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Preface: Science, Self-Knowledge and Spirituality

This is the preface to Science, Self-Knowledge and Spirituality, a manuscript written by Patrick Crean, a retired oceanographer living in western Canada.

The introduction is also available on-line at the LWS.

To obtain a copy of the entire manuscript, please e-mail Regent College Bookstore, Vancouver, Canada

Or contact the bookstore: Regent Bookstore, 5800 University Blvd., Vancouver B.C., V6T 2E4 CANADA

Phone: (604)228-1820; Toll-free: 1-800-663-8664

Note:Regent Bookstore website


At the beginning of his book, "A Brief History of Time," Stephen W. Hawking recounts how, at the end of a lecture on astronomy by a well known scientist, a little old lady at the end of the room said, "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying. "What is the tortoise standing on?" You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But its turtles all the way down."

In an excellent review of recent developments in the field of theoretical physics, "The Mind of God," Paul Davies refers to this story in his concluding chapter and poses the question, "Can we make sense of the universe without turtle trouble? Is there a route to knowledge even "ultimate knowledge" that lies outside the road of rational scientific enquiry and logical reasoning? Many people claim that there is. It is called mysticism." He distinguishes mysticism from its association with the occult, paranormal fringe beliefs and describes, "the essence of the mystical experience then, as a type of shortcut to the truth, a direct and unmediated contact with a perceived ultimate reality." A number of instances are presented in the book in which "scientists and mathematicians claim to have had sudden revelatory insights akin to such mystical experiences." Thus for example, he recounts the experience of Fred Hoyle, who, working on a cosmological theory of electromagnetism that involved some daunting mathematics, decided to take a holiday in the Scottish Highlands. "But somewhere on Barnes Moor, my awareness of the mathematics clarified, not a little, not even a lot, but as if a huge brilliant light had suddenly been switched on. ... When ten days later or so I returned to Cambridge, I found it possible to write out the thing without difficulty." It is of particular interest that this account of contemporary developments in the most demanding and exacting of scientific disciplines should conclude with a reference to the central role of insight and its implication of the mystical.

It was by meticulous attention to the nature of mathematical and scientific insight that Bernard Lonergan developed his masterwork, "Insight: A Study of Human Understanding." In the preface he notes, "the dynamic cognitional structure to be reached is ... the personally appropriated structure of one's own experiencing, one's own reflecting, judging and deciding. The crucial issue is an experimental issue, and the experiment will be performed not publicly, but privately. It will consist in one's own rational self-consciousness clearly and distinctly taking possession of itself as rational self-consciousness. Up to that decisive achievement, all leads. From it, all follows. No one else, no matter what his knowledge or eloquence, no matter what his logical rigour or his persuasions can do it for you. ... more than all else the aim of the book is to issue an invitation to a personal decisive act. ... Though I cannot recall to each reader his personal experiences, he can do so for himself and thereby pluck my general phrases from the dim world of thought to set them in the pulsing flow of life" (INS, p. xviii, xix). "Thoroughly understand what it is to understand and not only will you possess the broad lines of all there is to be understood but you will also possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern opening upon all further developments in understanding" (INS, p. xxviii). "The structure of the universe proportionate to man's intellect is revealed" (INS, p. xxix).

Clearly there arises a question as to whether intellectual mastery of such a massive work, and associated materials, is necessary to grasp the practical essentials, their employment for the enrichment of one's life in this world, not to mention their startling implications with respect to what is usually termed the next. In point of fact, in the words of Sir Arthur Eddington, "Observation and theory get on best when they are mixed together, both helping one another in pursuit of truth. It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in a theory until it has been confirmed by observation. I hope I shall not shock the experimental physicists too much if I add that it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory" (Eddington, 1959).

Such complementarity of theory and observation would appear pertinent in the present context. In my own experience the fascination deriving from a chance attendance at a Lonergan seminar in August 1958, was to extend over two decades before being able to establish for myself a basic practical working model of, in Lonergan's words, "one's mental apparatus." In retrospect, this seemed to be largely due to a complete lack of any practical sense of direction, any indication of where it was supposed to lead, in my own solitary endeavours. As Lonergan has pointed out, the great problem is that we have to live life before we know how to do it.

This primer, however inadequate, is intended to establish, for the many individuals as innocent as myself in pertinent scholarly formation, such a sense of direction and some idea of its rewards. However, one "must pluck the phrases from the dim world of thought and set them in the pulsing flow of life." That means questioning and verifying every word and phrase in the context of one's own conscious processes. For that reason the text has been kept to a minimum, a more detailed development being confined to what is hopefully a self-contained introductory glossary of terms.

As for the outcome, it is in no small manner concerned with the release from that fundamental tension of inquiry, that fateful undertow of existential dread of a human journey that, it would appear, must end in a dissolution back into the dust of the universe from whence briefly we each emerge. If mysticism be concerned in some manner with such release, the journey of the mystic has always been demanding. In the words of the anonymous author of the "Cloud of Unknowing," an English mystic of the 14th century, "And therefore swink (toil, labour) and sweat in all that thou canst and mayest, for to get thee a true knowing and feeling of thyself as thou art; and then I know that, soon after that, thou shall have a true knowing and a feeling of God as He is."

In writing of Lonergan's transcendental method and its implication in terms of interreligious dialogue between East and West, William Johnston in "The Mirror Mind," notes that "the mysticism of the future will outshine in splendour anything that has existed in the past. We are experiencing a great leap forward in consciousness that will dominate the religious experience of the future."

Whatever the individual calling or vocation, I should be greatly pleased if this modest attempt might facilitate some such personal movement forward, as rewarding and dramatic for the reader as, indeed, it has been for the writer. A brief account of that journey is included in the final chapter.

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