There is arguably no more critical and pressing topic than the relation of science and religion in the modern world. Science has given us the methods for discovering truth, while religion remains the single greatest force for generating meaning. Yet the two are seen as mutually exclusive, with wrenching consequences for humanity. In The Marriage of Sense and Soul, one of today's most important philosophers brilliantly articulates how we might begin to think about science and religion in ways that allow for their reconciliation and union, on terms that will be acceptable to both camps.
Ken Wilber is widely acclaimed as the foremost thinker in integrating Western psychology and the Eastern spiritual traditions. His many books have reached across disciplines and synthesized the teachings of religion, psychology, physics, mysticism, sociology, and anthropology, earning him a devoted international following. The Marriage of Sense and Soul is his most accessible work yet, aimed at guiding a general audience to the mutual accord between the spiritual, subjective world of ancient wisdom and the objective, empirical world of modern knowledge.
Wilber clearly and succinctly explores the schism between science and religion, and the impact of this "philosophical Cold War" on the fate of humanity. He systematically reviews previous attempts at integration, explaining why romantic, idealistic, and postmodern theories failed. And he demonstrates how science is compatible with certain deep features common to all of the world's major religious traditions. In pointing the way to a union between truth and meaning, Ken Wilber has created an elegant and accessible book that is breathtaking in its scope.
From the Hardcover edition.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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The Challenge of Our Times: The Integration of Science and Religion
There is arguably no more important and pressing topic than the relation of science and religion in the modern world. Science is clearly one of the most profound methods that humans have yet devised for discovering truth, while religion remains the single greatest force for generating meaning. Truth and meaning, science and religion; but we still cannot figure out how to get the two of them together in a fashion that both find acceptable.
The reconciliation of science and religion is not merely a passing academic curiosity. These two enormous forces -- truth and meaning -- are at war in today's world. Modern science and premodern religion aggressively inhabit the same globe, each vying, in its own way, for world domination. And something, sooner or later, has to give.
Science and technology have created a global and transnational framework of industrial, economic, medical, scientific, and informational systems. Yet however beneficial those systems may be, they are all, in themselves, devoid of meaning and value. As its own proponents constantly point out, science tells us what is, not what should be. Science tells us about electrons, atoms, molecules, galaxies, digital data bits, network systems: it tells us what a thing is, not whether it is good or bad, or what it should be or could be or ought to be. Thus this enormous global scientific infrastructure is, in itself, a valueless skeleton, however functionally efficient it might be.
Into this colossal value vacuum, religion has happily rushed. Science has created this extraordinary worldwide and global framework -- itself utterly devoid of meaning -- but within that ubiquitous framework, subglobal pockets of premodern religions have created value and meaning for billions of people in every part of the world. And these same premodern religions often deny validity to the scientific framework within which they live, a framework that provides most of their medicine, economics, banking, information networks, transportation, and communications. Within the scientific skeleton of truth, religious meaning attempts to flourish, often by denying the scientific framework itself -- rather like sawing off the branch on which you cheerily perch.
The disgust is mutual, because modern science gleefully denies virtually all of the basic tenets of religion in general. According to the typical view of modern science, religion is not much more than a holdover from the childhood of humanity, with about as much reality as, say, Santa Claus. Whether the religious claims are more literal (Moses parted the Red Sea) or more mystical (religion involves direct spiritual experience), modern science denies them all, simply because there is no credible empirical evidence for any of them.
So here is the utterly bizarre structure of today's world: a scientific framework that is global in its reach and omnipresent in its information and communication networks, forms a meaningless skeleton within which hundreds of subglobal, premodern religions create value and meaning for billions; and they each -- science and religion each -- tends to deny significance, even reality, to the other. This is a massive and violent schism and rupture in the internal organs of today's global culture, and this is exactly why many social analysts believe that if some sort of reconciliation between science and religion is not forthcoming, the future of humanity is, at best, precarious.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "RELIGION"?
The aim of this book is to suggest how we might begin to think about both science and religion in ways that allow their reconciliation and eventual integration, on terms acceptable to both parties.
Of course, this reconciliation of science and religion depends, in part, on exactly what we mean by "science" and "religion." We will actually devote several chapters to just this topic (Chapters 11, 12, and 13). In the meantime, a few crucial points should be noted.
Defining "religion" is itself an almost impossible task, largely because there are so many different forms of the beast that it becomes hard to spot what, if anything, they have in common. But one thing is immediately obvious: many of the specific and central claims of the world's great religions contradict each other, but if we cannot find a common core of the world's great religions, then we will never find an integration of science and religion.
Indeed, if we cannot find a common core that is generally acceptable to most religions, we would be forced to choose one religion and deny importance to the others; or we would have to "pick and choose" tenets from among various religions, thus alienating the great religious traditions themselves. We would never arrive at an integration of science and religion that both parties would find acceptable, because most religions would reject what was done to their beliefs in order to force this "reconciliation."
It will do no good, for example, to claim, as many Christian creationists have, that the Big Bang suggests that the world is the product of a personal creator God, when one of the most profound and influential religions in the world, Buddhism, does not believe in a personal God to begin with. Thus, we cannot use the Big Bang in order to "integrate" science and religion unless we can first find a way to reconcile Christianity and Buddhism (and the world's wisdom traditions in general). Otherwise, we are not integrating science and religion; we are simply "integrating" one narrow version of Christianity with one version of science. This is not worthy of the term "integration," and it is certainly not an integration that other religions would find acceptable.
Thus, those who wish to advocate one particular form of religion -- whether it be a patriarchal God the Father, a matriarchal Great Goddess, a fundamentalist Christianity, a mythological Shintoism, a Gaia ecoreligion, a fundamentalist Islam -- have often taken various modern developments in science and attempted to show that these developments just happen to fit with a (very generous) interpretation of their particular religion. This will not be our approach. Because the fact is, unless science can be shown to be compatible with certain deep features common to all of the world's major wisdom traditions, the long-sought reconciliation will remain as elusive as ever.
So before we can even attempt to integrate science and religion, we need to see if we can find a common core of the world's great wisdom traditions. This common core would have to be a general frame that, shorn of specific details and concrete contents, would nonetheless be acceptable to most religious traditions, at least in the abstract. Is there such a common core?
The answer, it appears, is yes.
Before the live bn.com chat, Ken Wilber agreed to answer some of our questions.Q: In The Marriage of Sense and Soul you trace the varying relationship between science and religion through numerous previous attempts at integrating the two. As we approach the millennium, do you foresee some sort of fusion between the two?
A: If you think about it, the real war that is going on in the world is not between various nations, tribes, companies, or states. There is a more basic war that cuts across all of those, and it is a war between science and religion. Most "hard-core" scientists distrust or even despise religion because its myths and dogmas are not open to scientific proof, and many religionists think that science ignores and thus brutalizes the soul. Humanity is being torn in half by this most basic of conflicts. So when you ask whether I foresee some sort of fusion or union of science and religion, all I can say is: There better be, yes? Surely there are profound and important truths that each of these noble endeavors, science and religion, can bring to the marriage. That, anyway, is the theme of the book.
Q: You contend that science and religion must coexist in order for us to live truly integrated lives. Do you see the Internet factoring into this coexistence?
A: Anything that helps increase communication can help integrate science and religion, and that would certainly include the Internet. But let's remember that all technological communication systems are still variations on "in garbage, out garbage." We can have global stupidity as well as global wisdom. There is nothing magic about "global." What is magic is what you and I bring to the Internet -- our insight, intelligence, wisdom, courage. Otherwise the Internet just acts to spread the crap more rapidly.
Q: We're curious to get your opinion on the recent popular trend of people searching for spiritual life in cyberspace.
A: There are an enormous number of endeavors that call themselves "spiritual" or "religious." And one of the first things that you have to do in this field is try to develop some standards as to which spiritual aspirations are genuine and which are warped, loopy, whacked, or whatnot. You can have good and bad science, good and bad art, good and bad anything, and spirituality is no different. Searching for Zen on the Internet is one thing; searching for Heaven's Gate and subsequently committing suicide so as to hitch a ride on a comet -- that's quite different. So again, the Internet helps with quantity, global reach, and massively increased access. But what we access -- wisdom or crap -- that is still up to us as conscious, deciding, willing human beings. So I think it's great that the Internet increases access. It does not, however, increase wisdom -- that is up to you and me. So surf the net for God all you want -- that's terrific! -- but it is still you who will have to decide whether what you are getting is Buddha or bullshit.
Q: How do you enjoy living in Boulder, Colorado?
A: Boulder is nice. It's a great place to work, because it's quiet, with few distractions. On balance, though, I'd probably rather be in a large city -- say, the Bay Area or Manhattan, Boston, places like that. But I have no complaints. Boulder is ideal for the work I do, which is writing, writing, writing.
Q: Have you read anything lately that you would highly recommend?
A: I think you have an upcoming chat with Robert Thurman. His book Inner Revolution is wonderful. And you might check out Lama Surya Das's Awakening the Buddha Within. Both are excellent guides to genuine spiritual realization.