“Does Quantum Physics Lead to Inevitable Mysticism?”
West Seattle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
March 26, 2006
Rev. Peg Boyle Morgan
“If I were an Eastern mystic, the last thing in the world I would want would be a reconciliation with modern science, to hitch a religious philosophy to a contemporary science is a sure route to its obsolescence” — Jeremy Berstein, particle physicist
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I do not stand between you and your experience of the ultimate mystery of life; I do not set myself up as a priest who mediates between you and your God. Such mediation seems to be not only arrogant, but debilitating. Ministers in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where truth is not fixed nor dictated from external sources, do best when they share reflections of their own search for truth, their own spiritual journey, and the insights or questions that are currently bubbling.
Indeed, I learn from you as often as you from me. I do try to convey reflections from classic and contemporary sources, including my own life and study, reflections that I think are both relevant and interesting to your lives. I have always thought that being a Unitarian Universalist minister is a particularly challenging profession because Truth is not fixed, and because the search is life-long and far reaching.
Far reaching as we can tell from our democratically adopted a list of six sources of wisdom, as listed on the back of the order of service—these are a distinguishing attribute of our faith. We do not hold up one holy book, but rather we look everywhere… and in everything.
When I started pondering this sermon, I knew it was about what physics might teach us about spirituality; as I thought more about it, I realized that it would be a sermon about two of our sources, one being the “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures.” The other being “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.” Physics is implied in this second principle and mysticism is one kind of direct experience of transcending mystery.
Now mysticism has been conceived of in different ways over the centuries. In the middle ages, people like Theresa of Avila and her dear friend John of the Cross wrote about quite an ecstatic form of mysticism, full bodied and even orgasmic—as they reported union with God. In theological school I was disappointed when whole quarter’s class on mysticism only included the writings of these two mystics, for there have been so many more mystics over the centuries including Unitarians like Albert Schweitzer and the Unitarian Transcendentalists—truly the UU mystics!
Among them, Emerson, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), Henry Ware, and Henry David Thoreau just to name some of the Unitarian Transcendentalist mystics-- who reclaimed mysticism as they explored their own spirituality and searched for how they could be in touch with ultimate reality.
Their kind of mysticism did not include the bodily ecstasy, and they removed mysticism from a solely Christian dogmatic context and from the need to be holed up in solitary monastic settings. Henry Ware defined mysticism as an awareness of the awesome nature and presence of God, an experience of “reverence for that which we are incapable of understanding.” (p. 21 Carie Johnsen-Killam) This was not the conceived in man’s image kind of God, this was a God of mystery, without form—a life-giving spirit experienced with awe and wonder, without words to describe it fully.
Without abandoning their rational powers, the Transcendentalists wanted to be able to speak of their emotive experiences of the spirit. Just as the first Unitarians freed Christians from the bounds of dogma, so the Transcendentalists freed Unitarians from an exclusively rational religion—finding no reason why these experiences should not also be honored. Our UU mystics found this ineffable experience of spirit while in nature, such as Thoreau at Waldon Pond, and in the depths of inward intuitive experience, and quiet contemplation, as experienced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote of his experience of mystic unity this way:
“Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me. I am part or parcel of God.”
Now some of you may not relate to this at all. I would have difficulty understanding or accepting such descriptions if I had not experienced it myself. One day, a long time ago, I was with someone I cared deeply about. As we sat in a garden cafe sipping on coffee in the warmth of a sunny afternoon, something happened to me, my consciousness changed so that it wasn’t he and I, but oneness, complete unity. It is very difficult to describe with words. There was no separation between us. No he, …no I. I just felt a part of all.
Like reports from others, my mystical experience did not last long, just a few moments. It wasn’t an experience I could ask for or cause to happen again whenever I want it. But it did happen, and so I am left to reflect upon it. What do I do with this experience? How do I integrate it into my liberal religious faith that venerates the powers of reason and science? I cannot explain my experience with any words. How does my spiritual experience integrate with my rational self? How do spirituality and science relate?
Over the centuries, religion and science have been at odds with each other—at least in terms of religious leaders persecuting scientists whose experiences proposed truth that challenged orthodoxy’s teachings about God, causation and the universe. Certainly Galileo’s story is dramatic, for after discovering that the earth is not the center of the universe-- he was forced to recant this truth in order to avoid being killed, until his death bed. Unitarian and Universalist scientists such as Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestly, Charles Darwin, Ashley Montague, Edmond Halley, and Maria Mitchell—to name a few of the most prominent-- all took risks in their work and in their lives that for some of them brought immanent danger. So I believe that the listing of science as a source of wisdom is a significant statement of our faith, for we believe that science brings forth data that may indeed cause us to continually reassess our spiritual understandings and convictions. And it is safe to say, that Unitarian Universalism does not take stock in any belief that is not willing to have the light of new scientific data shone on it.
That said, a question arose in my mind, does the new science of quantum physics lead us to any particular place spiritually? Is there some joining of religion and science when we look at quantum physics with its exploration of how the boundaries between things may not be so fixed, and how atoms, waves and larger entities do not have to be next to each other to communicate? Mystic experiences often have an element of boundaries being non-existent—that sense of unity. Does Quantum physics provide a proof theory for the unity of mysticism?
To answer this question, I have spent some time recently reading the essays of modern physicists (made easier by the edited volume of Ken Wilber’s entitled Quantum Questions)—folks like Heisenberg 1901-1976 (the original conceiver of quantum mechanics), Schroedinger 1887-1961 (who developed wave mechanics), Einstein 1879-1955 (who of course developed relativity theory), Pauli 1900-1958 (who developed something called the exclusion principle), Planck 1858-1947 (conceiver of the quanta idea) and Eddington 1882-1944 (who applied relativity theory to the solar system).
What is interesting is that they all agree on the answer to that question. And the answer, my friends, is NO. They all thought that physics deals with the world of material form, and mysticism deals with the formless. Physics operates in realms of facts and mathematics; mysticism operates in the realm of consciousness. Planck said that religion and science deal with two very different dimensions of existence, between which there should be neither conflict nor accord, any more than we would say that there should be conflict between botany and music.
They do not think that science can ever prove or disprove any spiritual truth. Eddington remarked that if we based God upon any scientific finding, then God would be swept away with the next scientific revolution. (p. 183 Wilber)
That said, all of these scientists were mystics. And this is where it all gets interesting! None of them would want us to abandon our powers of reason, but they were all mystics! How did they come to be mystics? Here’s how. These modern physicists came to understand that physics is only able to deal in theoretical and mathematical pictures of reality, symbols really, but not ultimate reality. As Eddington said, “The symbolic nature of physics is generally recognized, and the scheme of physics is now formulated in such a way as to make it almost self-evident that it is a partial aspect of something wider.” So it was that this awareness of the limitation of physics led physicists to look elsewhere, wanting to find the “something wider”, going beyond physics to the meta-physics, or mystical--and the path was human consciousness where there is hope of some revelation. (Wilber p. 8)
Just how do they see science and spirituality relating or influencing one another?
As I said, all of these scientists would admit that science is limited in its purview to the dimension of symbolism, in that scientific findings are always about mathematics—pure symbols. Indeed, Stephen Hawkings said that “mysticism is for people who can’t do the math.” To which came the reply, “but mystics don’t have to do the math, they have direct experience!”
Schroedinger describes the limitations of science this way:
“The scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about …[emotional] bitter and sweet, … it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity.”
But all of the physicists saw a reciprocal and non-competitive, non-exclusionary relationship between religion and science, with religion or spirituality providing science the yearning for truth and understanding, and science providing spirituality a deepening of reverence.
Let’s look first at how spirituality provides science a yearning for truth:
Einstein believed deeply that religious sentiment was a basis for scientific motivation. He said: “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” He described his colleague Planck as an example when he said “The longing to behold harmony is the source of the inexhaustible patience and perseverance with which Planck has devoted himself…The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshipper…the daily effort comes from the heart.” Einstein concluded by saying that science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
And Planck himself said that faith played an essential part in any serious scientists work, and that “over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words ‘Ye must have faith.’ It is a quality which the scientists cannot dispense with.” (p. 162 Wilber) Faith in the rationality of the universe, faith in humanity’s ability to conceive of that which has not yet revealed itself.
Others have reflected on how the hunches which are the basis for scientific formulas come from some unexplainable intuitive knowing, and that there seems to be a parallel of some kind between what is in our intuition and what is to be discovered in our material world. How is it that our minds can conceive of something it has never seen or heard of? How remarkable is the parallel between the theories which our mind offers and the profound realities which conceal themselves behind natural appearances? Is there some connection, holographic or otherwise, that we don’t understand? Where do such new thoughts come from? Are we as Emerson said a transparent eyeball, part and parcel of all, thus able to know more than we think we know? Physicist Pauli, a friend of Jung, believed our hunches come from imprinted archetypal images on our souls, archetypal images reflecting realities throughout the universe. This gives us ideas to ponder, doesn’t it?
And how does science feed spirituality by deepening a sense of reverence?
Doing the work of science left these physicists in awe of the rationality found in the universe. They felt that “To succeed in penetrating further into the knowledge of natural harmonies, to come to have a glimpse of a reflection of the order which rules the universe” (de Broglie p. 120 Wilber) is to experience a deep reverence for even the glimpse we have of the immense mystery of life.
Planck said “Science enhances the moral values of life because it furthers a love of truth and reverence—love of truth displaying itself in the constant endeavor to arrive at a more exact knowledge of the world of mind and matter around us, and reverence, because every advance in knowledge brings us face to face with the mystery of our own being.” (Wilber p. 162)
It is in our human nature to seek truth, both through our ability to reason and do science, and through our intuitive spiritual knowing. Those two sources will continue to feed the souls of humans for as long as we exist. They do not compete, but rather are interdependent. They only clash when religion becomes rigid and dogmatic, or when science forgets humility for what it does not know.
As our Transcendentalists believed, we ought to be able to maintain our rational powers while also freely accepting and sharing our experiences of those transcendent moments of reverence, mysticism and unity.
May we continue to learn the physics about the world we live in, about the harmonics and quantum communication; and may each new piece of knowledge increase our reverence for life. For such reverence may be our deepest human experience and our best path and hope to ending prejudice and violence, and to maintaining a viable earth.
May it be so, amen.
Johnsen-Killam, Carie J. The Mystical Geneology Within Unitarianism, Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Massachusetts, Spring 2004
Teasdale, Wayne. Mystic Heart. 1999.
Wilber, Ken, ed. Quantum Questions. 1991.