Updated: Mar 29, 2022
This project contrasts Gary Lachman's and Richard Tarnas' view on the debate about privileging particular metaphysical paradigms, that is, when a view of the world is jettisoned for another, instead of dialectically recuperating the value of the losing view. The case of scientific realism versus esotericism as a mode of sense-making is considered, and consequences of their categorical divorce articulated.
Lachman on the Lost Knowledge of Esotericism and the Dangers of Materialism
Gary Lachman, the former Blondie bassist and writer of things esoteric, is the author of The Secret History of Consciousness and Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right, and the Radically Unseen. Lachman writes about characters and ideas outside the comfort zone of conventional discourse, which fall under the patronage of the Occult and Hermetic traditions. Names like Aleister Crowley (the magician, and alpinist), George Gurdjieff (the mystic and teacher), Peter Demianovich Ouspensky (the philosopher and journalist), Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (the writer, and founder of the Theosophical Society) and Jean Gebser (the philosopher of consciousness, and scholar of the history of ideas) come to mind. And also groups and societies like the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, and the Knights Templar, which allegedly meddled with ancient, forgotten, and spiritual wisdom whose initiates were privy of. He shows that the empirical sciences, jettison spiritual dimensions of being, like alchemy, magic, and mysticism, models of meaning that placed the human in participation with the cosmos, thus exacerbating humanity's loss of touch with the mysteries of nature. Because scientific empiricism builds a single reality, physical and, therefore, explainable only by "measurable things," Lachman's thesis is that modern civilization "lost its way." He suggests that humanity needs to integrate principles from every system of meaning to have a holistic, accurate picture of reality, even those belonging to spiritual and religious accounts.
Theories in the esoteric camp posit metaphysics, descriptions of reality that are "above physicalist explanations," (Judaic/Christian/Buddhist/Muslim cosmologies, altered states of consciousness, quantum mechanics, the oneiric plane, to name a few) systems of reality that do not behave (or seem not to act) according to the fundamental laws of classical physics. For example, scientists like the physicist Michio Kaku, argue that religion's domain is ethics, and that science alone holds sway over the principles of the universe. Other scientists, like the physicist Fritjof Capra, are more optimistic about the role of non-scientific systems of meaning in supporting scientific paradigms. Capra thinks that the truths of spirituality have a lot to say about the facts of science, and vice-versa, that both need each other in explaining the complete experience of conscious existence. Furthermore, its the sentiment of authors like Capra, that the two need each other to place checks and balances when one of the two monopolizes truth.
Another recurrent theme in the characters Lachman visits is the call for a better world, made up of an enlightened culture that fights for truths more progressive and inclusive. Thus, he cautions his readers of the "numbing" effect of paradigms that suggest a single kind of reality, made up of "physical," law-governed parts. (The same is arguably the case for an existence made up of "spirit," and pre-modern accounts of the universe, which have driven humanity to genocide and destruction over so-called spiritual/religious principles.) For Lachman, the result of such logic is that everything becomes an object to be used by rational, superior beings. But this does not necessarily mean that science cannot learn from its mistakes, nor that faiths of other kinds evolve; as Capra suggests, they need each other to place checks and balances when one of the two monopolizes meaning.
The difficulty of writing about esoteric ideas is taking a position about them. Lachman discusses the characters and theories as a journalist would, and it's apparent that he's defending the free exchange of concepts. Even magic and alchemy, which have captured the positive and negative side of wonder. By supporting open discourse, and allowing the reader to be the judge, Lachman avoids attacking or protecting strange thoughts, that have been arguably "integrated and trascended" by contemporary scientific discourse. In other words, scientists claim that systems of meaning like magic and alchemy, have been "falsified" by science. He skips the political conflict to enable the public to become conscious of the other side of history. Lachman does not address the most pressing objection to his account, that scientists will in time explain how these metaphysical systems fit into a scientific worldview, but the same could be said of non-scientific systems of meaning. The scientific paradigm could fit into a broader system of meaning, as authors that I review below suggest. (There are heavily criticized maverick sciences, quantum physics, and string theory, for example, that postulate a paradigm of physics that can't be explained by the Newtonian laws of physics. This opens the possibility for a physics that embraces a new kind of reality. This debate is ongoing, as skeptics of quantum and string theories argue that these paradigms do not "follow the data," but instead project human biases that favor an "elegant, beautiful" and "unified" universe, skipping rigorous analysis of empirical data in favor of system building to fill in holes in theory yet unexplained by present scientific discourse.)
Tarnas on Integral and Complex Thought
Richard Tarnas is the author of The Passion of the Western Mind. Tarnas teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies and writes about the history of ideas. He begins with the Ancient Greeks and ends with the Moderns, a mammoth task of scholarly erudition. A theme that runs in Tarnas' book is the richness of the West's classic characters, concepts, and events. From the top of my head, matrices made up by personalities, events, and movements, like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Luther, Galileo, Kepler, Darwin, Diderot, the Classical Age, the Renaissance, the Medievals, the Modern worldview, Pythagoras, Nietzsche, Aquinas, Jesus of Nazareth, Yahweh, the Jesuits, the Reformation, the Mystery Religions, the Scientific Revolution, Einstein, Da Vinci, Rafael, so on, and so forth. (I avoided clarifying the names, as I imagine these are better-known.) The book underscores the vital curiosity and passion that "pushed" formidable individuals, what the philosopher Henri Bergson called the élan vital, to break frontiers. Richard Tarnas also articulates how forces synthesize to give rise to new ones, in cycles that integrate the old and push for emergent elements, cycles of "birth and re-birth." (For example, he traces how Platonism supported the emergence of a Christian worldview in the West, and how this religious paradigm became the basis for a secular, humanistic, and scientific consciousness in modernity, which also paradoxically conserved some of the structural principles of the Christian faith). As the book's blur presumes, Tarnas achieves an education in the humanities in a single tome of under 500 pages (and, most surprisingly, under 20 dollars).
Tarnas' work associate with integral, and complexity theory (IT and CT, respectively). The core idea behind these theories is that the mind exhibits similar systemic, complex, and adaptive patterns as nature (there is a kind of reciprocal relationship, mind-nature). I now discuss these theories and present my view of them.
IT holds that meaning is enacted via the participation of consciousness in the world; it has to, as nature without consciousness wouldn't exist—nothing would be seen or experienced. On the other hand, CT suggests the universe follows a pattern labeled "complexity," even consciousness. Consciousness is a dynamic, nonlinear, adaptive system (parts related to each other, always undergoing change, and provoking the emergence of new elements, a dialectic of forces). Lachman and Tarnas owe to the ideas of a long tradition of intellectuals whose systems (esoteric and exoteric) fall within and outside conventional scientific discourse. These integral thinkers are purportedly discovering that the mind mirrors reality as it integrates (becomes conscious of) it. Established authors in the scientific community, like the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the biologist Richard Dawkins, are skeptical of a metaphysics of this kind. They argue the world is material and that the laws that govern them are too, and therefore subscribe to a scientific worldview that advances as it learns "from the empirical data." Everything outside the empirical domain is non-existent. They defend that consciousness is just the absurdly complex processes of the brain, for example. But like Lachman and Tarnas articulate, by reviewing the ideas of other thinkers, like the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and scientists like the physicist Albert Einstein, and the mathematician Henri Poincaré, there is possibility for a physics (quantum mechanics, per thinkers like the mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose), and a possibility of a metaphysics (like IT and CT, complex models) of consciousness, open to the spectrum of an integral epistemology. Tarnas calls the integral paradigm that overlaps these ideas, "Participatory Epistemology" (PE).
Participatory Epistemology: Integration in Complexity
PE argues that consciousness develops as the brain integrates concepts ("pieces" interdependent parts) from nature and our relationship with other minds, via learning. Learning designates "participation," and thus bridges the physical with the non-physical (physical patterns represented by mental models and simulations, of symbolic kind). Abstract categories like time, identity, causality, opposites, colors, numbers, and space enable the universe to make sense. And abstract concepts like "good," "bad, "delicious," love," "anxiety," etc., make experience meaningful in symbolic kinship. PE also defends that as the mind becomes conscious of the nonlinear connections that order nature, it also understands itself. The brain/mind learns as it were, from its relationship with the world's patterns. Concepts that arise from this relationship become systems, and finally, models of reality, mirrors of the cosmos. Consciousness is thus multi-dimensional: a person is a possibility, in the spiritual, physical, personal, social, economic, rational, irrational, qualitative, quantitative, transcendental dimensions of its being, to name a few popular qualifiers.
In sum, PE argues that parts make up consciousness, like parts make up nature, and so, that the former and the latter behave in complex patterns of interdependence. Variables entwine, and new ones emerge, as consciousness "kicks in," in this emergent process of weaving, or learning. Thus the importance of "naming" the unconscious (that which we don't yet "see"): if we become conscious of our inner lives and outer life, then we can do something about them. What PE also tries to show, is that consciousness is a horizon of integration. We develop answers by mirroring nature's complexity by "pushing" our conceptual capabilities to understand it. Asking questions and formulating responses enables the mind to "increase" its complexity.
But what is complexity? Complexity is integrating lots of parts into a system, forcing the system to "adapt," to become "conscious" of new components, thus enabling increasingly sophisticated emergent content to arise in mind. An analogy: the more languages we speak, the more ways we can describe the world, both esoteric and exoteric (inside and outside), even if we fail to address every sub-system of reality. We come closer to describing truth, albeit we never adequately describe it; this is the meaning of entropy or chaos: we can't account for every operational variable via our limited accounts. Thus these "hidden" variables influence the system in ways we don't yet "see." PE suggests integrating all manner of concepts allows a clearer picture of the mind's participation with nature and pushes individual consciousness (and ultimately, collective consciousness) to accept that the dimensions of being are manifold, infinite. Hence the necessity for institutions of learning, a return to the Paideia (Plato's vision of an integral education), the Quadrivium (another version of a holistic education espoused in earlier versions of the university model), or any comprehensive model of learning, a kind of knowledge that saw the most significant surges of human achievement (Ancient Greece, and the European Renaissance). Socrates, Plato's primary source of inspiration, for example, lived and died by the ethos that ignorance is the root of human wrongdoing, that learning via the mind's engagement was the medicine of the soul, and therefore, that the search for truth, albeit muddy and unclear, leads to higher and more sophisticated understandings of reality and self. That some descriptions have been discarded due to not correctly explaining reality (for example, Aristotelian physics allowed for Newtonian physics to describe the universe more accurately) doesn't mean we don't need them to make sense of it. To reach a higher understanding of physics, one needs to travel the road to it, by integrating principles that integrate other laws, the so-called complexity chain.
For the reasons I articulated above, the Covid-19 pandemic is a crucial opportunity to reflect deeply on ourselves. The way we conceive of the system on the other side of the pandemic will be the product of how we choose to understand it. If we undertake the task with a mono-dimensional paradigm, then we best begin writing our memoirs, as we will repeat the mistakes of the past. We are at the threshold of a new form of consciousness, as people like Jean Gebser predicted. Scientific, linear discourse is not the only account of the universe. The most glaring example of empiricism's avoidance of a broader dialogue is its treatment of consciousness. Despite myriad physicalist theories of mind, i.e., that "everything is reduced to matter and the relationships between matter," none have reached a consensus on the Hard Problem of Consciousness, while there is a community of metaphysical theories that address and "solve" the issue. Do scientific and non-scientific languages discuss different things? Or do they overlap in some manner? If so, why must there be a dualism of reality to explain what they describe? This dilemma results in one of the perennial philosophical issues. The philosopher David Chalmers famously explains the Hard Problem of consciousness as:
"[T]he problem of explaining why and how sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences, how and why it is that some internal states are subjective, felt states, such as heat or pain, rather than merely non-subjective, unfelt states, as in a thermostat or a toaster."
Physicists who study the quantum level of physics, as the physicist Fritjof Capra suggests, understand phenomena as probabilities premised on conjectures. There is nothing linear (a follows b, b follows c) or straightforward about quantum physics; we really can't explain phenomena at the quantum level if we follow the fundamental principles of empiricism or the fundamental laws of modern physics. The dynamics of quantum physics are so complex, that they "escape" reductionist explanations. Instead, Capra suggests a nonlinear approach seems more suited. Chaotic (or complex nonlinear) systems exhibit aperiodic long-termed behavior, composed of many components that may or may not interact with each other, depending on what way you look at the issue. Again, it's important to underscore that there isn't a consensus as to what "interaction" is, it may be human projection (consciousness kicking in) or independent entities playing a part in the universe's dance. In essence, we can explain interaction through physicalist and metaphysical accounts because there seems to be evidence at both ends of the debate; one account allows the other to move forward, as religion paved the way for science, and vice-versa.
Some examples of complex nonlinear systems: Earth's global climate. Organisms. The human brain. Consciousness. Communication systems. Social and economic organizations. An ecosystem. A living cell. The unconscious.
We have to look inward to look outward. The physicist Albert Einstein, proved through his general theory of relativity that the observer is an essential component in the physics of space-time. The devastation of the Earth's habitats owes much to our obsession with control and consumption, of placing human interests above all else. A competitive, consumer market relies on agents making pragmatic, selfish, rational choices. And so on. If anything can be learned from this debate is that our survival depends on adopting the long term: an ecosystemic approach that puts the mystery of the manifold at its center. This is only possible if we accept the manifold within us, in a dialogue that integrates discourses.
The post-rational consciousness theorized by Jean Gebser, as Lachman argues, is a kind of awareness that "chooses" to participate in the order of nature, to restore its role in the Chain of Being (a term used to designate the interrelatedness of the universe). It was the miraculous achievement of modern consciousness to grant us independence, depth, and analytic rigor. Now, we need to integrate it to our systems of meaning that aren't necessarily physicalist explanations, to learn how best to achieve harmony with all the fascinating things the mind has made via its principles/paradigms, that coincidently, owes its emergence to the way we model nature, scientifically and spiritually.
(A fascinating account of the mind-nature relationship is that of the philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant suggests that the mind "speaks" about nature, as it can synthesize a priori statements, representations of the physical world, the res cogitans of res extensa that arise in mind. One doesn't have to verify that 2 plus 2 is 4 in nature. The mind is transcendental for Kant, above physics. 2, the abstract, mental, representation of the "twoness" applicable to the physical world, can be synthesized by the mind to another "2," via summation, multiplication, division, factorization, etc., to demonstrate an abstract, mental relationship. What's incredible about this process, is that the mental representation also holds in the physical world, that "2 plus 2," for example, is always "4." The language of consciousness, abstract res cogitans, symbols, representations, stems, from its "relationship" to the universe, from the mind's "apprehension" of nature, and the "parts" that emerge as we represent nature.)
My view, echoing Dana Miller's lessons during my training in academic philosophy, is that principles are just starting points that enable thinkers to move forward. At some point, the principles have to be investigated, but then other principles are needed. There may be no way out of the circularity or regress. Lachman's and Tarnas' appeal to general human conceptions, complexity, nonlinearity, or unique capabilities of the mind, are just tools. Whether systems of qualitative meaning or objective, scientific methods that may explain some part of human experience. Of themselves, principles are not misleading. They become misleading when misused, when people give them a status beyond "posits" (super-principles, for example, religious, or scientific dogmas) or in service of creating a self-evidencing "system." Examples abound of the misuses of systems of meaning.
Learning is the best technology. It allows us to be participants of a more extensive system. Truth, then, is the synthesis of knowledge that points to the wisdom of civilization's many dialogues. The best of our ideas, on nature (our scientific and non-scientific models of other and others) and on ourselves (human ideas, systems of meaning, like literature, psychology, mythology, music, to name a few, that don't seem to exist as, or obey, physicalist/empirical/logical/linear descriptions). Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, suggests a collective unconsciousness, a dimension outside "space-time," transcendental like Kant's mind, wherein our species share the symbols that have survived the test of time, and the mutations of consciousness thus far. Archetypes like Beauty, Order, and Justice, which in turn represent all the complex patterns that exist within them. The best in humanity has risen not by monopolizing truth. A mistake is relying on a single, self-evidencing account of reality. A dialogue is possible if we humble ourselves to the mystery, and allow creativity/emergence (the interweaving of mind/nature, and mind-mind) to flourish.
I examined how PE defends a model of knowledge that integrates parts. Justice can't be Just without Beauty. Beauty can't be Beautiful without Order. And so on. And I also advanced that the integration of knowledge is our best technology to become conscious and act upon the issues that Covid-19 has made all the more apparent. The solution to the challenges of our world is a shorthand for the ancient and straightforward sentiment of the polymath scholar whose truth is that reality is a dialogue of parts.
By Fernando J. Villalovs