THE SYNTHESIS

All the above approaches contribute in their unique ways to the understanding of reality, but none of them is likely to provide a full picture. Not only are they incomplete and insufficient on their own, but they also seem to be stuck in ostensibly irresolvable conflicts with each other. Francis Bacon and Descartes (who are considered the founders of opposed factions in philosophy, viz. empiricism and rationalism) agreed on one point: to separate religion and the study of the natural world. They may have been right to do so at the time when the Church was all-powerful, but this does not mean that scientific and spiritual approaches are inherently in conflict. They appear so only because of ideological prejudices in both campuses. Many scholars seem to be arriving at the same conclusion starting from different perspectives[1]. Reality can be interpreted as meaningful without conflicting with empirical facts. Polanyi and Prosch make the point stating that ‘the religious hypothesis, if it does indeed hold that the world is meaningful rather than absurd, is therefore a viable hypothesis for us. There is no scientific reason why we cannot believe it' (1975, p.179).

This is not only of theoretical significance. Our very survival may depend on an ability to transcend what is superfluous and synthesise what is important in these approaches. Human society cannot long afford to live in a world in which philosophy is disparaged, religion contradicts science, and science contradicts common experience and social practice (e.g. democracy assumes choice, and legal systems personal responsibility - both are based on the notion of free will that is not upheld by science). Such antagonisms must be reconciled in order to produce a more adequate and complete interpretation. This does not require the abandonment of the current methods (they have contributed to knowledge and continue to do so), only a recognition that they have limited value in isolation and that, in some cases, it would be beneficial to combine them[2]. In order to do so, there are two obstacles that must first be overcome:

Exclusiveness stems from a belief of ‘insiders' that their perspective can grasp and explain everything on its own[3]. This is, however, highly unlikely. For example, science has a reliable method but a limited scope. Spirituality, on the other hand, can perhaps reach what is not accessible to science, but its insights cannot be easily verified and are prone to distortions. As Albert Einstein famously put it, ‘science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind' (Einstein was not practising any religion, so in this statement he most likely referred to spirituality). It is not surprising then that the frameworks they are associated with are not satisfactory. While religious interpretations are generally outdated, materialist interpretations are fragmented and incomplete. In other words, religion on its own provides an irrational interpretation, while materialism on its own provides a meaningless interpretation.

 

Ideological baggage - history shows that when one of these approaches takes over and starts dominating, it easily becomes a form of ideology with undesirable consequences. The canonisation of religious ideologies has frequently led to the slowing down of individual and social development, and also (with a few exceptions) created a state of permanent conflict and bigotry between different faiths - without change there is no hope for reconciliation. There is a profound awareness that an overgrowth of materialistic science and technology could also have a potentially devastating outcome if it is not paralleled with the development of other ways of knowledge. The aviator Charles Lindbergh made this poignant comment: ‘I have seen the science I worshipped and the aircraft I loved destroying the civilization I expected them to serve.' This, of course, does not refer only to the destructive power of machines, but also to zealous attempts to implement scientific methods in life, especially human life (eugenics and social Darwinism being two examples). An even more pervasive consequence of materialism is a climate in which technocracy, meaninglessness, selfishness, competition and consumerism dominate, which also prevents further progress and ultimately leads to a dead-end. With equally disastrous consequences, cultural frameworks and philosophical ideas can be turned into a tool of repression (nationalism and Marxism may be prominent but certainly not unique examples[4]). Even if the above cases are considered historical aberrations, there is a more subtle but enduring problem with ideology of any kind. Ideologies are linked to social power and control. However, power unlike knowledge is finite. Giving knowledge to others does not decrease the knowledge of the one who gives, but giving power to others does. Therefore, unreflective faith in an ideology, regardless of whether it has a spiritual, scientific or philosophical basis, decreases the power of individuals. This in turn limits the fluidity or flexibility of society, which are essential in times of rapid changes.

 

Overcoming these obstacles would make a synthesis possible, but this does not mean only refining and combining the methods embedded in the above approaches[5]. It also implies a synthesis between several complementary perspectives.

First of all, the bottom up direction (reductionism) needs be combined with the top down direction (holism). Reductionism attempts to explain complex phenomena by their components, while holism claims that the significance of the parts can only be understood in terms of their contribution to the whole and that the latter must therefore be epistemically prior. Most approaches have a tendency to favour one of these perspectives (e.g. reductionism in science), but this does not need to be the case. It is possible to recognise the value of both.

The synthesis also requires reconciling two ways of enquiry: one that examines the objects of experience (experimental), and the one that examines the experience of objects (experiential). A comprehensive and accurate interpretation must rely on both, objective knowledge derived from manipulating reality (e.g. by creating controlled conditions in a laboratory) and objective knowledge derived from manipulating the experience of reality (through personal transformation). Objective means, in this context, avoiding collective bias (ideological constraints) or personal bias (prejudices, preferences) respectively.

Finally, empiricism (in a broad sense, that includes common sense and transpersonal experiences) needs to be combined in a meaningful way with rationalism. This can surely be more productive than relying solely on either experience or reason.

 

When the approaches discussed above are separated from their ideological baggage and the spurious ways used to support their claims, a small number of methods remain. Three methods that relate to three types of experience as a knowledge source (personal, impersonal and transpersonal) can be discerned: phenomenological, inductive-deductive and transpersonal. However, none of them is infallible and fully sufficient, so another method, reasoning, that can serve as a link between them is also needed. Of course, not all of these methods must always be combined (there are some areas where only one is enough), but their synthesis is likely to produce a more complete picture. Before they are described though, it should be underlined that any method is only a tool, not an end in itself. Some scholars emphasise a form and correct procedures because this gives their work an aura of seriousness and credibility, but it also often kills enthusiasm and creativity.

  • [1]. For example, Schrödinger, who formulated the fundamental equation of quantum mechanics, espoused in his book Mind and Matter (1958) a spiritual view that he identified with the ‘perennial philosophy' of Aldous Huxley, and expressed his sympathy for the Upanishads and Eastern spiritual thoughts.
  • [2]. It has been recognised that ‘objections to novelty and to alternatives come from particular groups with vested interests, not from science as a whole. It is therefore possible to gain understanding and to solve problems by combining bits and pieces of ‘science' with prima facie ‘unscientific' opinions and procedures' (Honderich, 1995, p.809).
  • [3]. Scientists are most susceptible to this belief nowadays because their approach is dominant. But, as the philosopher of science Feyerabend points out, defenders of science typically judge it to be superior to other forms of knowledge without adequately investigating those other forms.
  • [4]. Nietzsche's own sister revised his writing to provide support for the ideology of racial supremacy. Philosopher Heidegger advised his students in 1933 to abandon doctrines and ideas and salute Hitler.
  • [5]. Of course, there are already grey areas and points of contact among them. Philosophy of religion and philosophy of science are well established disciplines. Some theologicians have thought that a scientific approach is the best means to understand God, while others have resorted to philosophy. However, these are rarely efforts in synthesis, but rather attempts to use one approach to support (or discredit) another. For example, Logical Positivism, a highly influential philosophical movement of the 20th century, was largely created by scientists with a certain ideological bent in order to steer science in their preferred direction.