash Rupert's ideas on Morphic Resonance, it was the late great David Bohm (quantum physicist) who suggested that Sheldrake's hypothesis was in keeping with his own quantum ideas on implicate and explicate order, and his work on the Holonomic Theory.

It's worth quoting extensively from "Richard Dawkins comes to call" - by Rupert Sheldrake (published in Network Review, the Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network)

Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. He believes that science should be based on reason and evidence. So do I. But I also believe it is important to start from people’s experiences, rather than dismissing what they say as superstitious. For example, many dog owners claim that their animals know when a member of the household is coming home; the dogs go and wait at a door or window while the returning person is still miles away. Is this just a matter of routine, or of dogs hearing car engines at a great distance? In controlled experiments in which the animals’ behaviour was filmed continuously, I found that some dogs still seemed to know when their owners were returning at unusual times, in unfamiliar vehicles, and when no one at home knew when they would arrive.

I was reluctant to take part in this programme because I expected that it would be as one-sided as Dawkins’ previous series. But the production team’s representative assured me that they were actually interested in facts, and that “ this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed to meet Richard and we fixed a date.

I was still not sure what to expect. Was he going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?

The Director asked us to stand facing each other; we were filmed with a hand-held camera. Richard began by saying that he thought we probably agreed about many things, “But what worries me about you is that you are prepared to believe almost anything. Science should be based on the minimum number of beliefs.”

I agreed that we had a lot in common, “But what worries me about you is that you come across as dogmatic, giving people a bad impression of science, and putting them off.”

He then said that in a romantic spirit he himself would like to believe in telepathy, but there just wasn’t any evidence for it. He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand, without going into any details. He compared the lack of acceptance of telepathy by scientists such as himself with the way in which the echo-location system had been discovered in bats, followed by its rapid acceptance within the scientific community in the 1940s. In fact, as I later discovered, Lazzaro Spallanzani had shown in 1793 that bats rely on hearing to find their way around, but sceptical opponents dismissed his experiments as flawed, and helped set back research for over a century. However, Richard recognized that telepathy posed a more radical challenge than echo-location. He said that if it really occurred, it would “turn the laws of physics upside down,” and added, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “The majority of the population say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He could not produce any evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgement. He also took it for granted that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this is why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level. The previous week, I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that he could look at some of the data before we met.

At this stage Richard looked uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. He replied, “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped. The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.

I said to Russell, “If you’re treating telepathy as an irrational belief, surely evidence about whether it exists or not is essential for the discussion. If telepathy occurs, it’s not irrational to believe in it. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about. I made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low grade debunking exercise.”

Richard said, “It’s not a low grade debunking exercise; it’s a high grade debunking exercise.”

I said that in that case there had been a serious misunderstanding, because I had been assured that this was to be a balanced scientific discussion about evidence. Russell Barnes asked to see the emails I had received from his assistant. He read them with obvious dismay, and said the assurances she had given me were wrong. The team packed up and left.

© Copyright Network Review, the Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network

Next : Standing on the shoulders of giants

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